China Wants Your Data — And May Already Have It

Feb 24, 2021
Originally published on February 24, 2021 5:16 pm

As COVID cases began to rise a year ago, a Chinese company contacted several U.S. states and offered to set up testing labs. As a byproduct, the Chinese firm, Beijing Genomics Institute, would likely gain access to the DNA of those tested.

The offer was tempting for states struggling to set up their own testing facilities for a new virus on short notice. But U.S. national security officials urged the states to reject the offer, citing concerns about how China might use personal data collected on Americans.

"We certainly reached out to our partners and the community to make sure people were aware that the Chinese were pushing out these tests, informing them of what the risks were and really asking them not to take these tests," said Mike Orlando, the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"As far as I know, they all turned them down," Orlando added.

Meanwhile, Beijing Genomics Institute, a major global player in the world of genomics research, reportedly set up labs in at least 18 other countries, and provided COVID testing kits to 180 nations, including the U.S. The U.S. officials stressed that their main concern was preventing the establishment of full-service labs. The officials do not consider the testing kits to pose a serious risk.

Biotech companies in China, the U.S. and elsewhere routinely collect DNA data and use it to help guide the development of cutting-edge medicines that can benefit people worldwide. And BGI says it abides by all the laws in countries where it operates.

However, human rights groups say the Chinese government uses DNA testing for security purposes — such as identifying and tracking Uigher Muslims, the ethnic and religious minority whose members are being held in detention camps, in huge numbers, in western China.

Chinese police are also working to gather DNA samples from the country's male population — numbering roughly 700 million — to help keep tabs on the half of the population most likely to commit crimes, The New York Times reported last year.

A sweeping effort

U.S. officials add that DNA collection by Chinese companies, even when done openly and legally, should be seen as part of a comprehensive effort to vacuum up millions and millions of records on U.S. citizens. And many Chinese efforts violate U.S. law, the officials say.

"Most Americans have probably had their data compromised by the cyber intelligence units of the Chinese government and Chinese military intelligence," said April Falcon Doss who worked at the National Security Agency and wrote the book Cyber Privacy:Who Has Your Data And Why You Should Care.

Falcon Doss said China is collecting detailed personal information on a massive scale for multiple reasons: to boost its economy, advance its technology and to support its espionage efforts.

"China has really set as one of its strategic goals, trying to achieve dominance in artificial intelligence," she said. "What you need to feed artificial intelligence algorithms is lots and lots and lots of data."

The U.S. and China both spy aggressively on each other. In recent years, one striking feature of this rivalry is China's pursuit of personal data on Americans.

Since 2014, China's been blamed for a series of huge data thefts. They include individual records taken from the credit agency Equifax (145 million records), the hotel chain Marriott (400 million), the health insurer Anthem (78 million), and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (21 million), which stores sensitive files on government workers, including fingerprints and information on security clearances.

The Justice Department has filed charges against Chinese citizens in these and other cases, though most remain in China and beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Some of those accused are serving in the Chinese military.

China's aim

China denies responsibility for these hacks. Still, Beijing acknowledges it wants to be a world leader in gathering big data, and using artificial intelligence to sort through it.

"If you look at the cyber hacks of our credit information, our travel information, and then you layer in the DNA information, it creates an incredible targeting tool for how the Chinese could surveil us, manipulate us and extort us," said Orlando, whose office keeps watch over attempts by foreign countries to spy on the U.S.

U.S. officials, past and present, say it's difficult to tell exactly how the Chinese may be using the hacked data. But they say the possibilities are limitless.

"It gives them tremendous access into who we are," said retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who led the National Security Agency under President Barack Obama.

The files from the Office of Personnel Management would help China identify U.S. intelligence officers.

Credit information from Equifax could flag people who have money problems and might be susceptible to spying for China in exchange for financial help.

Alexander said China could cross-reference the data to send a highly personalized phishing email to a person in a key U.S. tech industry that China hopes to exploit.

"So it says in a email that China sends to a specific individual, 'You have Type 2 diabetes. Here's a new Type 2 diabetes solution. Click here,'" said Alexander, who is now the president of the private firm IronNet Cybersecurity.

After gaining access to that person's email account, hackers could look for sensitive personal or company information.

The U.S. and China signed a 2015 agreement that said neither government would seek to steal intellectual property from private companies in the other nation. But Alexander said it had only a brief and limited impact on the Chinese hacking of U.S. companies. He said the ongoing theft of American technology and data has given China a huge economic lift, and inflicted great damage on the U.S.

