China expands biometric collection program in Xinjiang

Authorities in China’s Xinjiang region are gathering DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from all residents between ages 12 and 65, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports.

Some of the data is being collected under a program “Physicals for All,” which provides free annual medical examinations.

Biometric data is also being collecting from those considered a threat to stability, known as “focus personnel,” and their families, regardless of their age. Previously, all passport applicants in the region have been required to submit biometric data.

“Xinjiang authorities should rename their physical exams project ‘Privacy Violations for All,’ as informed consent and real choice does not seem to be part of these programs,” said HRW China director Sophie Richardson. “The mandatory databanking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms, and it’s even more disturbing if it is done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free health care program.”

An official document describing the program is available from a website for the city of Aksu, under the title “The [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous] Region Working Guidelines on the Accurate Registration and Verification of Population,” HRW says. An unofficial translation of the document is available at the HRW website.

The program appears to have begun in mid-2017, with the stated goals of enabling scientific decision-making, poverty alleviation, better management, and social stability. HRW says the blood type data and sampled for DNA collection are sent to the police under the Physicals for All program, but it is unclear whether program participants are informed of the storage and use of the personal data.

The DNA sequencers used in the program are supplied by US-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, and HRW calls on the company to investigate the misuse of its products.

In November HRW called on China to shut down its “police cloud,” which includes personal and biometric data.

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