China’s Efforts to Acquire Americans’ DNA and Other Biometric Data - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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China’s Efforts to Acquire Americans’ DNA and Other Biometric Data

China’s Efforts to Acquire Americans’ DNA and Other Biometric Data

In March 2020, as the first major COVID-19 outbreak in the United States hit the State of Washington, Chinese company BGI Group, the world’s largest biotech firm, sent a letter to Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee offering to build and help operate state-of-the-art COVID testing labs.1 In the letter, BGI Group proposed to “provide technical expertise,” funds, and state-of-the-art DNA sequencers.2 While BGI Group’s offer initially appeared to be too good for Governor Inslee to refuse, U.S. intelligence officials who had been following BGI Group’s activity in the United States expressed suspicion regarding the biotech giant’s motives.3 BGI Group has long-standing ties to the Chinese government and has worked with China’s military on various research projects, including brain science and testing for respiratory pathogens.4 William Evanina, then the Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, suspected that BGI Group’s proposals were intended to establish a foothold for the Chinese government to mine Americans’ biometric data and further its goal to dominate the global biotechnology market.5

BGI Group eventually made similar proposals to five other states, including New York and California, but each state turned down BGI Group’s offer after federal officials warned them against going into business with BGI.6 However, BGI Group may have partnerships with U.S. hospitals and biotech firms.7

For several years, China has been on a mission to collect blood samples and analyze the genetic data of its 700 million male citizens, enabling the country to build an enormous DNA database that strengthens the country’s surveillance abilities that already includes sophisticated cameras, facial recognition systems, and artificial intelligence.8 The New York Times has reviewed photographic evidence that the police are collecting blood from children in schools all over China.9 Two BGI Group subsidiaries have been accused of providing genetic analysis from BGI Group’s biometric database to China to permit the government to more effectively target and persecute China’s Muslim Uyghur population.10

A large DNA database also permits those with access to the database to isolate various genetic markers associated with diseases and thus provides an enormous advantage in developing new drugs and vaccines.11 In addition to its efforts to operate labs around the United States, BGI Group has embarked on other businesses in the United States that enable it to acquire biometric data of millions of Americans. For example, BGI Group has sold millions of COVID-19 saliva test kits in the United States.12 Although the tests have not been outlawed, U.S. national security officials have warned American labs against using Chinese-manufactured tests because of concern that China is seeking to gather Americans’ biometric data.13

China’s government has been outspoken about its plan to dominate the West in biotechnology. Under the so-called Made in China 2025 plan first articulated by former Prime Minister Li Keqiang in 2015, China has decreased its reliance on foreign technological imports while bolstering its own technological innovations, hoping to become the global high-tech powerhouse by 2025 and the world leader in the fields of genomic sciences and analytics.14 In addition to concerns about individuals’ privacy rights and China’s surveillance techniques, American officials have expressed concern about the implications of Americans relying on a foreign power in the future to secure medical care.15

  1. Jon Wertheim, China’s Push to Control Americans’ Health Care Future, CBS News (Jan. 31, 2021), [].

  2. Id.

  3. Id.

  4. Zachary Basu, U.S. Blacklists Chinese Companies Tied to Xinjiang Gene Bank Project, Axios (July 20, 2020), []; Kirsty Needham, China Gene Firm Providing Worldwide COVID Tests Worked with Chinese Military, Reuters (Jan. 30, 2021), [].

  5. Wertheim, supra note 1.

  6. Id.

  7. Jim Nash, Feds Warn of Strings Attached to a Chinese DNA Firm’s Hunt for COVID Partners in U.S., Biometric Update (Feb. 1, 2021), [].

  8. Sui-Lee Wee, China Is Collecting DNA From Tens of Millions of Men and Boys, Using U.S. Equipment, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2020), [].

  9. Emile Dirks and James Leibold, China Is Harvesting the DNA of Its People. Is This the Future of Policing?, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2020), [].

  10. Wertheim, supra note 1.

  11. Id.

  12. Needham, supra note 4.

  13. Id.

  14. Made in China 2025, Institute for Security & Development Policy (June 2018), [].

  15. Wertheim, supra note 1.

Conor Goetz

Conor Goetz is a second year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He is the President of the Fordham Information Law Society and Secretary of Fordham’s National Security Association. He holds a B.A. in History from Columbia University.