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US firm stops selling DNA collection equipment to China

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The DNA collection was part of a greater surveillance system

Uyghur Life Endures in Kashgar’s Old City Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Massachusetts-based biotech firm Thermo Fisher says it will stop selling equipment to Xinjiang, the province where Chinese authorities have launched a statewide campaign to monitor and track Uighurs. It told The New York Times the new decision was “consistent with Thermo Fisher’s values, ethics code, and policies.”

From 2016 to 2017, China ordered almost 36 million people to get medical checkups, according to numbers reported by state-run Xinhua News. Blood samples, fingerprints, photos of irises, and other identifying data were collected, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2017. Thermo Fisher supplied some of the lab equipment used to collect DNA, patent filings obtained by the NYT revealed. The company’s 2017 annual report stated that China brought in about 10 percent of the company’s $20.9 billion revenue, describing the country as “our greatest success story in emerging markets.”

By collecting Uighurs’ DNA, authorities in China were building a comprehensive database to better identify any individual who defied the system. They also benefitted from shared data from a visiting Yale professor, whose research was cited in Chinese state patents. Xinjiang’s local government denied to the NYT that it collected DNA samples.

Uighurs in Xinjiang have reportedly been imprisoned in camps, according to multiple accounts from human rights groups and media reports. Most predominantly practice Islam and are often discriminated against for being a minority population amid China’s majority Han Chinese. The Chinese government has held Uighurs responsible for terrorist attacks within the past ten years.

US tech companies sometimes become complicit in helping China build its surveillance system. Just take Cisco’s role in selling routers to China while the country was building up its internet censorship system in the early 2000s, or Microsoft censoring search results on its Bing search engine within China so it can continue its operations.

Some tech companies have pulled out of China, like Google did in 2010, citing human rights concerns. But often enough, they continue to be indirectly involved and complicit, drawn by the lure of expanding to a large internet user base that may increase profitability. Facebook has repeatedly tried to enter China again after being banned in 2009 when Xinjiang activists reportedly used the platform to organize protests, and Google’s censored search engine that the company considered last year was the source of much controversy.

It’s an ethical dilemma for many companies and some choose to compromise as a result. In a blog post, Human Rights Watch called Thermo Fisher’s decision to stop selling to Xinjiang a “necessary, but insufficient” move. “Thermo Fisher’s decision leaves many key questions unanswered: What about sales of that technology to Chinese police in other parts of the country? The police’s abusive collection of DNA materials from people unconnected to crimes is not confined to Xinjiang,” Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director wrote today.

Collecting personally identifying data is already somewhat commonplace outside of Xinjiang, although mandatory checkups have not been reported. China already requires all foreigners landing in airports to submit their fingerprints and has also installed over 20 million cameras across the country to spot jaywalkers and other petty crimes on the streets. We’ve reached out to Thermo Fisher to ask whether the company plans to end sales to other parts of China as well.