China’s mass collection of human DNA without informed consent is contrary to the right to privacy

China holds the largest searchable DNA database in the world; genetic information from over 40 million individuals that is ostensibly to be used in the fight against crime. However, the way in which these data are collected and the protection given to providers leave much to be desired, according to the European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG).

“There is growing evidence that DNA is being collected from ordinary individuals who have not been convicted nor even suspected of a crime, and that this collection is compulsory. Police have also taken samples from groups that are already under increased government surveillance, such as dissidents, migrant workers, and ethnic minorities,” said Professor Martina Cornel, chair of the ESHG Public and Professional Policy Committee. “Because police powers in China are so extensive and people have little right to privacy, they are unable to refuse to provide such personal data.”

People who have been compelled to provide DNA have reported their experiences via social media. Collections are made by police at their workplaces, homes, and schools, with no prior notice and without the presentation of any official document justifying the taking of samples. Some people have also been asked to provide DNA samples when applying for documents such as residency permits from the police.

In Xinjiang, a province that is home to around 10 million Muslim Uyghurs, an ethnic group already suffering state repression, all passport applicants are now required to provide DNA samples, irrespective of whether or not they are suspects in a criminal case. “This is in total contradiction to all existing regulations and safeguards concerning the collection of DNA samples from individuals,” says Prof Cornel.

“We know that such databases can be used for government surveillance, including identification of relatives. Collection of DNA without the subject’s full, informed consent can only be justified in extremely limited circumstances, for example in order to solve a very serious crime. A collection of samples from individuals where no such consent has been given has been ruled illegal by many international bodies, and the very existence of such a database is dangerous.

“ESHG calls on the Chinese government to follow in the footsteps of all responsible authorities and ensure that human DNA is collected only from individuals suspected of having committed serious crimes, and that informed consent is given whenever possible.”