The Chinese regime has for years been collecting large amounts of American health care data, including sensitive genetic information—which pose serious privacy and national security risks, a top U.S. counterintelligence agency has warned.
Alongside illegal means such as cyber hacking, Beijing has used investments in American biotech companies and partnerships with hospitals and universities to gain access to U.S. healthcare and genetic data, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) said in a fact sheet (pdf) released on Feb. 1.
Vast amounts of genomic information (a person’s entire genetic sequence) can fuel developments in the cutting-edge field of precision medicine (or personalized medicine), allowing China to overtake the United States to become a global leader in biotech, the paper said. Such data can also be weaponized to target individuals in the country for intelligence and military operations.
The warning came as Chinese genetics giant BGI Group has drawn scrutiny over its aggressive efforts to push its COVID-19 test kits and support labs around the world, raising data security concerns. By last August, the company had sold 35 million rapid COVID-19 testing kits to 180 countries and built 58 labs in 18 countries. The company approached several U.S. states last year to build and run COVID-19 testing labs, but none accepted after U.S. officials warned against the partnership, according to recent CBS report.
BGI says it does not gain access to patient data from its COVID-19 labs or test kits, but former director of the NCSC William Evanina told CBS that the labs were like trojan horses: by setting up its gene-sequencing equipment in the United States, the company could later exploit the equipment to mine Americans’ genetic information. Sequencers are machines used to decode and analyze a person’s entire genome.
The company was able to gain access to the U.S. market and user data after it bought California-based sequence-machine maker Complete Genomics for $118 million in 2013, the paper noted. Three years earlier, BGI received a $1.5 billion loan from state-run China Development Bank.
Chinese companies, including BGI, have also formed partnerships with U.S hospitals, universities, and research institutes, offering low-cost gene sequencing services.
“These partnerships allow U.S. entities to expand their research capabilities, while Chinese firms gain access to more genetic data on more diverse sets of people, which they can use for new medical products and services,” the fact sheet said.
A 2019 report found that at least 15 Chinese firms were licensed to perform genetic testing or sequencing on U.S. patients, giving them access to genetic data.
Americans’ genomic information is particularly valuable to China due to the ethnic diversity of the U.S. population, the paper noted. This is because varied data sets are more useful in research to identify genetic diseases. The Chinese regime last year passed laws to severely limit the ability of foreign firms to access Chinese people’s biological data.
“They are building out a huge domestic database,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You, a former biochemist, told CBS. “And if they are now able to supplement that with data from all around the world, it’s all about who gets the largest, most diverse data set.
“And so, the ticking time bomb is that once they’re able to achieve true artificial intelligence, then they’re off to the races in what they can do with that data.”
If the regime is able to use this massive DNA database to make strides in personalized medicine, it could outstrip American companies, jeopardizing U.S. economic security.
“Although new medicines coming out of China could benefit U.S. patients, America could be left more dependent on Chinese innovation and drug development for its cures, leading to a transfer of wealth, co-opting of new businesses, and greater job opportunities in China,” the sheet said.
The NCSC also warned that the regime could combine genomic data sets with Americans’ personal information stolen in previous cyber attacks to “precisely target” individuals in foreign governments or companies for potential “surveillance, manipulation, or extortion.”
For instance, the regime may be able to identify vulnerabilities, such as addictions or mental illnesses, of a target by analyzing genetic data and health records. Such information could be leveraged for blackmail, used to both recruit foreigners to spy for the regime, and suppress dissidents abroad.
The Chinese regime has amassed vast amounts of American personal data through several massive cyber hacks in recent years. These include intrusions on the U.S. government’s personnel agency, credit reporting agency Equifax, and health insurer Anthem, which resulted in the theft of personal information of tens of millions of Americans.
Inside China, the regime has already started exploiting genetic data to control and repress ethnic Muslim minorities in the far-western Xinjiang region, the NCSC said. In 2014, it launched a mass collection of biometric data from the local population, taking DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood samples. Such information feeds into a massive database used to surveil and target individuals. Researchers and advocates have also warned that the DNA collection could be used to facilitate forced organ harvesting of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, more than 1 million of whom are detained in a network of concentration camps.
Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted two BGI subsidiaries for their roles in conducting genetic analysis on Uyghurs, aiding the regime’s persecution in the region. BGI denies that it’s been involved in human rights abuses.