China Uses DNA to Map Faces, With Help From the West

TUMXUK, China — In a dusty city in the Xinjiang region on China’s western frontier, the authorities are testing the rules of science.

With a million or more ethnic Uighurs and others from predominantly Muslim minority groups swept up in detentions across Xinjiang, officials in Tumxuk have gathered blood samples from hundreds of Uighurs — part of a mass DNA collection effort dogged by questions about consent and how the data will be used.

In Tumxuk, at least, there is a partial answer: Chinese scientists are trying to find a way to use a DNA sample to create an image of a person’s face.

The technology, which is also being developed in the United States and elsewhere, is in the early stages of development and can produce rough pictures good enough only to narrow a manhunt or perhaps eliminate suspects. But given the crackdown in Xinjiang, experts on ethics in science worry that China is building a tool that could be used to justify and intensify racial profiling and other state discrimination against Uighurs.

In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals.

Some of this research is taking place in labs run by China’s Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on the technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.

In papers, the Chinese scientists said they followed norms set by international associations of scientists, which would require that the men in Tumxuk (pronounced TUM-shook) gave their blood willingly. But in Xinjiang, many people have no choice. The government collects samples under the veneer of a mandatory health checkup program, according to Uighurs who have fled the country. Those placed in internment camps — two of which are in Tumxuk — also have little choice.

The police prevented reporters from The New York Times from interviewing Tumxuk residents, making verifying consent impossible. Many residents had vanished in any case. On the road to one of the internment camps, an entire neighborhood had been bulldozed into rubble.

Listen to ‘The Daily’: ‘Absolutely No Mercy’

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