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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.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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