A January 2021 study by a U.K. cybersecurity and privacy watchdog, Comparitech, found that China was the world’s worst offender for “widespread and invasive biometric data collection” out of ninety-six countries studied. The Chinese government aspires to build the world’s largest police-run DNA database. Its Made in China 2025 plan places a priority on building its biotechnology industry, which involves collecting a large number of DNA samples. The way Chinese authorities obtain DNA is often intrusive and without consent.
In a previous article, we looked at how U.S. companies’ DNA sequencing and identification technologies end up in Xinjiang despite U.S. sanctions. In this article, we will look at how China is using DNA collection to further its national goals.
China’s DNA databases include samples from children at school
Police in many countries collect DNA samples for identification purposes from people who are either suspected or convicted criminals. This data is usually stored in a non-public police database. Additionally, many countries place legal limits on the amount of time genetic information can be kept by police.
In the U.S., there has been some debate on the ethics of collecting genetic material, including the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Some have criticized CODIS as a non-random sample because it contains samples from people who have been arrested or detained by border patrol. This means male minorities are disproportionately represented in the CODIS database. Others defend the DNA databases, alongside fingerprints and photographs, as an important tool both for capturing criminals and exonerating those that have been wrongly accused. The U.S. has addressed DNA collection from suspects in at least one Supreme Court case and the Department of Justice has a policy that limits the use of genomic data for solving violent crimes.
It’s a different picture in authoritarian or neo-totalitarian* states like China where the government violates the country’s own privacy laws in the name of security and stability. The Ministry of Public Security, the Chinese government’s security arm, started its “Forensic Science DNA Database System” in the early 2000s when it launched its Golden Shield Project. By 2015, the database had more than 40 million individuals, with many people reporting that they were forced to give a DNA sample whether they had been accused of committing a crime or not. China began collecting DNA samples widely from its male population in 2017.
According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). even school children must provide DNA samples for the police database:
The Chinese Government is building the world’s largest police-run DNA database in close cooperation with key industry partners across the globe. Yet, unlike the managers of other forensic databases, Chinese authorities are deliberately enrolling tens of millions of people who have no history of serious criminal activity. Those individuals (including preschool-age children) have no control over how their samples are collected, stored and used. Nor do they have a clear understanding of the potential implications of DNA collection for them and their extended families.
Emile Dirks & Dr. James Leibold, “Genomic Surveillance” at ASPI (June 17, 2020)
Often children’s DNA is obtained while they are at school. The ASPI points out that collecting DNA samples from children for no reason violates the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child against the “arbitrary or unlawful interference with [a child’s] privacy.”
In 2019, I wrote about Chinese authorities collecting DNA samples to teach an algorithm to predict a person’s face based on their genetics. The samples were specifically used to identify members of minority groups. In the past year, several media articles have highlighted the details of the massive surveillance operation that has been going on in Xinjiang. Among those was an article in The Intercept reporting on leaked data from a police database that revealed that the so-called “Physicals for All” program was a front for collecting biometric data from Uyghurs and other minorities.
In an email conversation, Yves Moreau, an engineering professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium told me that stopping the sales of DNA equipment to all of China might be necessary to curb abuses:
Although sanctions are only targeting Xinjiang actors, ethical issues surrounding human identification extend to the whole of China. The national male Y-DNA program is a massive invasion of privacy. The national (autosomal) DNA database often targets socially undesirable groups (sex workers, drug addicts, political opponents, local petitioners, etc.). – Email correspondence, 07/08/21
In an authoritarian or neo-totalitarian regime, it is illegal to criticize the government. An activity as innocuous as posting news on social media can constitute a crime, as was the case in Wuhan during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, we know from reports by Uyghurs who have left China that the CCP will track down their family members to persuade them to return to China. China’s police-run DNA database would allow the government to trace relatives of anyone that has run afoul of the Party.
Global implications of China’s DNA databases
A recent article in Nature highlighted the Y-Chromosome Haplotype Reference Database (YHRD), a global database of anonymized male DNA samples for use in research, forensics, and identification of ancestry. However, many of the genetic profiles were likely obtained from people who did not give informed consent. Moreau told Nature that he finds it difficult to believe that Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities in an authoritarian country could give proper informed consent.
Although the YHRD is used for forensics and solving crimes, it is intended primarily for research purposes. Researchers are encouraged to publish data before submitting to the database because journals require ethics approval for using an individual’s genomic information; however compliance with the request is not monitored by the database curators. Because of the work of Moreau and others at the European Society of Human Genetics, at least two Nature papers on genetic differences between ethnic minorities in China have been retracted because of ethics concerns. Several other papers are under scrutiny.
China is exporting its authoritarian surveillance
The DNA surveillance that began in Xinjiang and Tibet around 2015 and became commonplace around the country by 2017 is only the beginning. More recently, the Chinese government has set its sights on collecting genetic data from across the globe. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at how the Chinese government has used the pandemic, prenatal tests, and cyber hacking to collect genetic information from various countries around the world.
*Former Party educator and now exile Cai Xia, wrote an essay published by the Hoover Institution on the CCP’s centennial anniversary specifying that China under the Chinese Communist Party should be considered a neo-totalitarian state: “I characterize the CCP as a new type of totalitarian system because it uses information technology, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the people twenty-four hours a day. This kind of precision surveillance, closely combined with severe repression by the police and national security departments, makes it extremely difficult for people to voice their opposition in China. Since 2013, seven friends of mine who voiced their opposition have been detained and imprisoned by the Xi regime, all on fabricated charges.”
Here’s the earlier article: U.S.-made DNA ID equipment is being sold to Xinjiang’s police
Engineering professor Yves Moreau’s research shows that a more serious approach to existing sanctions against such uses is needed. It is technically illegal for American-owned companies to sell equipment that can be used to oppress the Uyghurs but somehow the sanctions are evaded. (Heather Zeiger)
You may also wish to read: China: DNA phenotyping profiles racial minorities In the United States, targeting minorities means political pushback; in China, no such discussion is allowed. (Heather Zeiger)