Tracking DNA: China’s DNA database could have chilling future consequences

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Published: July 8, 2020 5:15 AM

Y-STRs, which are used in forensics and genealogical testing, are extremely similar among males of common paternal lineage.

While most countries do use DNA profiling for forensics, the scale at which China’s ministry of public security is doing this—expanded from its earlier DNA profiling for forensics—is unprecedented.While most countries do use DNA profiling for forensics, the scale at which China’s ministry of public security is doing this—expanded from its earlier DNA profiling for forensics—is unprecedented.

China’s facial recognition for social credits was the worst avatar of a surveillance state. But, only till a few months back. In June, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) revealed that, for several years now, China has been collecting DNA samples from its men and school-age boys, with the aim to generate genetic profiles of nearly 70 million from the country’s overall male population. The genetic data gleaned from this pool, Nature reports, can be used to construct genetic links to China’s entire male population, since the marker at the heart of this exercise are Y-chromosome’s short tandem repeats (STRs)—that is certain combinations of bases pairs (upto 6) getting repeated anywhere between 5-50 times on a chromosome. Y-STRs, which are used in forensics and genealogical testing, are extremely similar among males of common paternal lineage.

While most countries do use DNA profiling for forensics, the scale at which China’s ministry of public security is doing this—expanded from its earlier DNA profiling for forensics—is unprecedented. The other, more important difference that China’s exercise has with other countries is that the former is doing it for people without a history of crime. The collection of DNA from minority ethnic groups, people in contested regions such as Tibet have sparked worry about the true intention behind the collection of DNA in such a large scale. What’s worse, the ASPI’s massive document-dump reveals gross violations of consent and privacy, with some documents detailing how local police have expressed willingness to forcefully collect samples from subjects in their areas. From hunting dissidents, and their relatives, to identifying those who had violated the one-child norm when it was in force, the consequences for the future use of the database are chilling.

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