Chinese Company’s Global Genetic Data Collection Poses Economic, Security Threats: Experts

Dan Harris, an international lawyer and author at the China Law Blog, told VOA Mandarin that he believes democratic entities, such as the United States, Japan, Korea, Australia and the European Union, are going to realize they “need to enact special laws to deal with China and China’s hoovering of data.”

Crystal Grant, a data scientist and molecular biologist with a Ph.D. in genetics who is a technology fellow in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told VOA Mandarin via Teams video interview that this accumulation of DNA will challenge genomic policy worldwide.

By using what she described as “this massive amount of information” and supercomputers “to crack those codes is going to be a threat to genomic policy everywhere,” she told VOA in a video interview.

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, told VOA Mandarin in a TV interview in February that rapid advances in genetics and biotechnology have highlighted the need for the international community to step up regulations to prevent data abuse.

It is not just China. The progress in the legal framework in this area is lagging behind,” Huang said. “It’s vital for the international community to sit down and work out a framework.”

Genetic Engineering
Yet researchers worldwide in the academic, private and government sectors, are refining genetic engineering techniques and knowledge.

China’s interest in the field is not new. In 2018, researcher He Jiankui announced that he had produced twins genetically altered to resist HIV using a relatively new, accurate and very fast American-developed genetic editing technique known by its acronym, CRISPR.

In 2019, a Chinese court found He guilty of using “illegal medical practices” and sentenced He to three years in prison.

Prenatal Privacy
Reuters found no evidence BGI violated patient privacy agreements or regulations. “However, the privacy policy on the NIFTY test’s website says data collected can be shared when it is ‘directly relevant to national security or national defense security’ in China,” the report stated.

BGI dismissed the Reuters report, saying that the company’s research has met national and international requirements.

“All NIPT data collected overseas are stored in BGI’s laboratory in Hong Kong and are destroyed after five years, as stipulated by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),” the company said in a statement released on July 9.

BGI emphasized that it developed the NIPT test alone, not in a partnership with China’s military.

Reuters interviewed four women who have used the BGI’s prenatal tests in Poland, Spain and Thailand. They all signed consent forms stating that their genetic data would be stored and used for research, yet they are not aware that their genetic information could end up in China.

Harris, the lawyer, told VOA that most of the time, people didn’t know what they were signing.

“Maybe the sign off says that it will be limited to BGI and BGI access, though XYZ, a Chinese military company, might be one of BGI’s subsidiaries,” which would mean that the consent form allowed BGI to transfer a woman’s genetic information to the Chinese military, he told VOA via Microsoft Teams.

One of the women, a 32-year-old office administrator from Poland, told Reuters that she would have chosen a different test had she known that her data might end up in China being used for research involving military applications.

U.S. federal authorities have been watching BGI’s record on data collection. Bill Evanina, former director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the CBS-TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes in January that he was extremely concerned when BGI offered to provide COVID-19 testing kits to several U.S. states last year.

“Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data’s going?” Evanina asked. They are the ultimate company that shows connectivity to both the communist state as well as the military apparatus.”

Edward You, supervisory special agent with the FBI and a former biochemist, told 60 Minutes in the same January episode that Beijing authorities are betting that accumulating large amounts of human DNA will prove to be a successful strategy.

“They are building out a huge domestic database,” You said. “And if they are now able to supplement that with data from all around the world, it’s all about who gets the largest, most diverse data set. And so, the ticking time bomb is that once they’re able to achieve true artificial intelligence, then they’re off to the races in what they can do with that data.”  

Adrianna Zhang is Multimedia Journalist/Social Media Reporter at Voice of America.This articleis published courtesy of the Voice of America (VOA).