Under the hood, China is reportedly hard at work developing a technology to reconstruct faces based on DNA samples, with help allegedly coming from Western ties.
The technology, known as DNA phenotyping, predicts the observable set of characteristics and traits of an individual, including physical appearance and biogeographic ancestry.
DNA phenotyping is already serving its purposes in many Western countries — including the United States — particularly in a criminal prosecution where there are no suspects or database hits.
Meanwhile, China is allegedly working to perfect the process, which some fear could be used as a tool for further social control.
One concentration of the process is the city of Tumxuk, where hundreds of blood samples from resident Uyghurs have been previously collected, according to The New York Times.
Research on the genetic material of Tumxuk residents is expected to link both studies, while the combined strengths of all relevant data could improve China’s odds of reconstructing faces through DNA samples with unimaginable precision.
Interestingly, current developments in the technology are being attributed to external help, with Chinese authorities allegedly turning to scientists connected to Western countries.
Among them were Tang Kun: a genetic diversity specialist from the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, which was partly founded by the German nonprofit Max Planck Society in 2005; and Liu Fan, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Genomics and adjunct assistant professor at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, according to The Times.
In 2018, the state-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences reportedly published a study on Uyghur faces in the journal Hereditas (Beijing), which named Tang and Liu as authors.
Both were also cited as authors of a study published in the journal Human Genetics in April, which examined DNA samples collected from 612 Uyghurs in Tumxuk last year.
Tang, who received annual funding of $22,000 from the Max Planck Society while working at the Partner Institute, told The Times that he was approached by Chinese police in 2016 — an affiliation he ended the following year.
However, Christina Beck, a spokesperson for the Max Planck Society, said that Tang had told the organization that he started working with the police in 2017, after his research funding ended a year earlier.
On the other hand, whenever Liu started working with Chinese police is unclear, but he reportedly served as a visiting professor at a lab of the Ministry of Public Security for “on-site traceability technology.”
While holding a position at Erasmus University in 2015, he also assumed a position at the Beijing Institute of Genomics, which reportedly signed an agreement with the Chinese police just two months into his employment to build a center that would study technologies “urgently needed by the public security forces.”
American companies have also been linked to helping China develop its surveillance technology, including its work with genetic material.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts-based medical technology manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific ceased its sale of DNA sequencers to the country, citing some “fact-specific assessments” as the reason behind its decision.
Human Rights Watch reportedly reached out to Thermo Fisher in June and August 2017 to inform them of China’s actions in Xinjiang, but the company only responded that it does not “share information about our customers or their purchases” and that “it is not possible for us to monitor the use or application of all products we manufactured.”
Additionally, Thermo Fisher stated that they “expect all of our customers to act in accordance with appropriate regulations and industry-standard best practices.”
China is believed to have rounded up some 1.5 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps. The country also holds the largest DNA database to date, with authorities hoping to possess 100 million records by 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal.