China to create the world’s largest DNA database, says report

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on June 18, 2020

The Chinese Government is building what could potentially be the world’s largest DNA database run by the police, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The government is building this database in partnership with key industry partners from the country and abroad, the report said.

So far, its genomic dataset potentially contains over 100 million profiles. The number could be as high as 140 million, making it the world’s largest DNA database, and “it continues to grow,” ASPI said in its report.

Beginning in late 2017, the Chinese Government’s DNA collection campaigns were focused on Tibet and Xinjiang. The government had argued that the campaigns were focused on curbing criminal activity with the aim to ‘comprehensively improve public security organs and manage and control society,’ the report said.

It has since then expanded DNA collection across the country enrolling tens of millions of males, some even without informed consent. The campaign has now enrolled samples from men who have no record of criminal activity, it said.

The campaign is also using gear from a US company for sample collection. The company Thermo Fisher that has sold testing kits to the Chinese police tailored to their specifications has been criticised for its role in the DNA mapping, the New York Times reported. It is also supported by major Chinese companies like AGCU Scientific and Microread Genetics, ASPI said.

With the scale of the database, the government could track down a man’s male relatives using only his genetic material such as blood or saliva. This has raised concerns among human rights activists stating that it adds to the country’s high-level surveillance systems such as AI and facial recognition.

“The ability of the authorities to discover who is most intimately related to whom, given the context of the punishment of entire families as a result of one person’s activism, is going to have a chilling effect on society as a whole,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch as quoted by the New York Times.

The report is based on over 700 open-source documents, “including government bid tenders and procurement orders, public security bureaus’ Weibo and Weixin (WeChat) posts, domestic news coverage, social media posts, and corporate documents and promotional material.”

It documents police-led DNA data-collection campaigns in 22 of 31 China’s administrative regions (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) and across more than a hundred municipalities between late 2017 and April 2020.

Published on June 18, 2020

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