Scientists in China may be experimenting with DNA for the wrong reasons.
In the Xinjiang region of China officials have collected blood samples from hundreds of Uighurs in an effort to gather a mass reserve of DNA. By doing so, scientists are hoping to eventually create a refined, digital image of a person’s face. The technology, which is also being developed in the United States, is in the early stages of development and will reportedly be used by law enforcement.
At this point, the program can only produce pictures clear enough to help authorities narrow down potential suspects in a manhunt. However, critics claim Chinese scientists may be creating a device to justify racial profiling against Uighurs. Eventually, they argue, the Communist government may be able to and images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems.
In a letter published in Science Today, a group of Chinese American scientists say recent proposals from the National Institutes of Health and FBI actions could lead to unjust targeting of Chinese scientists.
“The letter on behalf of Chinese scientists raises valid and important issues that have major implications, not only for the Chinese scientists directly affected, but also for the US’s standing as a global leader of scientific knowledge production and the US universities where they work,” Jenny Lee, an educational policy and practice researcher at the University of Arizona, said.
“If this continues, we’re going to see changes in the populations that we have on our campuses,” added Wayne Mowery, an export-compliance officer at Pennsylvania State University in State College and chair of the Association of University Export Control Officers.
However, Steven Pei, a physicist at the University of Houston contended, “We don’t have enough information to make the call on whether there is racial profiling going on or not, but there is concern”
At least two Chinese scientists working with China’s Ministry of Public Security have received research funding for from well-known European institutions. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA collected. In papers, the Chinese scientists said they “followed norms set by international associations of scientists,” but many residents of Xinjiang are not given a have choice of whether or not to consent. The government collects samples when performing supposed mandatory health checkups, according to Uighurs. Under a program branded “physicals for All,” Uyghurs ages 12 to 65 in the Xinjiang region are required to submit to a physical exam involving drawing blood samples, taking fingerprints, and completing iris scans and voice recordings.
Amina Abduwayit, 38, originally from Urumqi, remembers being called into the police station and having her face scanned. “It was like a monkey show,” she said. “They would ask you to stare like this and that. They would ask you to laugh, and you laugh, and ask you to glare and you glare.”
According to a 2014 research paper’s abstract in the Forensic Science journal, Chinese scientists previously used genome-wide association studies to determine a person’s geographic ancestry, potentially for the same purposes as gathering the DNA. “This [genetic] panel provided accurate estimates of individual ancestry proportions with balanced discriminatory power among the three continental ancestries: Africans, Europeans, and East Asians. It also proved very effective in evaluating admixed populations living in joint regions of continents (e.g., Uyghurs and Indians) and discriminating some sub-populations within each of the three continents. – Developing a novel panel of genome-wide ancestry informative markers for bio-geographical ancestry estimates.”