China ramps up nationwide biometric data collection

Categories Biometrics News  |  Surveillance

China has started collecting citizen’s DNA to allegedly build a male DNA database, a biometric collection scheme that human rights activists fear may be a strategic tactic in the government’s surveillance program, reports RFA.

According to online official records, local governments across China are purchasing a high number of medical kits and tools for DNA collection at an individual budget of 10 million yuan (U.S.$1.4 million). While some authorities chose to work with Chinese contractors, the report notes most opted for a collaboration with U.S. biotech firm Thermo Fisher.

In March 2019, fearing its products were being used in unintended ways and following concerns expressed by US senator Marco Rubio, Thermo Fisher said it would no longer sell its technology to China and would further investigate the possible misuse of its technology.

When asked about the reasons behind the massive biometric collection operation, authorities’ answers vary. Some responded that the data is used to build a database of family trees based on male relatives, a notice from Feidong police reads the program was initiated by the Communist Party, and other provinces claim the data is used to locate missing people and to increase police efficiency. In the province of Gungdong, DNA collection has been conducted on newborn babies since 2018 in order to emit an electronic birth certificate with DNA bar codes.

According to New York-based human right group HRW, China is already collecting DNA from its citizens through its annual physical exam.

“The mandatory data banking 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,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in 2018, following an investigative report.

“Chinese authorities seem to think they can achieve ‘social stability’ by placing people under a microscope, but these abusive programs are more likely to deepen hostility towards the government,” said Richardson.

China analyst Willy Lam believes the government will use the information by combining it with artificial intelligence, other biometric technology, such as facial recognition, and the social credit system to design a nationwide surveillance operation.

After the use of biometric data registered an exponential growth in China, lawmakers began drafting a new data privacy law to protect personal information, and biometric data in particular.

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