China Wants Your Data — And May Already Have It When COVID hit, a Chinese firm offered to set up testing labs in the U.S., which could have given it access to DNA data. The U.S. says this is part of China's effort to collect mass data on Americans.

China Wants Your Data — And May Already Have It

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When COVID hit last year, a Chinese company offered to set up testing labs in several U.S. states. U.S. officials urged the states to reject that offer, calling it part of a Chinese effort to build a DNA database on Americans. The U.S. says China is still pressing ahead with long-term plans in ways open and clandestine to collect personal data about Americans on a mass scale. NPR's Greg Myre has our story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: To put this simply, China wants your data.

APRIL FALCON DOSS: Most Americans have probably had their data compromised by the cyber intelligence units of the Chinese government and Chinese military intelligence.

MYRE: April Falcon Doss worked at the National Security Agency and wrote the book "Cyber Privacy." She says China is collecting detailed personal information on a massive scale to boost its economy, advance its technology and support its espionage efforts.

FALCON DOSS: China has really set as one of its strategic goals, trying to achieve dominance in artificial intelligence. And what you need to feed artificial intelligence algorithms is lots and lots and lots of data.

MYRE: In some instances, China pursues this strategy openly. With COVID cases on the rise last March, a company called Beijing Genomics Institute contacted several U.S. states. The company offered to set up COVID testing labs and as a byproduct, would get access to the DNA of those tested. Mike Orlando is head of the National Counterintelligence And Security Center.

MIKE ORLANDO: We certainly reached out to our partners and to the communities to make sure people were aware that the Chinese government were pushing out these tests, informing them of what the risks were and really ask them not to take these tests. As far as I know, they all turned them down.

MYRE: So it never happened. And it's important to note that biotech companies in both China and the U.S. routinely use DNA to work on cutting-edge medicines that can benefit people worldwide. However, human rights groups say China also uses DNA testing for security purposes, such as identifying and tracking Uighur Muslims, the minority group whose members are detained in camps in huge numbers in western China. And U.S. officials say any Chinese DNA collection should be seen as part of a comprehensive effort to vacuum up millions of personal records on U.S. citizens. Again, Mike Orlando.

ORLANDO: 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 from how the Chinese could surveil us, manipulate us and extort us.

MYRE: The U.S. and China both spy aggressively on each other. And in recent years, China's been blamed for a series of huge data thefts at the Marriott hotel chain, the Equifax credit agency and the Office Of Personnel Management, which stores sensitive files on government workers. China denies responsibility for these hacks. 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.

KEITH ALEXANDER: It gives them tremendous access to who we are.

MYRE: Retired Army General Keith Alexander led the National Security Agency under President Obama. Those files at 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 cash. Alexander says China could cross-reference the data and send a highly personalized phishing email to a person in a key tech industry.

ALEXANDER: So that 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.

MYRE: After gaining access, Chinese hackers could look for sensitive personal or company information. Alexander says the theft of American technology has given China a huge economic lift and inflicted great damage on the U.S.

ALEXANDER: They need access to intellectual property to fuel that economic engine. That theft is the greatest transfer of wealth in history.

MYRE: He says that theft is still taking place.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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