While China may be the global leader in facial and voice recognition technology, the United States leads in DNA sequencing and analysis. One difference is that the U.S. uses DNA to identify criminals. The Chinese government has broader ambitions; it seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.
DNA analysis has a thought-provoking history even in the United States. In 2018 police identified Joseph James DeAngelo as the infamous Golden State Killer. He was wanted for a string of crimes, including numerous murders and rapes throughout the 1970s and 1980s but it was a cold case when investigators re-opened it in 2016. Using data from direct-to-consumer DNA kits that his family members had uploaded to a website, they were able to link DeAngelo to the DNA found at the crime scenes.
The way the case was resolved is not without its critics, particularly around issues of privacy and consent. When DeAngelo’s relatives uploaded their genetic data to a genealogy website called GED Match, they did not realize that this now-publicly available data could be used by law enforcement to match the crime-scene DNA to a relative.
In the U.S., a person must consent to an analysis of their genetic profile. DeAngelo’s family, in a sense, provided consent when they uploaded their information to GED Match, although as we’ve seen with Google and other outlets, “consent” is loosely applied. At least for now, innocent people in the U.S. are not required to provide a DNA sample for a large-scale forensics database. Things are rather different in China.
China is using DNA as a racial marker
It’s one thing to use DNA to identify dangerous criminals. It’s quite another to use it to track people who have not committed a crime. And it is particularly insidious when used to identify and oppress a specific people group.
China intends to create a nation-wide DNA database, ostensibly to help catch criminals, just as law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have done with cold cases like the Golden State Killer. However, China has published papers and filed patents on methods of identifying members of minority groups based on their DNA. According to Chinese authorities, ethnicity markers will be used to fight terrorism.
According to a 2014 research paper’s abstract, Chinese scientists have used genome-wide association studies to determine a person’s geographic ancestry.
This [genetic] panel provided accurate estimates of individual ancestry proportions with balanced discriminatory power among the three continental ancestries: Africans, Europeans, and East Asians. It also proved very effective in evaluating admixed populations living in joint regions of continents (e.g., Uyghurs and Indians) and discriminating some subpopulations within each of the three continents. – Developing a novel panel of genome-wide ancestry informative markers for bio-geographical ancestry estimates Jia, Jing et al. Forensic Science International: Genetics, Volume 8, Issue 1, 187 – 194 (paywall)
And a New York Times article by Sui-Lee Wee outlined in February how American DNA sequencing technology has helped China realize its surveillance ambitions: “In patent applications filed in China in 2013 and 2017, ministry researchers described ways to sort people by ethnicity by screening their genetic makeup. They took genetic material from Uighurs and compared it with DNA from other ethnic groups.”
The 2017 patent specifically mentions how genetic screening will help with “inferring the geographical origin from the DNA of suspects at crime scenes.”
Who supplies the equipment and materials?
The Chinese government purchased over $1 billion worth of equipment from Thermo Fischer Scientific, one of the largest suppliers of lab equipment and genetic technologies. When Thermo Fischer was alerted to how the Chinese police were using their technology, namely to identify minority groups, such as the Uyghur, the Tibetans, and the Han, to their credit, the company stopped selling their products to China [*see update below].
But technology wasn’t the only thing China got from America. China also acquired genomic data from the 1000 Genomes Project, an open-source bank of genetic profiles from various global regions. And it collaborated with Kenneth Kidd from Yale School of Medicine and Bruce Budowle from the University of North Texas, neither of whom was aware that the information from their collaboration with Chinese ministry researchers was being used to track minority groups.
Here’s what happened: Dr. Kidd pioneered research that uses genetic data to identify the geographic region a person is from. The ministry promised Kidd DNA samples from the Uyghurs, among other groups, in exchange for his lab’s expertise and DNA data. Dr. Kidd needed to fill in some of the gaps in his Allele Frequency Database, which provides genetic information on various people groups across the globe. According to the New York Times, Dr. Kidd had simply assumed that the Chinese ministry researcher that worked in his lab at Yale obtained consent for use of the Uyghurs’ DNA.
Physicals for All!
Under a program branded “physicals for All,” the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region were required to submit to a physical examination that involved drawing blood samples and taking fingerprints, as well as iris scans and voice recordings. But this particular physical didn’t measure typical health items like kidney function or cholesterol.
In fact, some Uyghur people were just ordered to go to the police station to provide blood samples without the guise of obtaining a free physical:
[Amina] Abduwayit [a businesswoman who used to live in Urumqi] was also asked to give DNA and blood samples to the police. This was part of a larger, comprehensive campaign by the Chinese government to build a biometric picture of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and help track those deemed nonconformists. “The police station was full of Uyghurs,” Abduwayit says. “All of them were there to give blood samples.”Isabel Cockerell, “Inside China’s Massive Surveillance Operation” at Wired
Another Uyghur man who had been through for his “free health check,” which involved taking his blood, facial scans, and voice recordings, asked to see his results. He was told that he didn’t have the right to ask for his health data and that if he wanted to ask more questions, he could go to the police.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that the Xinjiang authorities were in the process of collecting DNA, blood type, fingerprints, and iris scans of everyone in the province between the ages of 12 and 65. Previously, only those who wanted a passport had to submit biometric data. By the end of 2017, over 36 million people took part in the “Physicals for All.”
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch says the “Physicals for All” is a misnomer:
Xinjiang authorities should rename their physical exams project ‘Privacy Violations for All,’ as informed consent and real choice does not seem to be part of these programs…The mandatory databanking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms, and it’s even more disturbing if it is done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free health care program.“China: Minority Region Collects DNA from Millions” at Human Rights Watch
Since 2017, China has implemented several programs to obtain DNA from its citizens, and as some have said, from neighboring countries so that eventually the Chinese authorities will have a biometric database of as many people as possible. Observers are keenly interested in just how that database will be used.
- Updated: Professor Yves Moreau in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Leuven has pointed out that Thermo Fisher did not stop selling DNA sequencing materials to the Xinjiang province until after the company was pressured by the media and several U.S. Senators. “But more importantly,” Professor Moreau says, “Thermo Fisher has only committed to stop sales of their human identification products in Xinjiang, NOT across China.” He says that while this is an important announcement because a company has acknowledged their responsibility for how their product is being used by their customers, the announcement is meaningless since their products can be transferred throughout the country. “Thermo Fisher has presented absolutely no plan of how it would ensure its technology is not misused by Chinese authorities.”
Further reading on data privacy:
Google is collecting data on schoolkids. Some say it’s okay because the firm supplies a lot of free software and hardware to schools.
Many parents ignore the risks of posting kids’ data online. The lifelong digital footprint, which starts before birth, makes identity theft much easier.
Featured image: DNA in the hand/MG, Adobe Stock