Genetic testing company 23andMe is being accused in a class-action lawsuit of failing to protect the privacy of customers whose personal information was exposed last year in a data breach that affected nearly seven million profiles.
The lawsuit, which was filed Friday in federal court in San Francisco, also accused the company of failing to notify customers of Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish descent that they appeared to have been specifically targeted, or that their personal genetic information had been compiled into “specially curated lists” that were shared and sold on the dark web.
The lawsuit was filed after 23andMe submitted a notice to the California Attorney General’s Office showing that the company was hacked over the course of five months, from late April 2023 to September 2023, before it became aware of the infringement. According to the file, which was reported by TechCrunchThe company learned of the breach on October 1, when a hacker posted to an unofficial 23andMe subreddit claiming to have customer data and sharing a sample as proof.
The company disclosed the breach for the first time. in a blog post on October 6 in which it said that a “threat actor” had gained access to “certain accounts” by using “recycled login credentials” – old passwords that 23andMe customers had used on other sites that had been committed.
The company revealed the full extent of the breach in an updated blog post on December 5, after completing an internal review assisted by “third-party forensic experts.” At that time, according to Eli Wade-Scott, an attorney for the plaintiffs, users’ personal genetic information and other sensitive material had been available and for sale on the dark web for two months.
23andMe did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Jay Edelson, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said 23andMe’s approach to privacy and the resulting lawsuit marked “a paradigm shift in consumer privacy law” as the sensitivity of breached data has increased.
“Now, when we look at data breaches, our first concern will be whether the information will be used to systematically and massively physically harass or harm people,” Edelson said in an email Friday. “The standard for when a company acts reasonably to protect data is now higher, at least for the type of data that can be used in this way.”
A father of two in Florida, who is one of two plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, said in an interview that the 23andMe kit he bought as a birthday gift last year revealed that he had Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. The man, identified in the complaint only by his initials, JL, spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared for his safety.
He was looking to connect with family, he said, so he opted for a feature called DNA Relatives, where select information is shared with other 23andMe customers who might be a close genetic match.
The hacker gained access to this feature and information from 5.5 million DNA Relatives profiles, 23andMe said in December. Profiles can include the customer’s geographic location, year of birth, family tree, and uploaded photos.
The hacker was also able to access the profile information of an additional 1.4 million customers by accessing a feature called Family Tree.
After 23andMe informed JL and millions of other users that their data had been breached, JL said he feared becoming a target as anti-Semitic hate speech and violence increased, fueled by the conflict between Israel and Gaza.
“Now that the information is out there,” he said, “someone might come in and decide they’re going to vent their frustrations.”
On October 1, according to the lawsuit, a hacker, who called himself “Golem” and used an image of Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” films as an avatar, leaked the personal data of more than 1 million users of 23andMe with Jewish Ancestry on BreachForums, an online forum used by cybercriminals. The data included users’ full names, addresses and dates of birth.
Later, in response to a forum request for access to “Chinese accounts” from someone using the alias “Wuhan,” Golem responded with a link to the profile information of 100,000 Chinese customers, according to the lawsuit. Golem said he had a total of 350,000 Chinese customer profile records and offered to release the rest if there was interest, according to the lawsuit.
On October 17, Golem returned to the forum to say he had data on “rich families serving Zionism” that he was offering for sale after the deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, according to the lawsuit. . Israeli officials and Palestinian militants blamed each other for the explosion, but Israeli and American intelligence agencies maintain that it was caused by a failed Palestinian rocket launch.
The plaintiffs seek a jury trial and unspecified compensatory, punitive and other damages.
“The current geopolitical and social climate,” the lawsuit argued, “amplifies the risks” for users whose data was exposed. Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, called for an FBI investigation earlier this month, noting the focus on Ashkenazi Jews.
“The leaked data could empower Hamas, its supporters, and various international extremist groups to attack the American Jewish population and their families,” Gottheimer wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was inevitable that these types of violations would continue.
The question, he said, is whether companies will address them by taking serious precautions (tightening security or limiting data retention, for example) or whether they will simply apply a Band-Aid by promising to do better next time.
“We are staring into the abyss when it comes to the datafication of our lives,” he said.