China is scooping up DNA data to target foreign spies – and you, the US government says

chinese soldiers
  • China has been stealing data, including DNA files, to advance its economic, security, and foreign-policy goals, the US government says in a recent report.
  • China’s acquisition of healthcare data is ostensibly part of an effort to become the global leader in biotechnology and medicine.
  • But that DNA data, which is like a biological ID, could allow China to target political opponents, foreign spies, and even its own citizens.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In February, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) released an unclassified version of its report on Chinese intelligence efforts against US citizens.

The report provides a scathing breakdown of how China has been stealing data, including DNA files, which are like a biological ID of your health data and medical background, to pursue its economic, security, and foreign-policy goals.

On the face of it, China is using legally and illegally acquired healthcare data as part of an effort to become the global leader in biotechnology and medicine. But that data theft reflects a more sinister ambition.

In addition to financial gains, China is using stolen data to target dissidents, foreign intelligence officers, and even its own citizens, including ones spying on their government.

In data, China sees control; in control, it sees security.

Who’s Big Brother?

DNA
A lab technician works with human DNA.

Beijing’s focus on data and the creation of a security state where every movement, interaction, and transaction are monitored makes George Orwell’s “Big Brother” look like a petty amateur.

China’s interest in stolen data isn’t new, but it was only in the early 2010s that it ramped up its data-collection efforts. Around that time, the Chinese security services discovered just how deep US intelligence had penetrated China’s security and military apparatuses.

The Chinese government’s interest in data exceeds traditional security norms. For example, in 2015, the US government revealed that Chinese hackers broke into the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and stole sensitive data – including security background forms, fingerprint records, and health and financial data – from millions of current and former US officials and applicants for federal jobs.

Although the OPM hack was an attempt to map out the US national-security community in general, it primarily targeted the intelligence community to determine who works there.

The purloined data compromised several former and current intelligence officers. Equally concerning is the fact that it might endanger future officers and operations and may make the future recruitment of assets inside and outside of China more difficult.

Further, the OPM data offers Chinese intelligence services ample information with which to recruit US assets through blackmail or financial enticement.

Indeed, through successive cyberattacks, China has taken hold of the personal data of much of the American population, regardless of their occupation. (Chinese firms also gather this data by investing in US companies and through partnerships with US researchers.)

In addition to the OPB hack, in the last decade alone China has stolen about 500 million travel and personal records from the Marriott hotel chain, 145 million financial and personal records from Equifax, and 78 million financial, healthcare, and personal records from Anthem.

While data itself used to be hard to come by, the advancement of bulk-data collection over the past 20 to 30 years has made processing, interpreting, and analyzing it in a timely fashion the bigger challenge.

In the 1990s, access to so much data didn’t necessarily translate into actionable intelligence, but investments in and rapid improvements to artificial intelligence are changing that.

Different methods of categorizing and storing data won’t necessarily solve the problem.

“The most [technologically] advanced security can often be bypassed using an analog [and simple] method. We’ve seen a number of different strategies being tossed around in the public discourse, from mounting a stronger offense to focusing almost exclusively on buffering our critical infrastructure defenses,” a former Air Force officer with a background in joint special operations and intelligence told Insider.

A more aggressive cyberwarfare strategy might be the solution, and the Biden administration has indicated that it will be more active in the cyber realm.

But according to Privacy Matters, a digital security and privacy publication, there are important considerations to make before opening the Pandora’s box of cyberwarfare, where there are still no established norms, even among state actors.

What about you?

facial recognition airport Dulles
New biometric facial recognition scanners in Dulles airport in September 2018.

According to the NCSC report, the ethnic diversity of US healthcare data, as well as that data’s accessibility, makes it especially appealing to China.

China’s aggressive bulk-collection strategy, especially of DNA files, poses risks for private citizens.

As the NCSC states, the loss of your DNA isn’t like losing your phone or credit card. You can’t replace your DNA, and its theft can affect you as well as your immediate family and relatives.

Unfortunately, the theft of financial or travel data by Chinese or Russian hackers may not concern people who aren’t immediately affected. But losing your DNA is a wholly different proposition, as it’s literally your biological identity and can be used to track you or to design a biological weapon tailored to you.

“Things can seem pretty helpless from an individual perspective, especially when we read headlines suggesting the NSA has had their own cyber hacking tools stolen and reused against them,” the former officer said.

“We can’t very well defend our financial institutions or other companies from Chinese hackers, but we can know what to do when that inevitably occurs and our personal information is leaked online (along with millions’ of others),” the officer said. “All of this is to say that maintaining an understanding of your online privacy and digital security is an individual responsibility – all else is supplemental.”

For a private citizen, caught in a cyber war between world powers, there are few responses to such theft. Understanding the threat and acting to safeguard the information you can beforehand is probably the best defense.

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The black-footed ferret was believed extinct until 18 were discovered on a Wyoming ranch. Now scientists have cloned one using 33-year-old DNA.

Ferret Elizabeth Ann
Elizabeth Ann, the first ever cloned US endangered species at 50 days old.

Scientists successfully cloned a black-footed ferret using DNA of a frozen relative that died in 1988 for the first time in US history.

Elizabeth Ann was born on 10 December and is a genetic copy of a ferret called Willa, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced in a statement this week.

Willa’s cells, frozen during the 1980s when DNA technology was first developed, were used to create the newborn animal.

North America’s only ferret species was considered extinct until 18 were found on a Wyoming ranch in 1981.

They were captured by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a breeding program to recover the population was established. Their numbers have now increased to 250 to 350 ferrets living in captivity and 300 spread across 29 reintroduction sites in the wild.

Scientists are now hoping to use cloning to create genetic diversity, making the animals less susceptible to disease and genetic abnormalities.

Ryan Phelan, Executive Director of biotechnology conservation company Revive & Restore, said: “It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann.

He also added in the statement: “To see her now thriving ushers in a new era for her species and for conservation-dependent species everywhere. She is a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue.”

Elizabeth Ann will not be released into the wild but instead raised in the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, where she was born, so that researchers can continue to study her.

A genomic study revealed Willa’s DNA contained three times more unique variations than the living ferret population, meaning that if she successfully mates and reproduces, Elizabeth Ann could provide unique genetic diversity to the species, according to the USFWS.

The cloning of Elizabeth Ann resulted from a partnership between the USFWS, Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Association of Zoos aquariums.

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