The U.S. government recently blocked a Chinese entity from buying a San Diego-based fertility clinic due to worries over Chinese access to American medical data. Such data could include intimate personal and biological information, which the U.S. does not want China to get ahold of.
The decision was made by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is tasked with scrutinizing transactions involving foreign entities. The review process of CFIUS is shrouded in secrecy and the committee does not make any public explanations of its actions. Housed inside the Treasury Department, the committee has representatives from other government departments like Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and so on. The name of the Chinese entity that tried to buy the fertility clinic has not been revealed.
John Demers, head of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, pointed out that genetic material is extremely valuable since it reveals the biological vulnerabilities of a person, medical history of the family, illnesses contracted in the past, etc.
“That can be used from a counterintelligence perspective to either coerce you or convince you to help the Chinese… I’d be worried that the Chinese were going to get sensitive personal information about individual Americans, whether it’s their financial information, their health-care information, their genetic information, all of which they could use, from an intelligence perspective, to target that person,” Demers said, as reported by CNBC.
The official also raised the possibility that large-scale collection of such American biological material could allow the Chinese to develop some kind of biological weapon that attacks the vulnerabilities of the U.S. population. San Diego already has many fertility clinics that have ties to Beijing. For instance, the management rights of HRC Fertility in California were bought by a Chinese coal company in 2017 and were eventually acquired by another Chinese firm called Jinxin Fertility.
Interestingly, the chairman of the board of Jinxin is a former executive of a Chinese state-backed corporation as well as a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). What makes this takeover even more suspicious is that one of HRC’s offices is located very close to the U.S. Marine Corps base, something the company claims is a “meaningless coincidence.”
American healthcare data
A report by the United States government published last year noted that China’s access to American health and genetic data poses a national security risk. A key point of concern is that the U.S. does not have any strict laws to protect its citizens’ health data.
In contrast, Chinese laws prohibit the export of such information about its citizens and necessitate that those who need such data for research purposes get a permit. This basically means that while China can obtain health data of Americans with ease, the reverse would almost be impossible.
To resolve the issue, the report recommended that Washington develop federal guidance to establish international data agreements so as to protect the data of American citizens. In addition, the report asked the administration to improve cybersecurity, noting that legal protections alone won’t prevent China from accessing such data as Beijing might resort to unethical means like hacking.
It is not just citizen health data that is being targeted by Chinese hackers, but also critical research data as well. For instance, hackers from China are known to have targeted American vaccine firm Moderna to gain access to its COVID-19 vaccine research.