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DNA collection from Chinese minority groups for biometrics research raises alarms

Categories Biometric R&D  |  Biometrics News
DNA collection from Chinese minority groups for biometrics research raises alarms

Information has emerged that the collection of DNA samples from over 200 Uyghurs and Kazakh people – each groups of marginalized ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China – for genetic sequencing technology research, was done without respect for ethical standards.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) quotes some witnesses as attesting that the concerned data subjects submitted their biometric data to the researchers under duress from the Chinese government. One of the witnesses quoted by RFA, Qelbinur Sidiq, said people had no choice but to accept instructions for the collection of their blood and saliva samples, fingerprints and retina scans. She said authorities warned that anyone who fails to participate in the biometric collection will face “severe consequences.”

Last month, UK publication The Guardian had reported that one of the said research undertakings, whose results published the DNA details of the Uyghurs and Kazkh, had been retracted following an outcry. In fact, the outlet makes reference to two retracted publications on DNA samples patterning to the Uyghurs: one in 2023 and another earlier on in 2019, both articles published by the same authors from the University of Copenhagen.

Per The Guardian, the study disclosed details of saliva and blood samples collected from a group of 203 Uyghurs and Kazakh persons.

The DNA samples were collected as part of a research to evaluate the deployment of genetic sequencing technology by U.S. biotech company Thermo Fisher. The purpose of the research, the outlet notes, was part of efforts to understand the DNA variations of people from the concerned minority groups and how that can help law enforcement agencies in identifying criminal suspects.

RFA reports that the lack of ethical approval for the collection of DNA samples was cited as reason for the retraction of the scientific article. Belgian professor Yves Moreau blames the Chinese government for collecting biometric data from several ethnic minorities in China.

Moreau says he played a front-line role in ensuring the “unethical” publication with DNA samples was deleted by the researchers, adding that he is pushing on with advocacy to ensure that other scientific publications with similar concerns are re-evaluated.

In 2019, Moreau wrote an editorial condemning the forceful collection of DNA samples in a way that enables the repression of minority ethnic groups in China. He warned then that with DNA technology becoming less costly to deploy, there could be a proliferation of DNA databases which may open up the possibility for widespread and uncontrolled surveillance of vulnerable people.

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