Former President Donald Trump’s counterintelligence chief and other national security officials are sounding the alarm about the Chinese government’s efforts to acquire American DNA and health information as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s quest to obtain and steal data worldwide.
William Evanina, an FBI veteran and until recently the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned about China’s efforts to obtain U.S. genetic information and other personal data during an interview with 60 Minutes on CBS News on Sunday, with growing concerns that the Chinese acquisition of this data could be used to target Americans, to leapfrog the United States in the health sector, and to contribute to China’s pursuit of artificial intelligence.
Evanina pointed a finger at the Chinese biotech firm formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute but now known by just its initials, BGI, and other Chinese efforts to obtain U.S. data. Efforts included allegedly exploiting the coronavirus by flooding the U.S. with a variety of tests as the U.S. reeled during the early months of the pandemic, which the Chinese government had attempted to cover up.
“They are the ultimate company that shows connectivity to both the Communist state as well as the military apparatus,” Evanina said of Shenzhen-based BGI, adding, “We put out an advisory to not only every American but to hospitals, associations, and clinics. … Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data is going? … This shows the nefarious mindset of the Communist Party of China — to take advantage of a worldwide crisis like COVID.”
BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, pushed nearly a dozen U.S. states to distribute coronavirus tests and attempted to get the Chinese-made products into government labs and to set up their own labs in Nevada and California, according to the Wall Street Journal. The outlet said the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to BGI Americas while Health and Human Services offered Chinese test kits to at least one state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered the Chinese test kits to states too.
The report said Abu Dhabi was used as a Chinese intermediary to send tests to U.S. agencies, and lobbyists in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island shared unsuccessful BGI pitches. BGI reportedly reached Arkansas’s governor with help from the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, though the foundation contended it didn’t know about the national security concerns.
“They are monstrous. They have contracts with over 60 countries globally to provide not only genomic sequencing but also to provide analytics,” Evanina said of BGI on Sunday, adding that the U.S. needed to be careful. “There is no such thing as a private company in the Communist Party of China. … You must provide any and all data that’s asked for by the Communist Party of China, which, the scary part is, sometimes is not all their data. If you are in a joint partnership, a joint venture, their data is now susceptible to go to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Evanina said that the Chinese government gained footholds by offering up funding.
“So, they do it first of all with money. So investment. ‘I want to invest $10 million, $20 million, $80 million in your company.’ Every company says, ‘Yes, come on in.’ At the same time, they’re going to have an unwritten rule that they’re going to be able to take that data and your sequencing capabilities — what they don’t know is China is keeping it, and they’re giving you a copy back.”
The HHS watchdog has an investigation into the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and whether it conducts proper assessments into “national security risks to genomic testing data.” Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Chuck Grassley sent a letter last week to HHS’s inspector general, asking to “expand the scope of investigation to include a review of HHS national security procedures throughout the coronavirus pandemic.” The senators noted “troubling reports have surfaced that note BGI’s efforts to exploit the pandemic to expand their reach within the United States” and that “this has been coupled with inaction and at times, support from HHS.”
The Commerce Department added 11 Chinese companies “implicated in human rights violations and abuses” against the Uighur Muslims, including mass detention and involuntary collection of biometric data, to its entities blacklist in July 2020, with BGI subsidiaries Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI added “in connection with conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression.” The company claimed it “strictly abides by all international business practices and laws and regulations.”
BGI received $1.5 billion from the China Development Bank beginning in 2010, and the company touted its genetic research and big data partnership with Chinese telecom Huawei in 2015. It was reported last week that BGI has collaborated on research projects with the Chinese military.
The U.S. government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. also blocked a yet unnamed Chinese company from buying a fertility clinic in San Diego, CNBC reported in October. DOJ’s then-head of its national security division, John Demers, warned that such genetic information “can be used from a counterintelligence perspective to either coerce you or convince you to help the Chinese” and that “the worst case would be the development of some kind of biological weapon” because “if you had all of the data of a population, you might be able to see what the population is most vulnerable to.”
The Defense Department warned military members that direct-to-consumer genetic tests could “potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission” and that there was growing concern that “outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals.” Evanina’s NCSC warned last May that “foreign powers can collect, store, and exploit biometric information from COVID tests.”
Evanina said on Sunday that “sometimes Americans or people around the globe don’t even know the value of their DNA, that it even has value — but it’s your single, sole identifier of everything about you as a human being.”
The former counterintelligence official said this was a part of China’s broader appetite for U.S. data, noting that “we have probably five or six healthcare companies in the last five years who have been, I would say, penetrated, exfiltrated, hacked by China” and “current estimates are that 80% of American adults have had their personally identifiable information stolen by the Communist Party of China.”
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