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With a million or more ethnic Uighurs and others from predominantly Muslim minority groups swept up in detentions across Xinjiang, officials in Tumxuk have gathered blood samples from hundreds of Uighurs — part of a mass DNA collection effort dogged by questions about consent and how the data will be used.
In Tumxuk, at least, there is a partial answer: Chinese scientists are trying to find a way to use a DNA sample to create an image of a person's face.
The technology, which is also being developed in the United States and elsewhere, is in the early stages of development and can produce rough pictures good enough only to narrow a manhunt or perhaps eliminate suspects. But given the crackdown in Xinjiang, experts on ethics in science worry that China is building a tool that could be used to justify and intensify racial profiling and other state discrimination against Uighurs.
In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals.
Some of this research is taking place in labs run by China's Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on the technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.
[...]Sketching someone's face based solely on a DNA sample sounds like science fiction. It isn't.
The process is called DNA phenotyping. Scientists use it to analyze genes for traits like skin color, eye color and ancestry. A handful of companies and scientists are trying to perfect the science to create facial images sharp and accurate enough to identify criminals and victims.
The Maryland police used it last year to identify a murder victim. In 2015, the police in North Carolina arrested a man on two counts of murder after crime-scene DNA indicated the killer had fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, dark hair, and little evidence of freckling. The man pleaded guilty.
Despite such examples, experts widely question phenotyping's effectiveness. Currently, it often produces facial images that are too smooth or indistinct to look like the face being replicated. DNA cannot indicate other factors that determine how people look, such as age or weight. DNA can reveal gender and ancestry, but the technology can be hit or miss when it comes to generating an image as specific as a face.
Phenotyping also raises ethical issues, said Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The police could use it to round up large numbers of people who resemble a suspect, or use it to target ethnic groups. And the technology raises fundamental issues of consent from those who never wanted to be in a database to begin with.
"What the Chinese government is doing should be a warning to everybody who kind of goes along happily thinking, 'How could anyone be worried about these technologies?'" Dr. Ossorio said.
Two major world powers, the United States and China, have both collected an enormous number of DNA samples from their citizens, the premise being that these samples will help solve crimes that might have otherwise gone unsolved. While DNA evidence can often be crucial when it comes to determining who committed a crime, researchers argue these DNA databases also pose a major threat to human rights.
In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) that currently contains over 14 million DNA profiles. This database has a disproportionately high number of profiles of black men, because black Americans are arrested five times as much as white Americans. You don't even have to be convicted of a crime for law enforcement to take and store your DNA; you simply have to have been arrested as a suspect.
[...] As for China, a report that was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in mid-June claims that China is operating the "world's largest police-run DNA database" as part of its powerful surveillance state. Chinese authorities have collected DNA samples from possibly as many as 70 million men since 2017, and the total database is believed to contain as many as 140 million profiles. The country hopes to collect DNA from all of its male citizens, as it argues men are most likely to commit crimes.
DNA is reportedly often collected during what are represented as free physicals, and it's also being collected from children at schools. There are reports of Chinese citizens being threatened with punishment by government officials if they refuse to give a DNA sample. Much of the DNA that's been collected has been from Uighur Muslims that have been oppressed by the Chinese government and infamously forced into concentration camps in the Xinjiang province.
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