Genetics specialist calls for crack down on DNA databases and biometric companies enabling repression
A call to crack down on companies selling DNA-profiling technologies to customers performing human rights abuses has been made in an editorial in Nature by Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specializing in human genetics and professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium.
The use of DNA equipment by authorities in Xinjiang, and accusations of complicity on the part of researchers, technology suppliers, and others have become regular, and several high-profile Chinese companies have been placed on a restricted list by U.S. authorities.
Moreau warns, however, that with the technology becoming less expensive, other countries may be tempted to build DNA databases, and that DNA analysis can be combined with other biometrics and data analysis for pervasive surveillance.
“With stringent safeguards and oversight, it is legitimate for law-enforcement agencies to use DNA-profiling technology. But these uses can easily creep towards human-rights abuses,” Moreau says, using the inclusion of immigrant data in the U.S. CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database as an example.
Moreau urges stakeholders to divest from companies supporting abusive practices, and refers to Goldman Sachs and others divesting their Hikvision shares earlier this year. The market for DNA technology is led by providers form the U.S. and Europe, making them vulnerable to such pressures, he says. The U.S. already restricts the sale of fingerprint recognition technology, and export controls on DNA equipment could likewise restrict access by repressive regimes. Moreau also takes on the research community, noting that Springer Nature and others have published articles co-authored by Chinese police that make use of DNA data collected from Tibetans and Muslim minorities in the country.
The applicability of the Helsinki Declaration on ethical experimentation with human data to biometrics must be affirmed by the scientific community in general, Moreau argues.
Because of the concept of relatedness, by which biological relationships can be inferred, DNA surveillance can be deployed across a population with profiles of only 2 to 5 percent of the total. Consumer genomics companies already hold DNA data for an estimated 5 percent of the population, and police in Florida obtained access to one such database with a warrant earlier this year.
“All of us must beware a world in which our behavioural, financial and biometric data, including our DNA profiles, or even entire genome sequences, are available to corporations — and so potentially to law enforcers and political parties,” Moreau concludes. “Without the changes outlined here, the use of DNA for state-level surveillance could become the norm in many countries.”