Skip to Content
Biotechnology

How US experts helped China build a DNA surveillance state

February 21, 2019

China has been leaning on American know-how to build a sprawling surveillance program in Xinjiang province, according to the New York Times

Crack down: Chinese authorities have created “a vast Chinese campaign of surveillance and oppression” targeting Uighurs, an ethnic minority who are mostly Muslims and live in the northwestern province. A comprehensive DNA database is part of the plan to keep the restive group under control.

American role: Scientists working with Chinese police have been using equipment from Thermo Fisher, a supplier of biotechnology tools in Massachusetts. They also shared genetic survey data with Kenneth Kidd, a geneticist at Yale University.

The genetic data was being used to be able to determine, from a blood sample, if someone had Uighur ancestry. Chinese scientists even filed a patent on the idea.

Backlash: Thermo Fisher’s role in China has been known for some time, thanks to reports by Human Rights Watch. In November, US Senator Marco Rubio called out the company in a tweet for “making lots of $ helping #Xinjiang authorities conduct mass detention ...” 

But the company seems to have buckled only because of scrutiny from the Times. Thermo Fisher announced on February 20 that it would stop sales of its "human identification technology" in Xinjiang, according to a statement.

Not just in China: The issue of genetic privacy is also of concern in the US, where some commercial databases of genetic information are being used by police to identify rapists and murderers. In theory, these tools could also be employed for ethnic profiling.

Deep Dive

Biotechnology

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

How do strong muscles keep your brain healthy?

There’s a robust molecular language being spoken between your muscles and your brain.

The quest to show that biological sex matters in the immune system

A handful of immunologists are pushing the field to take attributes such as sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and reproductive tissues into account.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.