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U.S.-Made DNA ID Equipment Is Being Sold to Xinjiang’s Police

Engineering professor Yves Moreau’s research shows that a more serious approach to existing sanctions against such uses is needed

The U.S. leads the world in DNA sequencing technologies. Unfortunately, two U.S. companies’ products are being used in China in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region despite the fact that the U. S. has placed sanctions on such uses.

The sanctions were put in place because Chinese authorities surveil and detain Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities without legal precedent and engage in acts that are in violation of the Genocide Convention of 1948.

The New York Times, for example, obtained ten contracts, along with government procurement documents, showing that Thermo Fisher Scientific’s and Promega’s equipment is being sold to Xinjiang police:

The government procurement documents and contracts show that several Chinese companies sold Thermo Fisher equipment worth at least $521,165 to eight public security agencies in Xinjiang from May 2019 to June 2021. As recently as Sunday [June 6, 2021], Chinese firm based in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, sold $40,563 worth of Thermo Fisher’s products to the police in Korla, the second-largest city in Xinjiang.

The police in Xinjiang have also signed four agreements with Chinese companies selling DNA equipment from Promega, a biotechnology company based in Madison, Wis., with deals all the way through last month. Most of the deals, which include products from other companies, do not make clear the value of the Promega products.

Sui-Lee Wee, ““China Still Buys American DNA Equipment for Xinjiang Despite Blocks”” at New York Times (June 11, 2021)

How Thermo Fisher Scientific and Promega’s Technology Ended Up in in Xinjiang

After banning the sale of American products to most law enforcement agencies in Xinjiang in 2019, U.S. authorities followed up in 2020 with a warning to companies not to sell biometric and surveillance technologies to Xinjiang because there are “reputational, economic and legal risks.” But U.S. companies’ products are still ending up in Xinjiang.

According to Sui-Lee at the Times, it is not clear how the Chinese companies first acquired the U.S. equipment. Neither Thermo Fisher nor Promega sells directly to Xinjiang authorities. Based on the contracts, the equipment was likely sold by a third-party company.

Thermo Fisher has a network of authorized distributors that have agreed to their purchasing process and it has several locations in China. The government documents and contracts do not list distributors and users in Thermo Fisher’s system. Promega has offices in Northeast China with distributors in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Are companies responsible for where their products end up being used?

Yves Moreau

Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, told the Times that he found the contracts with Thermo Fisher and Promega products on Chinese corporate bidding website:

I mean, some professor who doesn’t speak Chinese sits on Google in the evening and finds that stuff,” Professor Moreau said. “What is the process that [Thermo Fisher and Promega] have put in place to avoid things like that from happening? They should have caught this earlier than me.

Sui-Lee Wee, ““China Still Buys American DNA Equipment for Xinjiang Despite Blocks”” at New York Times (June 11, 2021)

One issue is the inadequacy of current U.S. laws to address technological advancements, a recurring theme in many areas of the tech sector. As the Times article notes, the last time lawmakers placed similar restrictions on American companies selling certain products to China was 1990.

At that time, sanctions prohibited American companies from selling fingerprinting devices, weapons and ammunition to the Chinese people in the wake of Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square.

Sui-Lee Wee, ““China Still Buys American DNA Equipment for Xinjiang Despite Blocks”” at New York Times (June 11, 2021)

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch told the New York Times this legislation essentially means U.S. companies can’t sell handcuffs to one of China’s public security bureaus (city-level) or public security departments (province-level), but it says nothing about DNA sequencers or other technologies that can be used for surveillance, such as facial recognition software and data-sifting algorithms.

Even though the U.S. doesn’t have adequate laws for identification technologies, the government has placed sanctions on several public security bureaus, including Xinjiang.

I asked Moreau how he thought companies can ensure that their products are not being used for surveillance in Xinjiang. He told me,

Thermo Fisher and Promega could control the flow of human identification products by imposing contractual commitments to their distributors not to sell those products to sanctioned entities and to pass these contractual constraints to any subdistributor and to any end user. These contractual clauses should be accompanied by meaningful penalties.

While Moreau is unsure how enforceable these contracts would be in practice, he says that the logical approach to ensuring that the products do not end up in Xinjiang is to stop selling human identification products in China altogether.

Xinjiang market

A complicating factor is that DNA identification technologies are not used only for surveillance. They are used by people seeking information about their own ancestry. Plus, DNA sequencers play an important role in university research and medicine. DNA sequencing helped identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, for example.

Both Thermo Fisher and Promega may very well be liable for violating sanctions placed on Xinjiang according to The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the U.S. Department of Commerce Entity List. Thermo Fisher had agreed to stop all sales to Xinjiang security bureaus in 2019. According to Moreau, based on Thermo Fisher’s statement on unauthorized sales channels on their Chinese website (website in Chinese), which includes a list of unauthorized distributors, the company could probably track their product’s sales and distribution if it wanted to.

Vendors of other human identification technologies face this problem as well both in the U.S. and abroad. Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Clearview AI (among others) have come under scrutiny for their facial recognition technologies. All three have agreed to a moratorium on selling their identification technology to law enforcement until the U.S. government passes appropriate rules and regulations.

In an upcoming article, we’ll take a closer look at how China is using DNA sequencing and identification technologies to build the largest biometric database on the planet.

You may also wish to read: China: DNA phenotyping profiles racial minorities In the United States, targeting minorities means political pushback; in China, no such discussion is allowed. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

U.S.-Made DNA ID Equipment Is Being Sold to Xinjiang’s Police