Interview: Researcher Spells Out Concerns About ‘Unethical’ Chinese Police Uyghur DNA Research

'If we think people will get hurt, we have to do something about it,' says researcher Yves Moreau.
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Interview: Researcher Spells Out Concerns About ‘Unethical’ Chinese Police Uyghur DNA Research A demonstrator from the Uyghur community gestures as he takes part in a protest near the Belgium parliament in Brussels, July 8, 2021.

Yves Moreau is a professor and bioinformatician at the University of Leuven in Belgium whose research focuses on AI algorithms and software platforms for the integration of complex data in clinical genomics and drug discovery. His LinkedIn profile says he is “engaged in a reflection on how information technology and artificial intelligence are transforming our world and on how to make sure this transformation is beneficial for all.” One particular concern of his has been China’s use of DNA profiling in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where authorities have collected DNA samples from Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities amid a wider campaign of mass surveillance and repression that includes detaining an estimated 1.8 million in camps and the use of forced labor. 

Moreau’s mission involves “pushing back against the emergence of surveillance societies” that use such technological advances. It also involves pushing academic journals to retract published studies that are problematic and unethical. One of his latest targets was Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine (MGGM), a journal founded in 2013 that focuses on genetics research with medical applications ans is published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  

Two years ago, the journal began running papers by authors in China on forensic genetics, a field that involves close collaboration with police, according to an investigative report published in early August by The Intercept. Moreau outlined his concerns about the studies in an email to the journal’s editor-in-chief, Suzanne Hart, who also is deputy director of the medical genetics and genomic medicine fellowship training program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute. According to the investigative report, Moreau pointed out that the journal had published only two forensic genetic studies from outside China since its inception, suggesting that it was “specifically identified as a journal where forensic population genetic studies of vulnerable Tibetan and [M]uslim minorities can be published.”  

Hart said she was looking into the matter, but when nothing seemed to be done, Moreau in June notified the editorial board about the papers in question and told them how police in China use forensic genetics. Regarding Hart as too slow to provide explanations to the board or to Moreau, eight of the board’s 25 members resigned. 

 “We are actively investigating and driving toward a timely, transparent resolution,” The Intercept quoted Hart as saying in an emailed statement. “We take the concerns expressed extremely seriously and regret that delayed communications may have indicated otherwise.” 

Reporter Adile Ablet from RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with Moreau on Saturday about how the controversial articles came to his attention, why the information is dangerous, and how to prevent DNA data from being used by regimes like China to repress Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: How did these articles draw your attention? Were you aware of China’s collection of Uyghur DNA information at that time?  

Moreau: Forensic population genetics is the use of genetics such as in law enforcement by the police to solve crimes. Population genetics uses genetics to understand the history of the origin of populations. For example, biologists are quite intrigued by the Uyghur population because it's an oddly mixed population of Caucasians and Tibetans. From a political perspective, it's really quite an interesting problem of when that population mix [occurred] and in what way. When you actually want to use these DNA databases, you use them to match a sample from a crime scene with that of a suspect.  

Now, what I have seen is that when you look at those studies there is really a lot of them about Tibetans about Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. In about half of all the scientific articles, there is a co-author from public security, from the judiciary, or from institutions that are directly under their control. I consider this to be the police.   

I've also been fighting against ethnic facial recognition classifying faces as Uyghur based on unjust pictures and surveillance cameras. We shouldn't be doing this kind of research. We have ethical principles that are well established and for when we actually do the analysis.   

Since 2019, I’ve been [pointing out] research that is unethical and should not have been carried out. It should not be published. And if it's published, it should be retracted. It should be removed. This is actually quite a strong signal in the scientific community. Scientists do not like to have their publications retracted. It’s very embarrassing. Scientists are people who are supposed to be very honorable. Having your papers retracted is really an annoyance. 

This is a journal [MGGM] that normally does not publish this kind of research. It publishes medical research, so it's mostly doctors who publish about genetic diseases. They don't publish this kind of study. It was very surprising to see that it was suddenly publishing this kind of research. I talked to them [about it] in a not very adversarial manner, saying ‘Well, I think you have a problem.’  

