China’s extensive use of genetic information sounds a warning
30 Sep 2022|

‘Do not miss a single family in each village, do not miss a single man in each family’ (村不漏姓,姓不漏人). This is the aim of the China-wide male family screening system project (男性家族排查系统项目), according to official government documents from Gansu province obtained by the New York Times. As China increasingly relies on biometric data collection for public and national security purposes, it is time for democracies to address its role in their systems.

Under Secretary General Xi Jinping, China has been steadily expanding the surveillance of its citizens through new biometric technologies. The government’s identification of genetic resources as a national security asset has reinforced the domestic surveillance apparatus. It has also boosted China’s defence and biomedical research and, perhaps unintentionally, strengthened the protection of its citizens’ data against access by foreign powers.

In contrast, the limited discussion in democracies on genetic and biometric data, and the profound risks and opportunities it presents, poses a national security risk. The low vigilance of foreign access to genetic data creates privacy and security concerns and potentially facilitates ethically questionable research by external actors. China has recognised this lack of caution and foresight and is already working to maximise the information and capability advantage it holds.

China is known for using biometric technology to expand its surveillance and security apparatus. Apart from an increase in the number of provinces establishing male DNA databases, little has changed in the scale of the data collection since ASPI’s Genomic surveillance report in 2020, which estimated that DNA samples had been collected from 5–10% of the country’s male population. What has changed is the sophistication and strategic thinking behind this program. The documents obtained by the New York Times explain that government purchases of advanced bio-surveillance technologies are for the management and control of the people (对人员的管控) and to realise the comprehensive collection (全面采集) of samples. The work is often conducted in the name of social stability and crime fighting, but there’s no evidence to suggest that the men targeted for collection are criminal suspects.

This is part of an ongoing biometric surveillance regime that expands the government’s control over its citizens. While the collection methods remain multimodal, such as an expansion of voice- and facial-recognition systems, there’s been a shift to more invasive collection of personal identifiers that are less likely to change over time, like DNA sequences and iris patterns. Indeed, Chinese authorities have already been forcibly mass-collecting biological samples from ethnic minorities like the Tibetans since 2013 and the Uyghurs since 2016. The overall surveillance doesn’t discriminate between ethnicities, however, and is part of the mass DNA collection campaign conducted under Xi’s leadership.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pushed for the introduction of big data into everyday life at a state council executive meeting in 2016, and specifically mentioned health and medical data. This was soon after the release of the ‘action outline for promoting the development of big data’, which emphasised the importance of worldwide collection in the context of rapid global informatisation.

China has not only recognised the benefits that genetic data brings to the surveillance of its citizens (and foreigners), but also realised its potential as a wider national security resource, particularly for military research. The result was the new draft guidelines on managing human genetic resources that the state council promulgated in March. It contributes to the implementation of the Regulation on Human Genetic Resources following the adoption of the Biosecurity Law and Data Security Law. The genetic information of Chinese nationals is prohibited from being sent abroad and human genetic databases must be catalogued every five years.

Although the intent was probably to stop rival countries from accessing this valuable information, it resulted in heightened security of genetic data through export controls and a standardised management system. The protective legislation has, however, still failed to protect citizens’ data from being exploited by the Chinese government itself. This is particularly worrying given its growing potential uses to control the population.

China’s active and exploitive use of genetic data should serve as an impetus for Western democracies to consider genetic data as an intrinsic part of national security. As emerging technologies create more potential for the use of genetic data, so too do they increase the urgency of establishing clear direction to prevent data abuse and genetic surveillance. The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center has identified China as a primary strategic competitor due to its resourcefulness and comprehensive strategy, specifically its military–civil fusion policy and National Intelligence Law. It highlighted the risk of genomic technology being used to identify genetic vulnerabilities in a population, and the threat that data relating to people’s ancestry would be misused for surveillance and societal repression.

The data provided to foreign researchers should be restricted to civilian medical and scientific research, although China’s concept of military–civil fusion makes due diligence easier said than done. Military–civil fusion promotes acquiring intellectual property, technology and human resources from the academic and private sectors. An example is the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), a company that collaborates with the People’s Liberation Army and military hospitals on genetic research programs that enhance soldiers’ performance and improve ‘population quality’. It also happens to be one of the biggest providers of Covid-19 and prenatal tests worldwide.

This type of research requires a comprehensive database of the variation in the human genome, and BGI has easy access to foreign genomic data through prenatal tests. Reuters reported that online records show that at least 500 women, including women outside China, who have taken BGI’s prenatal tests have their genetic data stored in the government-funded China National GeneBank.

BGI researchers have already used the genetic data generated from prenatal tests of more than 141,000 Chinese women to study genetic associations, describing it as an ‘untapped resource’. While there’s no evidence to suggest the use of genetic data from foreigners, BGI’s storage of and access to a diverse set of human genomes provide the potential for future big-data analysis.

While there’s much discussion on China’s current technologies and capabilities, we must also prepare for their future potential. Having a comprehensive gene bank that includes diverse sets of genomic data may not seem problematic now, but the emergence of powerful artificial-intelligence tools may expose previously underappreciated vulnerabilities.

Perhaps it already has. A BGI researcher worked with China’s National University of Defence Technology to develop software to speed up the sequencing of human genomes using the Chinese supercomputer Tianhe-2. The university was blacklisted by the US as a threat to national security specifically because of its access to and ownership of Tianhe-2, which is capable of simulating nuclear explosions.

More countries need targeted legislation for genetic data export to limit the ease of access by foreign companies and governments. Clients engaged in medical tests should have standardised consent and transparency in how their genetic information is handled and stored. And they should be informed of their privacy rights.

Competition with China is difficult when the state fosters a nexus between the military and the market, and biomedical technology is expanded through a coordinated effort. As China advances in research and development, countries like Australia risk being exploited and left behind. In this instance, we are not only aiding foreign military development but are turning a blind eye to significant privacy and surveillance concerns.