US warns of efforts by China to collect genetic data

A neonatal genetic test developed with the Chinese military has reportedly enabled China to collect information from millions of people globally. PHOTO: AFP

BETHESDA, MARYLAND (NYTIMES) - 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 (Oct 22).

The National Counterintelligence and Security Centre said in a new paper that the United States needs 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 US know-how, said Michael Orlando, the acting director of the counterintelligence centre, an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The US 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 the economic might of China makes it the biggest threat, officials said.

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 is 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 centre said, citing a 2019 New York Times report on how China uses genetic tests to track members of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority group.

Citing a Reuters report, 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.

Orlando said he was not arguing for decoupling the Chinese and US economies but said the centre 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," Orlando said.

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