Home Science

China using DNA to map faces — and it’s getting help from the west

Ethicists and critics are worried China’s surveillance programs are becoming more and more sophisticated and intrusive with the help of DNA samples and new facial recognition technologies.

According to the New York Times, China is getting help from the West. The story notes that officials have gathered samples from hundreds of Uighurs as part of a mass DNA collection effort.

Scientists are worried how the DNA samples will be used. There are more than one million Uighurs and other minority groups in detention camps right now. The Uighurs are a predominately ethnic Muslim minority group that China has accused of terrorism against the state.

The NYT report notes that there is already a partial answer as to how China could use the DNA samples. Chinese scientists are in the process of trying to discover how to use the DNA samples to create an image of a person’s face.

Apparently the technology is being developed with funding and help from Western institutes. The technology is not perfect just yet, but it can already produce rough images that can be used to find people and eliminate those suspected of crimes.

“The technique is called DNA phenotyping,” according to MIT Technology Review

“It analyzes the genes associated with traits like ancestry, skin color, and eye color to make predictions about what the sample donor may look like, with varying degrees of certainty. This approach has been made to make educated guesses at what ancient humans may have looked like.”

The technology is also being developed in other parts of the world, including the U.S.

Some of China’s research is being conducted at labs operated by its Ministry of Public Security. While the country’s attempts may be in the early stages, human rights proponents and scientists are worried about the ethical implications of such programs. They fear that China will use DNA phenotyping as another tool in cracking down on dissenters and groups like the Uighurs. 

There are also concerns about consent. China says that people are volunteering samples. But there are already jurisdictions in the country that require health checkups. There is no way to know what happens to the samples collected from medical tests afterwards.

A Chinese scientist called a NYT reporter “shameless” for questioning the link between health checks and DNA collection.

Just as concerning is that the West is helping China develop the technology.  They include a scientist at the Shanghai-based Partner Institute for Computational Biology. A research group in Germany, the Max Planck Society, founded the Shanghai institute.

The Max Planck Society told NYT that it “takes this issue very seriously.” It also said it will ask its ethics council to look into the allegations.”

“European scientists at institutes in Germany and the Netherlands are also listed as coauthors on the papers that detail the research findings,” notes the MIT Technology Review article.

Ethicists say their concerns don’t end with just individual facial recognition programs. One day, perhaps not too far in the future, China’s government or other governments could feed the images created through DNA samples for mass surveillance. 

In other words, governments and their agencies could use the technology to tighten their grip on society to track dissidents, people critical of the government, and protesters.

Leave a Reply