Science and Surveillance: Western Institutions Consider Role in China’s Uighur Crackdown

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According to a New York Times investigation published on Tuesday, Chinese government researchers, some working with national security forces, are using genetic material from members of the oppressed Uighur minority group to develop next-generation surveillance tools that could allow authorities to construct an image of someone’s face from information in their DNA.

The technique, called DNA phenotyping, has powerful applications for law enforcement, and versions of it have already been used by forensic units in the United States, although some experts question its efficacy.

A more sophisticated version of the tool, the Times reports, could potentially allow the Chinese 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.”

The research teams collected DNA from Uighur populations in western China, where the Chinese government has forced more than one million Uighurs into a vast, secretive network of internment camps. Several of the researchers, the Times found, had received funding from prestigious European scientific institutions, and research using genetic material from threatened minority groups in China had been published in prominent scientific journals, triggering an ethics policy review at Springer Nature, which is based in Europe, and leading Wiley, an American publisher, to reevaluate several papers.

The incident is not the first time that scientific research involving Western institutions has been used to help build a surveillance state in China. Earlier this year, another Times investigation found that the Chinese Ministry of Police had used data from a Yale researcher to develop genetic tools for distinguishing Uighurs.

These kinds of incidents highlight the way that the open culture of global science — with well-established norms of international collaboration and sharing — can, in some cases, be adapted to dangerous ends. And, as innovations move across borders, ethical safeguards can fall away, either under pressure from strong political forces, like China’s growing surveillance apparatus, or from a simple lack of oversight.

Indeed, the Times report this week came on the same day that MIT Technology Review published new details of a 2018 study in which a researcher in China, He Jiankui, used Crispr gene editing technology to alter the genomes of two human embryos, in violation of global bioethics norms. That study led to swift condemnation from Chinese government officials, bioethicists, and other geneticists. The new details suggest that He’s lab may have made serious errors that could affect the health of the babies, and that the children’s parents may have been pressured to participate.

One striking detail of the new reporting on He is how much he wanted to publish in Nature, the prestigious global journal. Instead, he found that nobody would take his work — and that, for some editors, it raised specters of other, chilling eras in which scientific research escaped the constraints of ethical oversight. “You have to draw a line somewhere” one editor of a publishing platform wrote on Twitter. “You really want this?” he added, referring to the notorious Nazi doctor: “‘Dear Dr. Mengele, Thank you for your submission. Your paper will be online shortly.”

Also in the news:

• More than 300 families across the United States have spoken up about being accused of child abuse based on mistaken or exaggerated reporting by doctors. Their stories, shared with NBC News and the Houston Chronicle, come following a year-long investigation by the outlets that found some doctors “diagnosed abuse with a degree of certainty that critics say is not supported by science.” In one case, a mother in Michigan lost custody of her children after a child abuse pediatrician said that healing rib fractures and red spots on the infant’s skin were “diagnostic of physical abuse.” When other doctors examined the child, they found he had a Vitamin D deficiency that could lead to fractures and that the red marks seemed to correspond to the straps of his baby swing. The Michigan children were eventually returned to their family, but many parents are still fighting. In November, the heads of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Texas Pediatric Society defended the work of child abuse pediatricians, arguing that they’re more likely to rule out abuse than other medical specialists. (Houston Chronicle/NBC News)

• Richard Sackler, a physician and the former president of Purdue Pharma, argued for a hawkish response to early concerns that OxyContin, the company’s blockbuster drug, could lead to abuse and addiction, according to newly unsealed court documents obtained by STAT. The documents illustrate the extent of Sackler’s personal role in downplaying the risks of OxyContin, fueling an opioid epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. In an email thread from 1997, a year after OxyContin reached the market, Sackler urged colleagues to respond to claims from a pharmacy benefits company that the opioid led to abuse with a “convincing presentation” and wrote that the addiction concerns could be “obliterated.” In 2007, Purdue executives pled guilty to felony charges that the company, founded and controlled by members of the Sackler family, continued to falsely market OxyContin as less addictive than other painkillers, even as it held evidence to the contrary. But Sackler himself largely escaped scrutiny until 2015, when lawyers from the state of Kentucky forced him into a deposition. After a lengthy legal battle, reporters from STAT and ProPublica secured the public release of thousands of documents from that deposition, the source of this week’s revelations. (STAT)

