The U.S. government is concerned that domestic personal and health data are at risk for improper or illegal acquisition by the Chinese government and companies related to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to reports by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Such risks rise to the national security level because China’s access to U.S. health data provides China with the tools to exploit Americans’ personal health records and displace U.S. leadership in biotechnology and other fields.
Protecting U.S. health data is a serious concern, particularly due to the Chinese government-linked cyber-espionage and hacking campaigns aimed at obtaining sensitive U.S. personally identifiable information, including personal health data and clinical trial data. The 2015 hacking of Anthem Inc. by Chinese nationals serves as an example: the cyber-attack on the health insurance giant allowed hackers to gain access to up to 80 million patient records, not simply personally identifiable information.
The Chinese government and companies also carry out a vast personal and health data collection through legal means. Chinese biotech companies gain access to U.S. healthcare and genomic data through investments and partnerships with health companies and research institutes. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2019 that Twist Bioscience Corp., a synthetic DNA manufacturer that had received $5 million in funding from the Department of Defense (DOD), partnered with a Chinese company and planned to expand its manufacturing in China. Policymakers expressed concern that the potential partnership could lead to the transfer of valuable IP and data on synthetic DNA production. By acquiring large datasets of health information, Chinese companies, some of which maintain ties with the CCP, can make their drug discovery and clinical trials more reliable and cost efficient, putting them at an advantage against U.S. health and biotech firms.
In his testimony before the Commission, Benjamin Shobert, director
of strategy for health business strategy at Microsoft, argued asymmetric data-sharing policies between the U.S. and China weaken the U.S. competitive advantage in medicine innovation and artificial intelligence. Investment and collaborations in the U.S. biotech sector give Chinese companies access to large volumes of U.S. medical and genomic data, but U.S. companies do not get reciprocal access. Mr. Shobert believes “protocols specific to de-identification and bilateral cross-border data sharing [are
needed] . . . to ensure the pace of progress in healthcare continues to accelerate.” The Chinese government is also formulating policies to support the acquisition and use of large healthcare genomic and other personal health data sets (Source: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on Exploring the Growing U.S. Reliance on China’s Biotech and Pharmaceutical Products, written testimony of Benjamin Shobert, July 31, 2019, 11.).
The Chinese government places great emphasis on collecting domestic
genomic and other health-related data for purposes beyond developing its biotechnology sector. In many cases, the Chinese government has taken data from its citizens without informed consent in order to enhance surveillance of targeted groups. For example, in 2016 local authorities in Xinjiang began implementing a program called “Physicals for All,” which involved conducting free annual health exams for residents with the stated purpose of improving healthcare services and creating digital health records for participants. Although official documents describing this health program did not state DNA would be collected, health authorities collected DNA samples from approximately 36 million people in 2016–2017.
Despite Chinese media reports stating the program was voluntary, members of the Uyghur community claimed police and local officials coerced them into participating in these medical checkups, and they were not aware of how their biometric data would be used or even able to access the results of their medical tests. U.S.-made equipment and research conducted by U.S. scientists have been used to advance the Chinese government’s mass biometric data collection campaign and bolster surveillance and control of vulnerable populations, including the Uyghur community (Source: Sui-Lee Wee, “China Uses DNA to Track Its People, with the Help of American Expertise,” New York Times,February 21, 2019).
In 2017, human rights activists discovered that Xinjiang law enforcement used genetic sequencing equipment manufactured by U.S.-based company Thermo Fisher to collect biometric data from Uyghurs. The New York Times reported that a visiting scholar from China working on a research project at Yale University accessed DNA samples that were later used to enhance China’s Ministry of Public Security’s ability to sort DNA samples based on ethnicity. These DNA samples were used by authorities with the purpose of identifying and tracking individuals.