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Lawmakers want to blacklist Chinese genomics company that could boost bioweapons research



Researchers work at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, China, April 23, 2012 (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

Republican lawmakers are opening a new front in the fight against Chinese military companies that suck US data.

In a letter to senior officials of the Biden administration, Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Mike Gallagher called for BGI Group, a major Chinese genomics conglomerate, to be added to the US government’s export blacklist and to its investment ban list of Chinese military companies. Their comments on the company’s practice of collecting data from U.S. citizens echoed a number of earlier warnings issued by national security officials.

“BGI has used its dominant position to advance the CCP’s strategic goals by acquiring sensitive health data from the rest of the world. BGI and at least 14 other Chinese companies are performing genomic sequencing for American patients. As required by Chinese law, these companies 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 all three of the firm’s representatives agree to act on this recommendation, individuals and businesses in the United States will be barred from trading with BGI and investing in the company.

In February, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a stern Warning Americans that the People’s Republic of China collects personal health care data from Americans.

The company has made inroads elsewhere, such as at Amazon, which used BGI’s in-home COVID test on its employees. And for months, BGI had worked to get governments around the world, including state and local levels in the United States, to use its COVID-19 test kits, which alarmed national security officials and the United States. intelligence. The report notes that although Chinese companies attempted to set up COVID-19 testing labs in the United States, which allegedly granted them DNA samples from Americans, they did not.

But the NCSC has warned that the failure to establish its own testing site in the United States is of little comfort as the Chinese government has researched U.S. health care datasets by other means with more success for decades. years, in particular thanks to strategic investments in American genomic sequencing. companies, partnerships with hospitals and universities and cyber attacks.

On the latter point, former NCSC director Bill Evanina told CBS 60 minutes that “probably five or six healthcare companies in the last five years” have been “penetrated, exfiltrated, hacked by China.”

More recently, other illicit means by which BGI acquires data have been discovered. In July, Reuters reported that the prenatal BGI test – which is used around the world – was developed in collaboration with the Chinese military and “uses them to collect genetic data from millions of women for in-depth research into the traits of the population ”.

Edward You, a former FBI agent who worked on these issues, said 60 minutes, “They’re building a huge national database. And if they are now able to supplement that with data from around the world, it’s a question of who gets the biggest and most diverse set of data. And so, the time bomb is that once they’re able to get real artificial intelligence, they go into a race in what they can do with that data.

With this, the Chinese government can do a number of things. It has the potential to perfect various AI tools, allowing Chinese state-backed companies to dominate specific markets, allowing Beijing to leverage control over certain products to China’s political advantage. US citizen data could also pose a counterintelligence risk, allowing Chinese authorities to exploit a person’s medical information in espionage operations.

But one potential application of the BGI data described by Cotton and Gallagher stands out: “The joint BGI-PLA research could have application in future biological weapons – which is of particular concern as BGI’s national genebank is presumably being updated. provision for military research.

Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, BGI’s involvement in data collection, and its work on building a massive gene bank, has would have made him participate in the construction of the Chinese Communist Party’s mass surveillance system in the region. For this reason, the Commerce Department added two subsidiaries of BGI to the list of entities in July 2020.

These designations on the list of entities were based on the complicity of subsidiaries in human rights violations. But BGI as a whole is engaged in coordinated activity with the Chinese government that poses an extraordinary threat to US national security. Simply blacklisting the company won’t be enough, but it’s the bare minimum of what public servants should be doing.