US firms’ links with Chinese on genomics a red flag for FBI

Fears mount Beijing could use DNA data for biological weapons via genetic mapping

US senators Charles Grassley and Marco Rubio have written to the US department of health last month expressing concern about genomic data being collected by companies in the US with links to China. File photograph: Getty

US senators Charles Grassley and Marco Rubio have written to the US department of health last month expressing concern about genomic data being collected by companies in the US with links to China. File photograph: Getty

 

The fear that China might use DNA data to devise biological weapons is one of the reasons why security services in the US have concerns about it getting access to its genetic information.

While it sounds like something out of a Netflix spy thriller, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence agencies have concerns that DNA databases could be used to develop bioweapons engineered to kill specific populations or even individuals.

The FBI’s weapons of mass destruction directorate is developing countermeasures to prevent adversaries from acquiring and exploiting material and technology that may pose a national security concern, agent Ed You told a US commission on “safeguarding the bioeconomy” two years ago.

He expressed concern about US companies working with Chinese partners in the area of genomics – or genetic mapping – where the objective is to develop new medicines that target particular genetic types.

Genomics is just one area of scientific and technological advance where there is widespread concern about “dual use” products or knowledge being developed. Dual use is a reference to a technology having civilian and military possibilities.

The agent believes that the US should do more to control who gets access to its citizens’ genomic data

The possibility that a large amount of US DNA data might be “exfiltrated” to China was a concern, not least because the medical records of millions of US citizens are believed to have been hacked in operations the intelligence services believe were directed from China, You told the commission.

“Theoretically, the combination of genetic data through research collaborations, legitimate business agreements, and hacked information being exfiltrated to China, would be the largest, most diverse dataset ever compiled,” he said.

The agent believes that the US should do more to control who gets access to its citizens’ genomic data.

As well as the possibility that DNA databases and medical records could be used in the future for military reasons, the US intelligence community is also concerned that future Chinese dominance in the biomedicines field could create national security weaknesses.

It is concerns such as these that induced two US senators, Charles Grassley and Marco Rubio, to write to the US department of health last month expressing concern about genomic data being collected by companies in the US with links to China.

Among the companies cited was WuXi Nextcode, a US company with links to China that is the parent of Irish company Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI). GMI is involved in a project that aims to build a DNA database on 400,000 Irish citizens.

The company has said the database will be depersonalised, encrypted and maintained in Ireland. The State-owned Irish Strategic Investment Fund is an investor in the project, which envisages selling access to the data to pharmaceutical companies.

WuXi Nextcode, in its response to the senators, said its US data is kept on a US cloud service provider, while its Chinese data was kept on a Chinese one.

A number of US companies and scientists have severed their links with China 

One of the reasons Ireland is of interest to scientists working on genomics is the relative genetic homogeneity of the population.

International scientific and technological co-operation in relation to genomics and other areas of scientific advance are creating tensions because of the Chinese government’s attitude towards human rights and the rule of law.

Human Rights Watch and other observers have expressed concern about the use by the Bejing government and its security services of DNA material.

There are little or no operable privacy rights in China, where there have been reports of people who go to a police station to get a passport renewed being asked to give a DNA sample first.

Human Rights Watch has said the Uighur population in Xinjiang, who are largely Muslim, are having their DNA collected by the State without real consent or any legal protections.

A number of US companies and scientists have severed their links with China after learning that their technologies and research were being used in projects that involved the DNA of people from certain ethnic and sociological groups being taken without their consent.

The collection of DNA by the State is part of a larger picture where the Communist Party of China seeks to control the population and suppress dissent via mass surveillance using big data.

The government is involved in the development of a “social credit” system. Citizens and businesses are given a score that derives from data collected from their online activities and even movements monitored by cameras with facial recognition technology.

People with low scores may be banned from taking internal flights or high-speed train trips, or from sending their children to particular schools. People with low scores may even be publicly blacklisted. The scoring system is also being used on dating platforms.

Companies with bad scores can be subjected to higher taxes and be made to pay higher interest rates on loans.

The plan is part of the Communist Party’s aim of shifting the Chinese economy to higher value activities

As part of its strategy for promoting continued economic growth, the Chinese government is pursuing a “Made in China 2025” programme. It is a State-led policy involving billions of dollars in investment and aimed at making China a dominant player in a number of global high-tech areas.

The areas being targeted include electric cars, next-generation IT, telecommunications, robotics and artificial intelligence – and bio-medicine and genomics.

The plan is part of the Communist Party’s aim of shifting the Chinese economy to higher value activities. Part of the plan involves a huge increase in investment in Western economies and companies involved in the targeted areas.

However the move has created concerns across the West, for reasons of economic competitiveness but also security.

Moves by US president Donal Trump against Chinese technology giant Huawei are one manifestation of the tensions that are being created by the growing role being played by China in globalised technological advances.

The US, and other western states, have concerns about companies such as Huawei playing important roles in technological infrastructures, not least because of the record China has in illegally hacking and collecting personal, state and commercial data.

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