U.S. DNA firm Thermo Fisher reportedly still helping China tamp unrest, crime

Categories Biometrics News  |  Surveillance

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Researchers in Australia allege that biometric technology from a U.S. firm is still being used in China to indiscriminately catalog and trace tens of millions of Chinese citizens — including religious and political minorities.

Critics of the regime maintain that the mounting national database is being used for persecution and intimidation on an unprecedented scale. Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., the bioinformation firm in question, has been the target of a campaign to choke off biometrics innovation flowing into China.

Indeed, Thermo Fisher executives in February 2019 appeared to bow to the pressure, saying they would no longer sell DNA database products in the country’s Xinjian Province. But the company allegedly still has dealings with the Ministry of Public Security, the overarching police bureaucracy in China.

A new report by the non-partisan, independent Australia Strategic Policy Institute says it is unclear how much distance they actually have put between themselves and the dictatorial Chinese government led by President Xi Jinping. All evidence (in the report and elsewhere) indicates that Xi’s appetite for biometric surveillance is far from satisfied.

Thermo Fisher, according to the report, employs 5,000 in China. It raised 10 percent of its $25 billion in 2019 revenue there.

The company has at least one insider at a Chinese startup involved in the nation’s mass biometric surveillance infrastructure. Zheng Weiguo, a former executive of a Thermo Fisher affiliate, is the founder of the Chinese firm AGCU Scientech Inc., which makes Y-STR analysis kits used in the male-DNA campaign.

Y-STR is a unique sequence occurring on the male chromosome, and a key factor in an ambitious DNA collection project aimed at male citizens, detailed below.

Thermo Fisher employees were part of a forensic-science conference in China in November 2017. That was one week before the nation began an ongoing effort, effectively, to trace every boy and man inside its borders — 700 million people — by collecting and analyzing their DNA.

The report states that a Thermo Fisher researcher presented at the show. Zhong Chang reportedly described two of the firm’s amplification kits as “having been created in direct response to the Ministry of Public Security.”

A third amplification kit, according to the report, “was developed specifically to identify the genotypes of Uyghur, Tibetan and Hui ethnic minorities,” all communities officially scorned as disloyal or dangerous.

The institute says the three kits have been “instrumental” to the massive collection campaign begun in 2017 seeking samples from 70 million boys and men. Males have been targeted because they commit the majority of crimes, including political misdeeds.

Thermo Fisher’s work to create the kits has raised potent questions of corporate ethics. And, while the company probably has limited liability when it comes to how China gets consent from citizens, Thermo Fisher might still be smudged by association. It is at least an interesting question to ask if someone in an authoritarian state can freely consent to anything.

China’s documented efforts at collecting DNA samples leads the report’s authors, Emile Dirks and James Leibold, to conclude that “Chinese authorities could achieve genetic coverage for nearly all men and boys.”

The nation’s public security ministry started a forensic DNA database in 2003 using samples taken from criminal suspects and offenders. Within 10 years, average people not involved in the criminal justice system found themselves subject to contribution upon demand.

In 2013, Beijing began taking DNA material under allegedly deceptive pretenses from all 3 million people living in Tibet, a formerly free central Asian nation taken over by China in the 1950s. Apparently encouraged by that success, the dictatorial national government began collecting biometric samples in 2016 from nearly all 23 million residents of its Xinjiang autonomous region.

Tibet has a relatively small but strident independence movement, and suffers periodic self-immolations by anti-China protesters. Xinjiang is home to the Muslim Uyghur community, thousands of members of which live in industrial-scale detention camps.

To date, however, Henan Province might be the site of China’s most successful DNA collection campaign — and the effort that experts point to when they say that the nation could cover almost all males.

Since 2017, officials of the developing backwater have “achieved 98.17 percent genetic coverage” of the region’s males by getting samples from 10 percent of the males, from which detailed patrilineal family trees can be drawn.

As with Tibet and Xinjiang campaigns, the authorities chose Henan for political reasons.

The province is considered the birthplace of China, but it is restive. Martial law was declared in 2004, riots were reported after friction with the government in 2009, and more riots erupted over COVID-19 travel restrictions this year.

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