The Chinese government is developing technology to predict people’s physical appearance based on DNA collected from Uighurs in Xinjiang province, according to an investigation published today (December 3) by The New York Times. News of the research, which parallels work on similar technology in the US, has sparked concerns that the Uighurs’ DNA samples are being obtained without proper consent, and may be used to persecute this and other predominantly Muslim minority groups.
“What the Chinese government is doing should be a warning to everybody who kind of goes along happily thinking, ‘How could anyone be worried about these technologies?’” Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells the Times.
At least 1 million Uighurs and members of other minority groups are being held in detention centers in Xinjiang, in northwest China. The government has collected blood samples from hundreds of thousands of them—often under the guise of a mandatory health checkup, the report finds.
The material is being used to help Chinese researchers develop DNA phenotyping technology, a way of predicting somebody’s skin color, eye color, ancestry, and other features, with the goal of visually identifying them from a genetic sample alone.
Preliminary versions of DNA phenotyping have already been used in criminal investigations in the US. In 2015, South Carolina police took advantage of the technique to narrow in on a suspect’s appearance, and last year, police in Maryland used it to help identify a murderer.
DNA phenotyping techniques still aren’t very precise, but onlookers are worried that China is already planning on using the technology as a new way to control its Uighur population.
The government is developing “essentially technologies used for hunting people,” Mark Munsterhjelm, a researcher at the University of Windsor in Ontario who follows China’s interest in the approach, tells the Times. The scientific community, he adds, has “a kind of culture of complacency that has now given way to complicity.”
Among the researchers who have published on the use of Uighur DNA to predict facial appearance are scientists at institutes in Germany and the Netherlands, the report finds. Springer Nature, which has published research involving DNA from Uighurs, told the Times yesterday that it would add a note of concern to the papers about the use of data from vulnerable groups of people.
Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.