US warns of efforts by China to collect genetic data

US warns of efforts by China to collect genetic data

BETHESDA, Maryland – Chinese companies are collecting genetic data from around the world, part of an effort by the Chinese government and companies to develop the world’s largest bio-database, US intelligence officials reported Friday.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center said in a new paper that the United States needs to better protect critical technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computers, semiconductors, and other technologies related to what’s called the bioeconomy.

China and other countries are trying to dominate these technologies and are using both legal and illegal means to acquire American expertise, said Michael Orlando, acting director of the Counterintelligence Center, a branch of the bureau of the director of the National Intelligence Service.

The American private sector has long been in the crosshairs of China and other countries trying to steal American technology and intellectual property. Other countries like Russia also remain a threat, but China’s economic power makes it the greatest threat, officials said.

China believes that dominating these areas will give it an economic advantage, and American companies are also investing heavily. Artificial intelligence and machine learning promise to revolutionize many aspects of life, including military operations. Quantum computing will enable countries to crack the toughest encryption available today, and semiconductors are vital not only for computers but also for many consumer products.

But officials also highlight the interface between technology and genetic and biological research as a field of competition and espionage. Edward You, the national counterintelligence officer for new and disruptive technologies, said the Chinese government is collecting medical, health and genetic data from around the world. The country that is building the best information database will have an advantage in developing cures for future pandemics, and China already has an advantage, he said.

Beijing has a track record of misusing genetic data, the counterintelligence center said, citing a 2019 New York Times report on how China uses genetic testing to track down members of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority group.

Citing a Reuters report, Mr. You said a Chinese company, BGI, worked with the Chinese military to develop a newborn genetic test that enabled them to gather information from millions of people around the world. The company gained a foothold in the United States in 2013 when it acquired an American genomics company.

BGI now has contracts and partnerships with healthcare facilities in the United States, intelligence officials said. The company provides inexpensive genome sequencing and access to genome data. Last year, the Ministry of Commerce fined some of the company’s subsidiaries for providing genetic testing used in Beijing’s campaign against the Uyghurs.

Mr. You said that as a result, some Americans’ genetic data could be “transferred” to the Chinese government.

The counterintelligence center also highlighted investments from WuXi, which bought a Pfizer manufacturing facility in China, announced a manufacturing facility in Massachusetts, and invested in 23andMe, the consumer genetics company, in 2015.

“They are developing the world’s largest bio-database,” said Mr. You about the efforts of the Chinese government. “Once you have access to your genetic data, you cannot change it like a PIN code.”

However, 23andMe said fears that China might steal its data were misplaced.

WuXi has less than a one percent stake in 23andMe and has never received customer data, Jacquie Cooke Haggarty, the company’s deputy general counsel, said in a statement. No data has ever been shared with a Chinese company and no investor has access to the data, she said.

“All of our tests are and always have been done in US laboratories,” she said.

The company also said it kept name and contact information separate from its genetic data. The company follows the highest standards of encryption and tests its defenses daily, she said.

Orlando said he is not arguing for decoupling the Chinese and American economies, but said the center is trying to warn companies of the risks of collaborating with Chinese companies under the strict control of the Beijing government.

“We’re not telling people to decouple, but if you want to do business in China, be smart,” Orlando said.

Although China is looking for a wide range of commercial data, the biggest threat is the high-tech industries that Beijing aims to dominate in the decades to come.

American and European officials have long said China steals intellectual property, makes cheaper versions of products, puts Western competitors out of business, and then dominates the market. China has followed this pattern with solar panels, for example.

“These technologies are critical and we cannot let what happened to other industries happen here,” said Orlando.

In recent years, the FBI and the Counterintelligence Center have issued sweeping warnings to businesses and universities against Chinese attempts to steal American technology. Some of these advances have been received with skepticism, particularly by universities that believe the US government may try to limit the number of Chinese students studying at American universities.

While the US government can scrutinize many acquisitions of American companies by Chinese companies, other Chinese investments are harder to regulate. Mr Orlando said an American company partnering with a Chinese company should take steps to protect its data.

“It’s all about the data,” said Mr. You. “There are national security implications that we need to understand.”

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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