China Is Building The Ultimate Surveillance Tool: A DNA Database Of Every Adult Resident In Troubled Xinjiang Region

from the purely-for-scientific-decision-making,-of-course dept

It’s no secret that the two regions most affected by China’s strict controls are Tibet and Xinjiang, the vast and troubled Western region where the turkic-speaking Uyghurs form the largest ethnic group. Earlier this year, we wrote about one fairly extreme surveillance technique in Xinjiang: a requirement for every vehicle there to be fitted with a tracking device. Now Human Rights Watch reports that an even more intrusive surveillance measure is being implemented for the region’s 24 million inhabitants:

Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65, Human Rights Watch said today. This campaign significantly expands authorities’ collection of biodata beyond previous government efforts in the region, which only required all passport applicants in Xinjiang to supply biometrics.

For so-called “focus personnel” — those individuals that the authorities consider a threat to political stability — the biometrics will be taken from everyone in their family, regardless of age. Here’s what all that highly-personal information from the “Population Registration Program” will be used for, according to the Chinese government:

Authorities state that the Population Registration Program is meant for “scientific decision-making” that promotes poverty alleviation, better management, and “social stability.” Authorities have offered the annual Physicals for All program since 2016, characterizing it as a benefit for the relatively economically poor region. The program’s stated goals are to improve the service delivery of health authorities, to screen and detect for major diseases, and to establish digital health records for all residents. Press reports about Physicals for All include testimonies from participants describing how they received treatments for previously undiagnosed illnesses, and in some cases saving their lives.

Who could possibly object to such a well-intentioned health initiative? But as Human Rights Watch emphasizes:

Coercing people to give blood samples, or taking blood samples without informed consent or justification can violate an individual’s privacy, dignity, and right to bodily integrity; it can also in some circumstances constitute degrading treatment. Compelled DNA sampling of an entire region or population for purposes of security maintenance is a serious human rights violation in that it cannot be justified as necessary or proportionate.

It would be naïve to think that the authorities won’t use this massive DNA database in order to increase their surveillance of the Uyghur population. DNA is the ultimate identity number. It is present in nearly every cell in the body; it is difficult to change in a non-random way unless you have lots of money and top-flight CRISPR scientists at your disposal — unlikely in the case of Xinjiang residents; and we leave it everywhere we go, and on everything we touch. DNA also has the virtue — for the authorities — that it provides information about related individuals, since they all have some of their genetic code in common. That means it would be possible to determine everyone in the close family of a someone under investigation, by finding related DNA sequences. It’s the kind of information that could be abused by the police in multiple ways.

As well as concerns about the human rights of Uyghurs being harmed, another issue is that Xinjiang’s Population Registration Program may be used as a trial before rolling out DNA collection to the entire Chinese adult population, just as is happening with a national facial recognition database. Although such a large-scale genetic database would have been infeasible a few years ago, advances in sequencing and dramatic falls in data storage and processing costs mean that it could probably be built now. And if China goes down this route, the fear has to be other countries will follow, just as they are doing in the realm of online surveillance.

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Comments on “China Is Building The Ultimate Surveillance Tool: A DNA Database Of Every Adult Resident In Troubled Xinjiang Region”

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Anonymous Coward says:

wont be long then before the USA, UK,EU and every other nation that has condemned China in the past for it’s total spying regime and complete lack of human rights for it’s citizens, will be doing the same, possible even buying the ‘tools’ from China!!
1939-lets go to war against Germany and stop the oppression and wiping out of everything we hold dear, as well as the wanton killing of countless innocent souls, just so 75 years down the road we can do it instead!
what a bunch of hypocritical assholes we have in charge of the Planet! all with nothing else on their minds except personal gain and enslaving humanity!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

won’t be long?

USA had it BEFORE china.

there are dna, fingerprint, and other biometric databases in the USA, there is also rampant spying and an active police state where you can be criminally charged and put away for laws that are secret to the citizens that you cannot defend yourself from because “national security”.

The USA only taught the world how to Dictator better and they damn sure noticed!

Anonymous Coward says:

U.S. is Ultimate model

“And if China goes down this route, the fear has to be other countries will follow …”

The U.S. government is way ahead of China on DNA surveillance.

Biggest DNA database is in the United States — the FBI’s “Combined DNA Index System” (CODIS”, with information on over 12 million people. FBI claims it’s just data on convicted and indicted felons, but we know from Snowden that the Federal government eagerly gathers every bit of surveillance data that it can reach. State and local police agencies have already been caught buying DNA databases from Ancestry.Com … submitted by many average citizens seeking genealogical data on themselves.

You can be sure the dark side of Federal agencies are efficiently building a DNA database on the entire American population.

Mike Coles (profile) says:

The US already has a vehicle tracking system

Cameras are being placed around the US with the purpose tracking vehicle locations. The transmitters we carry with us are already used to estimate commuting times which is calculated by location change correlated to the time difference. In the corporate world, if you use xfinitywifi, Comcast knows when you pass by any location they’re using for “mobile wifi” a.k.a. tracking stations. The cell companies know generally where you are.

China is bold and brazen with openly tracking, but it goes on in the US as well, just disguised as a convenience.

Tifano says:

Re: The US already has a vehicle tracking system

The system developed by Isvision will use an algorithm developed by SeetaTech, a start-up established by several researchers from the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

As coles said SeetaTech confirmed to the SCMP its involvement in the national facial recognition project but declined to comment further.

Aaron Walkhouse (profile) says:

Human Rights Watch has forgotten a vital point:

“Human Rights” is a relatively new concept and Mao’s type of
communism arose before this concept could spread into China.

Their laws, policies and social norms simply never had it.

Chinese millennials may know the theory but it’s irrelevant
now that Xi Jinping has crowned himself the new Mao-emperor.

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