Imagine a future where America’s biggest rival--the Chinese Communist Party--holds much of your personal information and data, including your faceprint, voiceprint, and even your DNA. This could soon become a reality. For some of us, it likely is already.
Recent news has demonstrated that the Biden Administration along with European countries are concerned about an increasingly aggressive communist China. But much of the focus on China has been on topics such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Uighurs, an oppressed minority population inside China.
These are not easy problems to solve, nor do they affect most Americans. Much more concerning to the average American should be that the Chinese government has been quietly seeking data on individual citizens. Fortunately, this problem is easier to address.
One of the largest threats to American citizens’ privacy is the widely popular app TikTok, owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. TikTok is “tightly controlled” by its ByteDance and ByteDance has full access to TikTok’s user data, according to a recent report from CNBC.
TikTok’s ability to harvest biometric information of Americans should be a major concern because of the rise of “deep fake” videos, videos that imitate a person very realistically. Just look up the Tom Cruise deep fakes that made the news in February--they appeared on TikTok--and you’ll see that it’s impossible to distinguish between the fake and the real thing.
Those Tom Cruise videos were made by one person. What could an entire government do?
TikTok now has access to the faces and voices of millions of Americans. In the wrong hands, these faces and voices could be used to make a “deep fake” video.
This unleashes numerous possibilities for blackmail and humiliation, as well as the possibility of the creation of a database of American citizens with their faces and voices matched to other personal information. Chinese spies could target politicians and business executives and demand votes, money, or technology--or else they’ll release a deep fake of the target, or the target’s kids, saying or doing something horrible. In the age of instant judgment on the Internet, that’s a powerful weapon.
If that wasn’t bad enough, U.S. officials warn the Chinese government is collecting Americans’ DNA, too.
A National Counterintelligence and Security Center report explains that 15 Chinese companies are “licensed to perform genetic testing… in the U.S. healthcare system, giving them direct access to the genetic data of patients in the U.S.” Chinese companies must share the data they have with the government under Chinese law..
DNA that you give to an ancestry company could be resold to others, including the Chinese. Then there are Trojan Horses. A Chinese biotech firm approached state officials early during the pandemic and offered “technical expertise” and Covid tests. Authorities wisely turned down the “gift.”
As with biometric data, DNA in the wrong hands opens the possibility of extortion. A lot of conditions have a genetic component, such as alcoholism. Such information would be gold to foreign spies targeting VIPs.
Worse, concerns about the use of genetic information to create bioweapons are growing. Cambridge University researchers in 2019 warned that “a bio-weapon could be built to target a specific ethnic group based on its genomic profile.”
Only a few states have biometric privacy laws in place, and there is a lack of federal regulation governing DNA privacy. Meanwhile, President Biden rejected President Trump’s approach to addressing TikTok’s data threat, which would have forced the app to be sold to Americans if it wanted to operate here.
The Chinese government is advancing every day. President Biden must act quickly. He should enact executive orders that enforce strict rules on data collection and ban Chinese companies from genetic testing in the U.S. as long as China’s law requiring their companies to share data is in place.
China’s power is on the rise, and if America desires to remain the world’s superpower, then it must protect its citizen’s private data.
Will Coggin is the managing director of the American Security Institute.