Thursday, June 17, 2021

Boys From Brazil, Now From China and More Obnoxious Than Ever

New York Post, December 2020, denouncing teh way "The Middle Kingdom is launching 'unethical' military experiments that sound fit for the superhero flick 'Captain America,' John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed." And FRANCE TOO! which "gave the go-ahead for augmented soldiers, and some fear the super troopers could be the new norm in the recent future", with "drugs to keep troops awake for long periods of time and combat stress, and even surgery to improve hearing." “There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power,” Ratcliffe proclaims, citing US intelligence. “People’s Republic of China poses the greatest threat to America today.”

I could understand, conceivably even subscribe to efforts to set up a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 over human rights issues, but the General Jack D. Ripper batshittery of Senator Tom Cotton's issue is another matter:

The senator wrote that "the CCP... considers DNA collection a vital intelligence-gathering objective" and that the Chinese government "has reportedly conducted tests to develop biologically-enhanced soldiers and intends to use DNA data to catapult Chinese biotechnology companies to global market dominance."

"In 2022, thousands of world-class athletes will gather to compete in China. Their DNA will present an irresistible target for the CCP," he warned. "Thus, we should expect that the Chinese government will attempt to collect genetic samples of Olympians at the Games, perhaps disguised as testing for illegal drugs or COVID-19."

There are actually a couple of facts embedded in there. One is that a Chinese company, the Beijing Genomics Institute, now just called BGI, is the world's the biggest genome sequence provider, after the US-based Illumina. Like others in the business, they grew up in basic research with the Human Genome Project, doing bulk sequencing and the construction of a representative genome for everybody, but sequencing individual human genomes has become more significant in recent years in a number of different ways, for medical research, patient diagnosis and care, and now also consumer use, as the price goes radically lower, with companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which don't do the sequencing themselves but send saliva samples to companies like Illumina and BGI for processing.

It's generally understood that after sending the particular analysis to the client, the provider destroys its own data file and genetic sample, but the Chinese government, which contracts genome sequencing from a number of providers, Chinese and foreign, has been amassing a massive DNA database for a couple of decades for police purposes, starting with DNA collection from a serial rape investigation in Inner Mongolia:

The impetus for the campaign can be traced back to a crime spree in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. For nearly three decades, the police there investigated the rapes and murders of 11 women and girls, one as young as 8. They collected 230,000 fingerprints and sifted through more than 100,000 DNA samples. They offered a $28,000 reward.

Then, in 2016, they arrested a man on unrelated bribery charges, according to the state news media. Analyzing his genes, they found he was related to a person who had left his DNA at the site of the 2005 killing of one of the women. That person, Gao Chengyong, confessed to the crimes and was later executed.

Mr. Gao’s capture spurred the state media to call for the creation of a national database of male DNA. The police in Henan Province showed it was possible, after amassing samples from 5.3 million men, or roughly 10 percent of the province’s male population, between 2014 and 2016. In November 2017, the Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police, unveiled plans for a national database.

Chinese authorities also say they can use the database in screening for deadly diseases. But obviously it's the Chinese government, and it's not a secret that they are interested in social control through surveillance, and especially when they focus attention on DNA testing for members of the Tibetan and Uyghur minorities it doesn't look good. Some Western equipment suppliers have pulled out of that kind of business, and scholarly journals have been discussing whether they should publish research on ethnically-based DNA research:

Two publishers of prestigious scientific journals, Springer Nature and Wiley, said this week that they would re-evaluate papers they previously published on Tibetans, Uighurs and other minority groups. The papers were written or co-written by scientists backed by the Chinese government, and the two publishers want to make sure the authors got consent from the people they studied.

It's not a hundred percent clear to me how the Chinese ability to use DNA data tied to the owners' names and addresses is any more dangerous than what the US has—the only specific thing The Times comes up with is the possibility of framing political enemies with fake DNA. I have a much clearer sense of how the data could be abused in marketing, as it evidently is by companies like 23andMe:

In an effort to appeal directly to the consumer, they offer prices for DNA sequencing and analysis services to the individual sometimes far below the feasible cost of service provided by the sequencing lab. For example, Dante Labs offers whole genome sequencing and analysis for as little as $349, whereas their DNA sequencing lab partner (BGI) offers this for $600. Therefore, Dante Labs and their contemporaries are making a significant loss in this process. However, they are able to make up for this loss as it enables them to fuel their real business model — seizing ownership and selling your data for their own profit.

If you wanted to find out whether you had Neanderthaler ancestry and you find yourself getting ads on breast cancer detection on your gmail page... Don't blame the Chinese government, blame capitalism.

But I won't dispute that whatever bad surveillance things can be done with the DNA database are more likely to be done by the Chinese government to their citizens than by ours to us. These are bad people! If there is something, they'll be willing to do it. 

What I'm not sure of is this, from NPR in February:

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.

What was the Trump administration afraid of? Why can't NPR tell us what it was? The Australian health ministry, with a similar BGI offer, didn't know either:

A spokesman for Australian health minister Greg Hunt said privacy laws covered pathology tests and patient data, and the use of BGI equipment had been approved by security agencies.

“BGI will have no access to patient information as they will not be operating the labs,” the spokesman said in a statement, with pathology companies required to comply with security agency advice on installing BGI’s technology.

“The extent of BGI’s involvement with existing Australian laboratories will be limited to the installation of COVID-19 pathology testing platforms and training of staff.”

What we see with Cotton's statement is, in fact, that he too is unable to see it. He feels the insufficiency of the narrative Republicans have given him, and feels the need for something scarier, much scarier, and moves to the genetically engineered supersoldiers, without considering that such a project, in the unlikely event that it was going to work, would take three or four generations to work through, even as war itself becomes more and more automated, and I can't even. What I'm talking about, I think, is how utterly detached our discourse is getting from any kind of arguable reality at all. It's not Cotton's fault that he's making a fool of himself with the supersoldiers and all. It's the corrosion of the reality-based discourse all around. 

Maybe I should have been talking about Tom Clancy instead of Michael Chrichton. There's some bad science going on around everywhere you turn. It's not good to live in a comic book.

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