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China’s massive effort to collect DNA from its people worries scientists

Researchers are collecting genetic material from men across the country to aid criminal investigations, but they fear the data could be exploited.

A study revealing China’s efforts to collect the DNA of millions of men to help solve crimes has raised privacy and consent concerns among researchers.

They say people have little influence over how their information is used and are likely unaware of the ramifications of DNA collection for their families.

In 2017, Chinese state media initially announced the government’s goal of creating a nationwide forensic DNA database.

Genetic data of more than 70 million people stored for massive profiling purposes

A document released June 17 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra-based think tank, reveals for the first time the scope and essential elements of the program: police collect DNA from men and women school-aged boys across the country for several years.

According to the report, they intend to collect and store the DNA profiles of approximately 10% of the country’s male population, or up to 70 million people.

According to the article, these DNA profiles can be used to create genetic links to China’s total male population, which numbers around 700 million people.

According to the Chinese government, the database will make it easier to track down offenders, the majority of whom are men.

However, the operation is also described in the report as part of the government’s efforts to “deepen” social control.

A DNA database containing information on people who have never been convicted of a crime is unprecedented, scientists and human rights groups say.

“It’s truly one of a kind.

“No other country does it,” says Mechthild Prinz, a forensic geneticist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“They just go out and take ordinary citizens.”

“It’s a bit heavy,” she remarks.

Researchers also fear the database could be used to prosecute anyone who opposes the government.

“This collection has nothing to do with criminality – it has everything to do with tyranny,” says Maya Wang, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

According to ASPI research, the database, which is managed by China’s Ministry of Public Security, builds on previous DNA collection initiatives.

China, like other governments, maintains a large database of DNA samples from suspected or convicted criminals.

Human rights organizations have protested the collection of DNA from ethnic minority groups in Tibet and the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Controversial data

The type of genetic data China collects is particularly controversial because it can be used to trace family members who have not provided DNA samples.

The database contains information on short tandem repeats (STRs), which are repeated sections of DNA unique to the Y chromosome. STRs are remarkably comparable between men of the same ancestry.

Y-chromosome-specific STRs are remarkably comparable between men of the same male ancestry.

This means that a Y-STR sample from an unknown male can be linked to all of his male paternal relatives.

When Y-STR data is linked to other data, such as family trees, an individual can be identified. The database was used by Chinese authorities in 2019 to identify a suspect who had committed a murder in Guangzhou in 2008.

Police analyzed DNA taken from the crime scene to find a database match to one of the man’s cousins, who had previously been arrested for burglary. This was enough to establish a link with the murderer, who lived in Malaysia. He was captured by Chinese police the next time he entered the country.

Law enforcement agencies in other countries have employed this strategy in criminal investigations.

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However, experts say the data is normally obtained for a specific investigation and then discarded, while China intends to keep Y-STR profiles forever.

According to Prinz, this data collection is strictly regulated in most countries, but the Chinese database is not governed by any laws.

The ASPI research authors collected more than 700 Chinese-language documents, including information regarding genome sequencers purchased by local police, social media accounts of local security bureaus, and local media articles. , in order to reveal the extent of the Chinese government’s effort.

The documents also describe local DNA collection campaigns in 22 of China’s 31 administrative regions, excluding Hong Kong and Macau.

Local police boasted in these documents that they could take samples – under duress if necessary – from 8 to 26 percent of the local male population.

Scientists are particularly concerned about allegations that blood samples are being taken without adequate consent and without the public being informed of how they will be used.

They say the database could be used for purposes other than criminal investigations, including tracking down and punishing family members of people suspected of committing political crimes or criticizing the government.

“If you have imagination, you can imagine nasty uses,” says Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York.

Additionally, because Y-STR data can be used to create family connections, researchers believe it could reveal private information, such as paternity, of people whose information is not in the database.

According to Wang, there is no privacy protection in China.

“The police pretty much do whatever they want,” she said.

It is essential to put in place regulations

China’s statewide DNA collection has faced some criticism.

A scientist from the Ministry of Public Security wrote in 2015 in the journal Forensic Science and Technology1 that there is no legal basis in China for the creation of a Y-STR database.

In March, delegates to the government’s national assembly called for DNA collection to be regulated, but it is unclear whether this will happen.

The Ministry of Public Safety did not respond to Nature’s request for comment on the risks of using the database for purposes other than criminal investigations.

On June 22, China’s Xinhua news agency published an article claiming that ASPI was funded by US technology companies and sought to harm China, but did not mention the Y-STR report.

James Leibold, a senior ASPI member and co-author of the study, objects to the Chinese government’s characterization of ASPI’s work. He says the institute receives funding from American and other companies, which is published on its website, and that its research is peer-reviewed.

“There is no uniform editorial line on China, only fact-based empirical studies to inform public opinion,” says Mr Leibold, an academic specializing in politics and media at La Trobe University. from Melbourne, Australia.

Some experts wonder why the Chinese government is just cataloging Y-STR data when it could catalog sequencing data for the body’s other 22 pairs of chromosomes with a little more work and resources. As this data is unique to each person, it could be used to identify them.

“This small effort would result in a much superior forensic tool for fighting crime,” says Fulvio Cruciani, a forensic geneticist at Sapienza University in Rome.

Prinz said China could continue to use a Y-STR database because of its cost and ease of use. Y-STRs are inexpensive, and the data can be analyzed at any of the country’s hundreds of crime labs. Other academics, like Fabricio Santos, an evolutionary biologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), believe that Chinese authorities are probably keeping blood samples so that they can undertake more in-depth studies in the future if they wish.

“It’s a question of expense and time,” adds Santos, “but the DNA samples will still be there.”