Reuters reported on Wednesday that a Chinese company called the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has been selling prenatal tests developed in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and using them to harvest genetic data from millions of pregnant women around the world.
Reuters’ investigation found that “BGI’s prenatal test, one of the most popular in the world, is a source of genetic data for the company, which has worked with the Chinese military to improve ‘population quality’ and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.”
“So far, more than 8 million women have taken BGI’s prenatal tests globally. BGI has not said how many of the women took the test abroad, and said it only stores location data on women in mainland China,” the report added, raising the usual questions regarding how much trust one can put in statements from any company controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
BGI confirmed to Reuters that it has been collecting and storing genetic data from women beyond China’s borders, transmitting the information into China’s massive government-funded gene database. BGI, which is at least partially owned by Chinese state entities (and is controlled by the Communist Party, as every single Chinese enterprise is) manages the database.
The prenatal tests studied by Reuters have been used for, among other things, targeting racial minorities the Chinese government is committing genocide against:
One BGI study, for instance, used a military supercomputer to re-analyze NIFTY data and map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.
As Reuters noted, Chinese regulations clearly state that all genetic data is considered vital to national security, including data harvested from foreigners, while simultaneously forbidding foreign researchers from accessing genetic data on Chinese citizens. The PLA also has considerable privileges to violate Chinese privacy rules that supposedly protect personal information.
Reuters interviewed some women who said they would not have used the NIFTY tests if they had known their genetic data would be made available to the Chinese government.
The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) warned:
Non-invasive prenatal testing kits marketed by Chinese biotech firms serve an important medical function, but they can also provide another mechanism for the People’s Republic of China and Chinese biotech companies to collect genetic and genomic data from around the globe.
The Chinese government dismissed Reuters’ investigation as “groundless accusations and smears.” The PLA refused to comment, while BGI stressed that it obtains signed consent from its test subjects and does not link “identifiable personal data” to the genetic information it is harvesting and feeding to the Communist government.
“Whilst BGI is a Chinese-based company, we consider ourselves part of the global race towards ending the COVID-19 pandemic and a key international contributor to the advancement of public health outcomes around the world,” the company stated, touting its collaborations with U.S. and European research operations and the medical benefits of its gene-sequencing technology.
Chinese state media quoted the company on Thursday claiming allegations that it is “motivated by anything other than the advancement of health outcomes are both deeply disappointing and factually incorrect.”
BGI claimed in its Thursday statement that it has not provided any data from the NIFTY tests to the Chinese government, and directly contradicted its confirmation to Reuters that it has been storing the NIFTY test data in the Chinese state gene databank. BGI claimed data from foreign women is, instead, stored in Hong Kong and destroyed after five years in compliance with European Union privacy laws. BGI also denied that the PLA played a role in developing the tests.
However, Reuters claimed to have documentation proving the NIFTY tests are linked to the Chinese military. The report detailed extensive collaboration between BGI and the PLA over the past decade, including a great deal of work together on prenatal and genetics issues. Two subsidiaries of BGI are currently under sanctions from the U.S. government for participating in “abusive DNA collection and analysis schemes” to repress the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province.
Reuters also offered documented proof that data from at least 500 women have been fed into the China National GeneBank in China. Reuters investigators found data from women in Slovenia, Spain, and Taiwan stored in the Chinese gene bank. Furthermore, scientists say the company’s assurances that it does not store personal identification information with its genetic data is not much of a comfort because it is possible to identify people from “even a portion of their DNA.”
Genetics research is a sensitive topic in every corner of the world, especially when combined with the massive data processing power of artificial intelligence (AI) systems – another cutting-edge technology China is pushing hard to dominate. Gigantic amounts of genetic information processed at amazing speed by AI systems can clearly yield useful medical benefits – and it is equally clear the information can be abused for nefarious purposes.
The CCP’s hunger for genetic data from both Chinese citizens and foreigners is well-documented.
The Australian Policy Institute (API) reported in June 2020 that Chinese police were using American-made DNA test kits to build a “genetic map” of the entire male Chinese population, in an effort to refine China’s already overwhelming surveillance state. The program saw police officers marching through classrooms and drawing blood from young boys while their female classmates watched. Citizens who resisted the DNA collection effort were threatened with “poor citizenship” scores in China’s Orwellian social credit system.
In February 2021, U.S. national security officials advised American state governments to reject BGI’s offer to set up coronavirus testing labs, due to the serious risk that BGI would use the tests to harvest DNA samples from American citizens and provide the information to the PLA.
The NCSC released a report in February that said China is accumulating vast amounts of data on U.S. citizens, including their DNA files. Some of those efforts were technically legal, while others were not. The NCSC warned China could use its DNA database for everything from tracking the activities of Americans to designing biological weapons. The report noted Chinese researchers are particularly interested in American DNA data because the United States is so large and ethnically diverse.