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.