UK’s data regulator resists call to investigate China’s BGI over genomic concerns

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s data regulator has resisted calls from lawmakers to investigate the prenatal tests of a Chinese gene company over how it handles the genomic data of consumers, letters reviewed by Reuters show.

Reuters has previously reported China’s BGI Group was collecting genetic data from millions of women for research on the traits of populations using tests developed in collaboration with the country’s military.

British lawmakers from across the political spectrum had written to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to ask for an investigation into privacy concerns around genome sequencing by BGI, citing the July 2021 Reuters report into the prenatal “NIFTY” tests, which detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in a foetus.

But in a letter seen by Reuters, the ICO said the threshold of evidence to carry out an investigation had not been reached.

“We have not received any complaints from individuals concerned with how BGI Group have processed their data, and we have not received any evidence indicating that a breach has occurred,” the ICO’s letter to lawmakers said.

Opposition Labour lawmaker Taiwo Owatemi said she was “dismayed” by the decision.

“We are deeply concerned the ICO is not proactively delivering on its duty to protect the public,” she said in a letter co-signed by fellow Labour lawmaker Siobhain McDonagh.

Britain has so far not followed the likes of the United States which has added three units of BGI Group to its trade blacklist, including the Hong Kong lab where genetic samples from the prenatal tests are processed and stored.

BGI said it disagreed with the U.S trade blacklist decision, and said it “does not engage in unethical practices” and denied being involved in human rights abuses, including the surveillance of minority groups.

“Our labs internationally, including the one in Hong Kong, meet stringent standards in data security,” BGI Group said when asked for comment by Reuters about the British lawmakers’ concerns and ICO decision.

“We have never been asked to provide, nor provided, testing data to Chinese authorities for national security or national defence purposes.”

Asked to comment further on the lawmakers’ concerns, the ICO said it would “continue to engage with this issue should further information come to light” and that “international transfers of data remain a focus for the ICO”.

“In addition, we are currently reviewing genomic technologies and the novel and heightened privacy risks they pose,” an ICO spokesperson said in an emailed comment.

British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has said that Britain is considering labelling genomics as an area of “critical national infrastructure”.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Alison Williams)