U.S. Warns of Efforts by China to Collect Genetic Data
BETHESDA, Md. — Chinese firms 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, American intelligence officials reported on Friday.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center said in a new paper that the United States needed to better secure critical technologies including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors and other technologies related to the so-called bioeconomy.
China and other countries are trying to dominate these technologies, and are using both legal and illegal means to acquire American know how, said Michael Orlando, the acting director of the counterintelligence center, an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The American private sector has long been in the cross hairs of China and other countries trying to steal American technology and intellectual property. Other countries like Russia also remain a threat, but the economic might of China makes it the biggest threat, officials said.
China believes dominating these areas will give it an economic edge, and American companies are also investing heavily. Artificial intelligence and machine learning hold the promise to revolutionize many aspects of life, including military operations. Quantum computing will allow countries to break the toughest encryption that exists today, and semiconductors are vital not just for computers but many consumer products.
But officials are now also stressing the intersection of technology and genetic and biological research as an area of competition and espionage. Edward You, who is the national counterintelligence officer for emerging and disruptive technologies, said the Chinese government was collecting medical, health and genetic data around the world. The country that builds the best database of information will have an edge on 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 tests to track members of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority group.
Citing a Reuters report, Mr. You said a Chinese company, BGI, had developed a neonatal genetic test with the Chinese military that had enabled it to collect information from millions of people around the world. The firm gained a foothold in the United States in 2013, when it purchased an American genomics firm.
BGI now has contracts and partnerships with health institutions across the United States, intelligence officials said. The company provides cheap genomic sequencing and gets access to genomic data. Last year, the Commerce Department penalized some of the company’s subsidiaries for providing genetic analysis that was used in Beijing’s campaign against the Uyghurs.
Mr. You said as a result the genetic data of some Americans could be “transferred to the Chinese government.”
The counterintelligence center also highlighted investments by WuXi, which bought a Pfizer manufacturing plant in China, announced a production facility in Massachusetts and made an investment in 2015 in 23andMe, the consumer genetics company.
“They are developing the world’s largest bio database,” Mr. You said of the Chinese government efforts. “Once they have access to your genetic data, it’s not something you can change like a pin code.”
But 23andMe said that fears of China stealing its data were misplaced.
WuXi has a less than 1 percent investment in 23andMe and has never received any customer data, Jacquie Cooke Haggarty, the company’s deputy general counsel, said in a statement. No data has ever been shared with a Chinese-owned company and no investor has access to the data, she said.
“All of our testing is performed and has always been performed in U.S.-based laboratories,” she said.
The company also said it stored information about names and contact information separate from its genetic data. The company follows the highest encryption standards and tests its defenses daily, she said.
Mr. Orlando said he was not arguing for decoupling the Chinese and American economies, but said the center was trying to warn companies of the risks of working with Chinese firms under the strict control of the government in Beijing.
“We aren’t telling people to decouple, but if you are going to do business in China, be smart about it,” Mr. Orlando said.
Though China is seeking a broad array of commercial data, the biggest threat is to the high-tech industries Beijing has said it wants 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. That is a pattern China has followed in solar panels, for example.
“These technologies are critical and we cannot let what happened to other industries happen here,” Mr. Orlando said.
In recent years, the F.B.I. and the counterintelligence center have stepped up broad warnings to businesses and universities about Chinese attempts to steal American technology. Some of those overtures have been greeted skeptically, particularly at universities that believe the U.S. government may be trying to limit the number of Chinese students that study at American universities.
While the U.S. government can review many acquisitions of American companies by Chinese ones, other Chinese investments are harder to regulate. Mr. Orlando said an American company partnering with a Chinese one should take steps to protect its data.
“It’s all about the data,” Mr. You said. “There are national security implications we have to understand.”