"The Chinese need access to intellectual property to fuel that economic engine," he said. "That theft is the greatest transfer of wealth in history."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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Investigators are still trying to answer some key questions about the January 6 assault on the Capitol, like exactly who stormed the building that day? And what motivated them to be there? An NPR team has been analyzing the more than 200 cases the Justice Department has brought so far. The defendants include military men, extremists and hardcore Trump supporters. One thing they had in common - they were nearly all men. As Dina Temple-Raston of NPR's Investigations team explains, experts say gender likely played an outsized role in the way the day played out.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: When we look at the video of what happened that day, it's easy to focus on the violence.


TEMPLE-RASTON: The smashing of windows, the tear gas, the five people who lost their lives in the chaos. But Michael Kimmel, a distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University, sees something a little different.

MICHAEL KIMMEL: A lot of the guys that I watched on January 6 and subsequently in all of the videos that have surfaced is these guys look familiar to me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kimmel wrote a book about angry white men and what drives them to embrace extremism. And he thinks traditional gender roles - the notions of being a man - played a part in the violence at the Capitol.

KIMMEL: They grew up believing that if they worked hard, paid their taxes, were good guys, that they would be able to live the lives that their grandfathers lived.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kimmel said that when that doesn't happen, a kind of aggrieved entitlement takes hold. And that's the kind of dissatisfaction that drew people to former President Trump.


DONALD TRUMP: Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore. And that's what this is all about.

JESSICA STERN: We often see this notion of a band of brothers. We often see people getting drawn into joining extremist groups at moments when they're feeling confused about their identity or they've experienced a status loss.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Jessica Stern, a professor at Boston University. She's been studying extremist groups for decades. And she said that people who were there on January 6 were familiar to her, too. Consider Barton Wade Shively, a burly ex-Marine who was charged with striking police officers as he rushed the Capitol that day. He spoke with CNN outside the day of the protest.


BARTON WADE SHIVELY: Tried to push them back a little bit until finally, they started getting rough with us. So we kind of pushed them back. So that's what we did. We pushed them back.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shively seemed angry.


SHIVELY: That's what we're doing - fighting back.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And what's the point? What's the endgame?

SHIVELY: What's the point?


SHIVELY: We're losing our freedoms. What do you mean what's the point?

TEMPLE-RASTON: According to court records, Shively allegedly surrendered to authorities and said he got caught up in the moment. His lawyer did not respond to NPR requests for comment.

Shively wasn't alone in thinking that a greater purpose had brought him to the Capitol. Felipe Marquez of Florida saw himself in much the same way.

FELIPE MARQUEZ: I went to - on the 6 in D.C. to protest against communism and prostitution. This is, like, a Rosa Parks, like, Martin Luther King moment for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Marquez, according to court documents, is accused of not only storming the Capitol, but also breaking into the office of an Oregon senator. NPR has examined the affidavits in each case related to the Capitol riot so far. And the words of Shively and Marquez were echoed in dozens and dozens of them.

Diana Mutz is a professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania, and she's studied Trump supporters. And one of the things that animates them, she said, is the desire to return to a simpler time.

DIANA MUTZ: I think it's important to realize that, yes, they're experiencing change and that this is threatening. The advantages that these groups enjoyed aren't there to the same extent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They have jobs. They have families. But they don't have a sense they're doing really well. To be sure, a group this large defies generalization. There was someone in a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt, and there was a rabbi from Florida. There were far-right militia members and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Still, an NPR analysis of the records collected on the more than 200 people charged provided some common threads. For example, almost 15% of the people charged so far are either current or former military. About 17% of those charged have an avowed connection to an extremist group. And nearly 11% of the Justice Department's cases included someone who spoke specifically about being inspired to storm the Capitol by former President Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Treason. Treason. Treason. Treason.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's from a New Yorker video inside the Capitol that captures a sense of the crowd's purpose - that they were there for a bigger reason than themselves. Now, more than a month after the siege, people are starting to ask the next obvious question - where do we go from here? Mutz says one remedy may be just a return to the kind of politics that doesn't require our full, undivided attention.

MUTZ: The fact is when we live and breathe politics 24/7 and it's the first thing you see when you turn on the TV and so forth, it elevates the salience of politics in people's lives in a way that may not actually be healthy for the nation as a whole.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In this case, she said, boring may be a good thing.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.