Carmichael warns of “Cambridge Analytica”-style threat in genomics and national security debate

8 Mar 2023

Orkney and Shetland MP and Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, has today led the first ever parliamentary debate on genomics and national security. In the debate Mr Carmichael highlighted the enormous potential benefits and risks from genomic research, and warned that lack of interest and regulatory action could lead to a repeat of scandals such as those around data firm Cambridge Analytica caused by under-regulation of data.

Mr Carmichael further highlighted the dangers of misuse of genomics by bad actors, and the potential danger of firms linked to the Chinese state having access to UK genomics data. Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman suggested in his response that genomics firm BGI had attempted to hack Genomics England multiple times.

Speaking in the debate Mr Carmichael said:

“Genomics is a great British success story and the opportunities for further advancement in the future are phenomenal. Genomic research has transformed healthcare. The industry is already worth billions and it will only grow.

“Where there are opportunities, there are also risks. Consider what happened in recent years in relation to data protection. Regulation of data use was essentially analogue in a world that had gone digital, and it was therefore possible for a company such as Cambridge Analytica to take advantage of poor regulation and to build a business model that was all about the manipulation of opinion.

“If the Minister wants a bit of entertaining bedtime reading, I recommend Chris Wylie’s book—forgive the vulgarity—“Mindf*ck”, about the Cambridge Analytica model. If we do not learn the lessons of data capture and data protection, we risk the same things happening in genomics and national security.

“Genomic research could be deployed to widen global health inequalities, curtail human rights, and threaten global peace and stability. There is a spectrum of threat involved. Genomics is the next frontier in surveillance for repressive regimes such as China, and in 2022, the Citizen Lab found that since 2016 the Chinese Government had been conducting mass DNA campaigns to intensify state repression and control.

“More attention needs to be paid to the work of the Chinese gene giant, the BGI Group. BGI is one of a large number of Chinese state-linked companies that have been implicated in the repression of Uyghurs. It has a lengthy history of collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, and is just one example of a company that should not be operating without constraint within our institutions.

“Genomics is a new front in the defence of the realm. As far as I am able to tell, there have been no cross-departmental discussions at Cabinet level about the involvement of China and its state-linked companies in the UK genomics and bionomics sector. That has got to change.

“It defies belief that genomics is not already included in [critical national infrastructure]. There must be no trade-off between research success and the promotion of our democratic values and adherence to standards of human rights.”

Responding, the Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman said:

“BGI is clearly one of those danger points in the ecosystem. I share with the House the fact that, in 2014, I was wheeled out to give a speech on the occasion of the visit of President Xi to the Guildhall. When President Xi and then Prime Minister Cameron were wheeled in, I was speaking to around 1,000 Chinese delegates about Genomics England. I had been prepared to pay tribute to the work of BGI when my officials pointed out that at that point Genomics England was suffering several hack attacks from BGI each week. That was a wake-up call for all of us.

“We are well aware that we have to manage such risks properly. On that point, I commissioned and have literally just received from UKRI a detailed assessment of all the China research and innovation links across our system. I have passed that through to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security. He and I, and our officials, will go through it shortly in detail.

“The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about critical national infrastructure that I will pick up in the economic security cabinet. It is a point that I have made in connection with another bit of our science infrastructure. We all recognise that the threats now mean that we need to think about the value of other infrastructure. I will come back to him on that.”

Reacting after the debate Mr Carmichael said:

“The suggestion by the minister that BGI has attempted to hack Genomics England is deeply concerning. If correct we have to ask why the government would provide public sector contacts to a company that it knows is trying to steal sensitive information. This has exposed alarming vulnerabilities and shows exactly why we need an urgent review into the research partnerships BGI holds with UK universities. It also raises serious questions on why the Government has not already warned universities about the risks BGI poses.”