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Hey, soldiers and spies — think twice about that home genetic ancestry test

A home DNA testing kit. (Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
January 03, 2021

If you’re a spy or a soldier, and you’re thinking of taking one of those home-based genetic tests for health or genealogical reasons through 23andMe, Ancestry.com and others, you might want to rethink it.

The big omnibus spending package that Congress passed early this week — which President Donald Trump has criticized, demanding changes from Congress — included language that would ask the Government Accountability Office to look at and mitigate risks posed to members of the intelligence community and to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who may use direct-to-consumer genetic testing by companies that may have ties to China or by the sale of such data to companies owned by Chinese interests.

The fiscal 2021 intelligence authorization measure, which is part of the omnibus spending package, would ask the GAO to look at consumer genetic tests as part of an increased focus on a range of threats posed by China.

Lawmakers want the GAO also to examine “how the government of the People’s Republic of China may be using data provided by personnel of the intelligence community and the (Defense) Department through direct-to-consumer genetic tests; and how ubiquitous technical surveillance may amplify those risks.”

Companies such as 23andMe, AncestrybyDNA, Genebase and Full Genomes, for example, are among dozens that provide consumer genetic testing to identify susceptibility to potential diseases as well as to establish genealogies. It’s not clear which American companies, if any, have ties to Beijing or have sold data to China.

The request to study security risks posed by genetic testing companies signals a potential new area of concern that extends beyond the traditional espionage, cybersecurity and supply chain risks typically associated with Beijing’s global reach.

Lawmakers appear to be concerned that U.S. officials working for intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, acting in their personal capacities, may be providing their genetic information to private testing companies that could end up in Chinese hands, giving Beijing highly sensitive information that it could combine with other information it already has on them to target officials for espionage or attack. The United States, for example, already has accused China of hacking the Office of Personnel Management sometime between 2013 and 2015 and taking away highly sensitive information on top U.S. officials.

The measure also would ask multiple intelligence agencies to step up vigilance on Chinese activities in the United States as well as inside the borders of close U.S. allies known as the Five Eyes, which include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Lawmakers want the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency to submit a report on efforts by foreign adversaries to build and supply telecom and cybersecurity equipment for the closest U.S. allies. The United States has put significant pressure on allies not to buy 5G equipment from China’s Huawei, which Washington sees as a national security risk to U.S. communications networks.

The measure also would ask intelligence agencies to study the feasibility of forming advisory councils focused on transnational threats stemming from disease outbreaks, pandemics and other global health threats. U.S. spy agencies already are part of a Climate Security Advisory Council to look at how climate change could threaten American interests.

The legislation “includes important provisions related to global health and pandemics; the challenge posed by a rising China, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G; recruitment and retention for the workforce; and other regional priorities, including the Middle East and Afghanistan,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Among other China-related topics, the measure would ask the spy agencies to identify Chinese influence activities within the U.S. that target federal employees, researchers, scientists and students in science and technology sectors.

It also would ask the FBI to step up public awareness about China’s activities in the U.S.

On other matters, the measure would ask spy agencies to study the effect of lifting the United Nations arms embargo on Iran, and whether such a move would lead Tehran to an arms buildup in the region. The agencies also would be asked to assess Iran’s nuclear research and development activities.

On Russia, lawmakers want the CIA to examine corrupt activities of Russian and other Eastern European oligarchs who support Moscow, with a focus on drug smuggling, human trafficking and organized criminal activities.

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(c) 2020 CQ Roll Call

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