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How the genomics revolution will reshape war, espionage, and tyranny...
Written by Filippa Lentzos.
The comical image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron seated at opposite ends of an otherwise empty six-meter-long table for discussions on the Ukraine crisis in early February 2022 was ostensibly due to an abundance of COVID-19 caution on the Russian side. While Macron had taken a French PCR test before leaving Paris and an antigen test issued by his doctor once he landed in Moscow, the Kremlin demanded he take an additional PCR test administered by Russian authorities. Macron’s refusal resulted in the Kremlin applying extra stringent social distancing measures, including the ridiculously long table. But why refuse the Russian test in the first place? A French aide explained: “We could not accept that they get their hands on the president’s DNA.” But what were they worried about? What does our DNA—grouped into genes on chromosomes—reveal beyond who we are related to, what we might physically look like, and what drugs might work best on us?
Are genetic data a more sophisticated way to profile foreign leaders, a more thorough way of doing political homework on their personalities, decision-making styles, their health and how long they might last in office? In a darker train of thought, could Macron’s DNA be used to, say, fabricate evidence of an affair or a love child? Or might genetic vulnerabilities lurk in Macron’s DNA that the Russian intelligence services could exploit? Is he hiding an illness or a particular condition that the GRU could threaten to expose at an opportune time of their choosing? Could Macron’s genetic makeup be used to show that he is at risk of developing some ailment or disorder in the future, casting doubt on his fitness for the presidency?
In an even more sinister scenario, could genetic data about Macron provide the basis for creating a customized or ultra-targeted biological weapon? For instance, a thought experiment published a decade ago in The Atlantic posits using a programmed DNA sequence to enable dangerous functions of an otherwise harmless virus. It imagines the harmless virus being deliberately spread among college students. When the president comes to deliver a planned speech on campus, he too is infected, but his unique DNA, programmed into the virus, unlocks a secondary function of the virus. That function could be to amplify the production of cortisol and dopamine, inducing extreme paranoia and turning a peace-seeking dove into a warmongering hawk. Or it could be to boost the production of oxytocin, the chemical likely responsible for feelings of trust, creating havoc with the president’s negotiating abilities. In a third version, it could trigger a fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produces memory loss and eventually leads to death.
It sounds like science fiction, and it is, but even so, the scenarios are technically possible. Yet, why go to such extraordinary lengths when there are simpler and more reliable methods of influencing, incapacitating, or murdering an opponent? Granted, capacities and motives for such complex operations are extremely limited, but they must still form part of a comprehensive consideration of potential security threats. After all, covert assassination attempts with highly sophisticated unconventional weaponry have historically and more recently proved to be a real threat that both Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny can attest to.
Customized biothreats are something the U.S. secret service takes seriously. In his book In the President’s Secret Service, Ronald Kessler recounts how the American president’s bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched are carefully collected and sterilized to protect his genetic material. Individual genetic data also seem to be something the U.S. government is actively interested in. A WikiLeaks stash of diplomatic cables released in 2010 and analyzed by The Guardian revealed a secret “national human intelligence collection directive.” In it, the U.S. State Department asked its diplomats in central Africa and the Middle East to not only collect the biographical information they routinely gather on key civilian, political, and military officials but also “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.” At the United Nations, U.S. diplomats had been asked to collect detailed biometric information “on key U.N. officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialized agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders.”
Tracking military personnel and intelligence operatives
It is not only presidents and other leaders whose genetic data is a potential security target. In December 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense advised military service personnel to refrain from using DNA testing kits from private companies like Ancestry and 23andMe because the information collected could pose a security risk. In a widely distributed memo, the Pentagon said the direct-to-consumer genetic tests “could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission.”
One of the principal concerns is that the genetic data could be accessed by outside parties like hostile governments and exploited to undertake mass surveillance or to track individuals without their authorization or awareness. As observed in Yahoo News, which broke the story, the genetic information could be used to track down covert operatives involved in high-level foreign military operations, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, to exact revenge: “It’s not hard to imagine a world where people are blithely sharing information online without realizing their third cousin is a Navy SEAL, or an operative of the CIA.” A former senior intelligence official, quoted in the story, said U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned about DNA testing compromising their anonymity and diminishing their ability to operate worldwide. The former official also highlighted the rise of DNA swab tests at international airports as one factor in the decline of CIA personnel using aliases while traveling abroad.
Worries about DNA tests complicating covert activities have been echoed in the United Kingdom. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, has publicly expressed concerns about Chinese biometric surveillance technology. In November 2021, for instance, he said, “Our officers need to operate invisibly to our adversaries,” but Chinese control of smartphones, apps and telecommunications networks, as well as access to vast repositories of personal information—such as data from home genetic-testing kits and biometric security at airports—have spun a “worldwide surveillance web” that makes it harder for MI6 officers to operate abroad without their names and histories being uncovered.