• How do you unite a sharply polarized electorate on the issue of climate change? Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is betting that a star-studded coalition of lawmakers, military leaders, and A-list celebrities can provide the answer. This week Kerry announced the formation of World War Zero, an initiative that will enlist the likes of Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stacey Abrams, Emma Watson, and General Stanley McChrystal to help hold millions of “climate conversations” across the country, in an effort to mobilize voters of all political stripes in the push toward zero carbon emissions. The coalition, which consists of more than 60 founding members, intentionally does not embrace a specific policy plan. “We’re not fighting about the difference between fracking, or the carbon fee and who gets what, or the Green New Deal,” Kerry told The Atlantic. “We’re really focused on getting everybody on the same page: that the goal of 2045, 2050 for a low-carbon, no-net-carbon economy is critical.” Kerry said the group does, however, have an eye toward influencing the 2020 elections and recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Climate agreement, which the Trump administration is currently in the process of withdrawing from. (The New York Times)

• A study published this week in the British medical journal The Lancet found that homeless and marginally housed populations report suffering traumatic brain injuries at more than twice the rate reported in the general population. These injuries, which usually result from a blow to the head, can range from a mild concussion to severe brain damage. The research, which involved a meta-analysis of 26 different studies from six wealthy countries, including the U.S., found that the numbers of moderate to severe brain injuries in homeless populations were approximately 10 times more than normal. The authors noted that these injuries could be causing some people to become homeless — or they could be the result of life on the street. In a separate commentary in the journal, Rob Aldridge of University College London wrote that homelessness is “a public health emergency that we already know how to tackle — but have failed to do so.” (The Guardian)

• As experts warn that climate change could devastate global crop production, a new report, released this week, details a six-year-long effort to find and collect wild plants that are related to vital crops. In the report, Crop Trust, an international organization that protects crop diversity, details the results of a project that sent more than 100 scientists foraging across 25 countries. Their mission was to find and collect suitable plants to add to a global gene database that could buffer our supply of 28 staple crops. Researchers hope to tap into the genetic diversity of wild crops like groundnuts or pearl millet, pulling genes from less appetizing crops that are more durable and using them to modify more recognizable and nutritious food cousins like peanuts or wheat, so favorite foods can adapt to harsher conditions. Dubbed the Crop Wild Relatives project, the primary objective was seeking gene replacements for three staple crops in our diets: wheat, maize, and rice. According to the report, the group managed to collect seeds from 371 distinct species or subspecies of plants. By conserving plants not traditionally thought of as food, researchers hope to ensure a future where there’s always enough bread to go around. (National Geographic)

• Facing a devastating measles outbreak, the Pacific island nation of Samoa shut down the government for two days this week to focus on a mass vaccination campaign. The outbreak, which began in late October, has killed 62 people, most of them babies or small children, with more than 4,200 cases reported so far. In mid-November, the government declared a national emergency, closed schools, and mandated that all 200,000 citizens be immunized, but the outbreak continued to spread. On Tuesday, residents were instructed to display a red flag outside their home if they were not yet immunized. Figures from the World Health Organization and Unicef estimate that only 30 percent of infants in Samoa were immunized in 2018, a drop from 60 to 70 percent in previous years. The recent plunge in infant vaccination in Samoa has been linked to anti-vaccine campaigns targeting parents, and a public health scandal in which two infants died after receiving MMR vaccines that were improperly mixed. One local anti-vaxxer was arrested Thursday and charged with incitement. (CNN)

• African Swine Fever caused the deaths of approximately a quarter of all pigs on the planet this year, either by direct infection or preventative culling. While the disease continues to spread from China through southeastern Asia and into Eastern Europe, preliminary results from researchers at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York suggest that a new vaccine may be effective at stopping the disease. So far, the research team reported this week, every pig they have inoculated seems to have resisted developing ASF. The next step will be to verify the vaccine in larger herds of pigs, partly to verify that parts of the virus within the vaccine doesn’t endanger other pigs, an issue that has scuttled some previous ASF vaccine attempts. (OneZero)

• And finally: Before the Thanksgiving holiday, according to details that emerged this week, Facebook provided employees with a chatbot to help prepare them to answer tough questions from family members. The chatbot software, known as the “Liam Bot,” uses basic artificial intelligence to carry on a simple conversation, allowing it to promptly advise employees on how to reply to concerns over the company’s controversial policies on the sale of personal data, hate speech oversight, and other issues. According to The New York Times, Liam would advise employees to use talking points like “[Facebook] has hired more moderators to police its content,” “It is working on AI to spot hate speech,” and “Regulation is important for addressing the issue.” A Facebook spokesperson told The Times that “our employees regularly ask for information to use with friends and family on topics that have been in the news, especially around the holidays.” (The New York Times


“Also in the News” items compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Wired, Salon, Slate, Pacific Standard, the Daily Beast, and The Washington Post, among other publications.