Inside China’s DNA dragnet
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The report details how, in late 2017, China’s Ministry of Public Security began a national campaign of compulsory DNA data collection on an astounding scale.
We estimate that, since late 2017, the authorities have sought to collect DNA samples from 5–10% of China’s male population, or roughly 35–70 million people.
China’s total forensic DNA database likely contains more than 100 million profiles, and possibly as many as 140 million, and it continues to grow.
Targeted individuals have no control over how their samples are collected, stored and used. Nor do they have a clear understanding of the potential implications of DNA collection for themselves and their extended families.
In contrast to earlier DNA collection programs in Tibet and Xinjiang, authorities are collecting samples from selected male citizens across China.
This targeted approach gathers Y-STR data—the ‘short tandem repeat’ or unique DNA sequences that occur on the male (Y) chromosome.
When these samples are linked to multigenerational family trees created by the police, they could link any DNA sample from an unknown male back to a specific family and even an individual.
Drawing on more than 700 sources, we document hundreds of police-led DNA collection sorties in 22 of China’s 31 administrative regions (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) and across more than a hundred municipalities between late 2017 and April 2020.
In none of these cases is data collected as part of an active forensic investigation. Nor are any of the targeted individuals identified as criminal suspects or as relatives of potential offenders.
More disturbing still is the compulsory collection of DNA samples from children in kindergartens and elementary schools.
In sharp contrast, China’s authoritarian system makes police requests for samples impossible to refuse.
When completed, it could allow police to connect biometric data from any unknown sample to personal information.
The corporate world is profiting handsomely from this new surveillance program.
Leading Chinese and multinational companies have provided the Chinese police with equipment and intellectual property to collect, store and analyse DNA samples.
Among the multinational companies participating is the US-based biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific, which has boasted, ‘In China, our company is providing immense technical support for the construction of the national DNA database, and has already helped to build the world’s largest DNA database.’
Such kits are a key to the program and have been purchased by local public security bureaus across China.
China’s unprecedented genomic surveillance program not only violates Chinese domestic law but also international human rights norms, including the UN Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the UN International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.