China’s surveillance web has been widely reported. In recent years, this surveillance has been extended to cover not just facial, voice and gait recognition to identify and track its population but also genetic data. A key target has been China’s ethnic, linguistic and religious minority populations, which have suffered mass arbitrary detentions, religious persecution, political indoctrination, and forced sterilizations. Surveillance programs for social control targeting Tibetans and Uyghurs have obtained DNA samples under the guise of free health check-ups or ‘physicals for all.’ The extracted genetic data has then been combined with high-definition photos, voiceprints, fingerprints and iris scans, and linked to personal files in police databases. Minority populations held in detention or prison have also been targeted. There have been reports that DNA from detained Tibetans and Uyghurs, as well as from interned Falun Gong practitioners, Muslims, Christians, and others, have been used in conjunction with an ‘organ harvesting’ program. In Hong Kong, since introducing a sweeping national security law in June 2020 giving Beijing power to curtail protest and freedom of speech, police have taken DNA samples from arrested demonstrators.
In 2023, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed three subsidiaries of BGI Genomics on its Entity List. Formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI Genomics is a world-leading provider of genomic sequencing services with strong links to the government and a track record of collaborating with the military. The U.S. Entity List identifies organizations and institutions with reasonable cause to believe they pose a significant risk for U.S. national security or foreign policy interests. The addition of the three BGI subsidiaries is based on information that the collection and analysis of genetic data by these entities pose a significant risk of contributing to monitoring and surveillance by the government of China and the repression of ethnic minorities. Information also indicates that their collection and analysis of genetic data present a significant risk of diversion to China’s military programs.
A significantly broader program targets the DNA of the male population. Collecting blood samples from men and boys across the country since late 2017, China has been building the world’s largest police-run DNA database to “comprehensively improve public security organs’ ability to solve cases.” Yet, unlike other forensic databases around the globe, this one deliberately enrolls tens of millions of people with no history of serious criminal activity. In 2020, the database was estimated to contain roughly 35-70 million entries, or 5-10 percent of China’s male population, including from boys in kindergarten and elementary schools. While the program is touted as a crime-buster, and it focuses on men because, statistically, men commit significantly more crimes than women, the program also enables unprecedented social control and suppression of political dissent. Database entries are being used to build multigenerational family trees, allowing the police to link any blood, saliva, or other genetic material from an unknown male back to a specific family, forcing a dissident’s family to pay the price for their relative’s activism—a cruel but effective tactic to increase the cost of resistance.
A similar genetic panopticon is being built for the female population, specifically pregnant women. BGI Genomics has developed one of the world’s most popular prenatal tests. Sold in dozens of countries to non-invasively detect genetic abnormalities in the fetus, the test is promoted as NIFTY for “Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY.” Yet, although its label emphasizes testing for the three chromosomes causing Down’s syndrome (trisomy), the test also captures other genetic information, including about the mother, which is linked with personal details such as her height, weight, and country. In one study exposed by Reuters, for example, BGI Genomics used a military supercomputer to re-analyze NIFTY data and map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics—all in the name of improving “population quality.” By July 2021, Reuters reported that more than 8 million women had taken BGI’s prenatal tests globally and that genetic data collected from tests on women outside China had been stored in China’s government-funded gene database.
Security costs of digitizing biology
Genomic science is driving a vast expansion in genomic data. This data is increasingly digitized, and computational power significantly changes how genomic data is analyzed. Integrating machine learning and A.I. computation into biology opens up new possibilities for understanding how genetic differences shape the development of living organisms, including ourselves, and how these differences make us and the rest of the world susceptible to diseases and disorders and responsive to drugs and treatments. We can put that data to good use, including for personalized diagnostics and treatments. But, used differently, personal data can also be put to nefarious uses for surveillance, tracking systems, influence programs, suppression, and even targeted weapons.
We know that the openness, interconnectedness, and digitalization of Western democratic states are being exploited. Sophisticated legal and illegal tools are adopted to tap into Western innovation ecosystems, including those around cutting-edge genetic- and biotechnologies. Geneticists and life scientists are not blind to these security risks or the risks of working with the wrong people. Nobody wants to be caught in inappropriate partnerships, sharing confidential data, or supporting repression. Yet few scientists believe that the risks apply to their area of research.
The window of opportunity to minimize risks to humanity, security, and stability posed by advances in biology and A.I. is quickly closing. Advances in computational biology and collections of our genetic data are moving at warp speed. We urgently need to build networks, knowledge, and capacity to contemplate and respond to these risks and to foster bold ideas to re-envision responsible bio innovation for the future.
Filippa Lentzos is a Reader in Science & International Security, with a joint appointment in the Department of War Studies and in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London. She leads several research projects and directs the MA in Science & Internal Security. Filippa is a columnist at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and an Editor of the social science journal BioSocieties.