China Uses DNA to Map Faces, With Help From the WestDecember 03, 2019
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.
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.
With the ability to reconstruct faces, the Chinese police would have yet another genetic tool for social control. The authorities have already gathered millions of DNA samples in Xinjiang. They have also collected data from the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and members of other minority groups locked up in detention camps in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to stop terrorism.
In the papers, the authors said their methods had been approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Forensic Science of China. That organization is part of the Ministry of Public Security, China’s police.