Republican lawmakers are opening a new front in the fight against Chinese military companies hoovering up American data.
In a letter to top Biden-administration officials, Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Mike Gallagher called for BGI Group, a major Chinese genomics conglomerate, to be added to the U.S. government’s export blacklist and its Chinese military company investment ban list. Their comments about the company’s practice of collecting data from U.S. citizens echo a number of previous warnings issued by national-security officials.
“BGI has used its dominant position to further the CCP’s strategic goals by acquiring sensitive health data from the rest of the world. BGI and at least 14 other Chinese companies perform genomic sequencing for U.S. healthcare patients. As mandated by Chinese law, these companies have almost certainly shared this data with the Chinese government,” they wrote to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
If the three cabinet officials agree to act on this recommendation, U.S. individuals and business will be prohibited from conducting transactions with BGI and investing in the company.
In February, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a stark warning to Americans that the People’s Republic of China is collecting the personal health-care data of Americans.
The company has made inroads elsewhere, such as at Amazon, which used BGI’s at-home COVID test on its employees. And for months, BGI had worked to get governments across the world, including at the state and local levels in the United States, to use its COVID-19 testing kits, prompting alarm among national-security and intelligence officials. The report noted that although Chinese companies attempted to set up COVID-19 testing labs in the United States, which would have granted them DNA samples from Americans, they failed to do so.
But the NCSC warned that that failure to establish its own testing site in the U.S. is of little comfort because the Chinese government had sought U.S. health-care data sets through other means with greater success for years, including through strategic investments in U.S. genomic-sequencing firms, partnerships with hospitals and universities, and cyberattacks.
On that last point, former NCSC director Bill Evanina told CBS’s 60 Minutes that “probably five or six health care companies the last five years” have been “penetrated, exfiltrated, hacked by China.”
More recently, other illicit ways in which BGI acquires data have been discovered. In July, Reuters reported that BGI’s prenatal test — which is used around the world — was developed in collaboration with the Chinese military and “is using them to collect genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of population.”
Edward You, a former FBI agent who worked on these issues, told 60 Minutes, “they are building out a huge domestic database. 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.”
With that, the Chinese government can do a number of things. It can potentially hone various AI tools, allowing Chinese state-backed firms to dominate specific markets, allowing Beijing to leverage control of certain products to China’s political advantage. U.S. citizens’ data could also pose a counterintelligence risk, allowing Chinese officials to leverage a person’s medical information in espionage operations.
But one potential application of BGI’s data described by Cotton and Gallagher stands out: “Joint BGI-PLA research could have an application in future bioweapons — which is especially concerning because BGI’s national gene bank is presumably made available for military research.”
Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, BGI’s involvement in data collection, and its work on building a massive gene bank, has reportedly made it party to the construction of the Chinese Communist Party’s mass surveillance system in the region. For that reason, the Commerce Department added two BGI subsidiaries to the entity list in July 2020.
Those entity-list designations were based on the subsidiaries’ complicity in human-rights abuses. But BGI as a whole is engaged in coordinated activity with the Chinese government that poses an extraordinary threat to U.S. national security. Just blacklisting the company won’t be enough, but that’s the bare minimum of what officials should do.