Genomic surveillance: inside China’s DNA dragnet
17 Jun 2020| and

China’s government is building the world’s largest police-run DNA database in close cooperation with key international industry partners. Yet, unlike the managers of other forensic databases, the authorities in Beijing are deliberately enrolling tens of millions of people, including preschool-age children, who have no history of serious criminal activity. Those 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.

Our ASPI report, Genomic surveillance: inside China’s DNA dragnet, 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.

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. DNA collection occurs in a range of places including schools, streets, shops and village offices.

In Tunliu County in Shanxi Province, authorities set out to collect blood samples from 36,000 men and boys, or roughly 26% of the county’s male population, while 40,000 samples were collected from the roughly 300,000 male residents in the Xian’an District of Xianning, Hubei Province. More disturbing still is the compulsory collection of samples from children in kindergartens and elementary schools—more than 1,500 in a single town in Fujian Province.

In none of these cases is data collected as part of an active forensic investigation. Nor are any of the targeted men or boys identified as criminal suspects or as relatives of potential offenders. Efforts to include innocent civilians in forensic databases in other countries, including the UK and Kuwait, were deemed gross violations of privacy and eventually abandoned. In sharp contrast, China’s authoritarian system makes police requests for samples impossible to refuse.

China’s program appears to be part of larger efforts to deepen social control and develop multimodal biometric profiles of individual citizens, including retinal scans, fingerprints and vocal recordings. When completed, it could allow police to connect biometric data from any unknown sample to personal information.

In China, there’s no division between policing crime and suppressing political dissent. A national database containing the genetic information of tens of millions of citizens is a clear expansion of already extensive surveillance and will only increase the Chinese state’s power to undermine human rights.

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. They include Chinese companies like Forensic Genomics International, Beijing Hisign Technology, AGCU Scientific and Microread Genetics, which have sold Y-STR testing kits or Y-STR databases to local public security bureaus across China.

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.’

The company says its VeriFiler Plus and Yfiler Platinum PCR amplification kits were created in direct response to the Ministry of Public Security’s need for enhanced discriminatory capacity tailored to China’s ethnic make-up. Such kits are a key to the program and have been purchased by local public security bureaus across China.

The genomic surveillance program violates Chinese domestic law and 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.

The Chinese government and police must end the compulsory collection of biological samples from individuals without records of serious criminal wrongdoing, destroy all samples already collected, and remove all DNA profiles not related to casework from police databases. China must also enact stringent restrictions on the collection, storage, use and transfer of human genomic data.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy should urgently investigate the program for violations of international law and norms. Foreign governments must strengthen export controls on biotechnology and related intellectual property and research data that is sold to or shared with the Chinese government and its domestic public and private partners.

Chinese and multinational companies should conduct due diligence and independent audits to ensure that their forensic DNA products and processes are not being used in ways that violate the human and civil rights of Chinese citizens.