The big publishers are multibillion-dollar companies, and they are very quiet. China is a smaller market, but it's a very fast-growing market … so their future revenue will depend on China. And they know that Chinese authorities are quite fierce in their actions when they feel that you interfering with their policy. Publishers know that the Chinese authorities will not be happy is they are being perceived as interfering with Chinese policies. Here, I’m speculating. I don't have proof of this.  

At the end of June, some members of the [MGGM] editorial board had given fair warning, and basically they expected an answer but were not getting any. And so, members of the editorial board started resigning. There are only three people, three scientists who are really responsible for organizing the scientific evaluation, and they are publishing [about] 500 articles per year, so there are a lot of things coming in. Maybe [they] didn’t realize that this was a problematic issue because you have to explain to [the] scientists that there is a problem with what's happening to the Uyghurs or in Tibet. You have to explain that those research studies often involve people from the police and that they actually feed directly into the expertise of the police. Scientists do not realize that. 

When they realized something was happening, they panicked and they basically stuck their heads in the sand, not realizing that there might be consequences because members of the editorial board were resigning over the ethics of a journal. 

RFA: Can you explain how and why the DNA information in those papers is dangerous?  

Moreau: The information that is published in the papers is itself not very dangerous. The same data is then accessible to the police who are actually part of the program of establishing DNA databases. People working for the police in genetics often are not highly trained people. If you're not careful with your DNA profiling, then the information in your database is not reliable.   

When they publish those papers together with the academics, they can say that the database that they are building for them is a good database and that it's reliable. It gives these people social status, and this is part of the massive effort in Xinjiang and in the rest of China to deploy this DNA database. It is by far the biggest problem, but they also have this national male DNA database that is being deployed across the whole of China. 

The research itself is maybe not directly hurting anyone. The people who gave their samples are not being hurt because they gave their samples. But this research is fundamental to actually building this DNA database infrastructure, which is one of the elements of this surveillance system that has many elements. It's a piece of a puzzle. For me, DNA is also particularly worrisome because it gives this kind of magical powers to the authorities like what's in your body, who you are related to, who is a Uyghur and who is a Han [Chinese] … It gives people the impression that the state does all these nearly magical things, that the state knows everything. The police know everything about you, [and] they know where you have been. They know your family.  

RFA: Why do you think these papers were published by this journal in the first place? Do you think they didn’t pay enough attention to the content or is there something else? 

Moreau: When you have research, we have quite a clear ethical framework so that [it] has to satisfy some key principles. The first principle of medicine is not to harm people, and this applies to forensic genetics — non-malfeasance. Here you already have a problem [because] you know there are serious human rights violations across China. There are crimes against humanity increasing in Xinjiang, and you do research on the vulnerable groups, and you involve the police. You know that there is a real risk even though the research itself may not harm anybody directly.  

The second principle is beneficence, the idea that it will do good. This is a lot less clear because Chinese police forces are trying to use DNA databases to catch criminals, but they are also using them to control populations. So, the notion of beneficence is really not as clear. Then you have the idea that risks and benefits need to be shared fairly among people.  

And the third one is autonomy — that when you do research, people should have the freedom to participate in the research. And there is another very big problem because this is checked by informed consent, but there is no way for anybody to go and check whether the consent was there. The notion that free, informed consent does not make sense when we are talking about this type of study on the most vulnerable groups that involve the police. 

It means that every study involving the police, even if it's not about a minority, is problematic because the police are misbehaving. And so how can we trust the police outside Xinjiang or outside Tibet while they have this DNA database of the entire male population that they are trying to build?  So, ethical questions are very big. We have a problem here, but we don't necessarily know the answer because it's a complicated question. But if the journal doesn't do anything, then we know there is something wrong. 

RFA: Why do we need to raise awareness about the collection of DNA? How do we fight its use by hostile forces or governments like China? 

Moreau: This is an issue that I expect will get more visibility. It's going to be a very complicated issue because researchers don't like to be in the news, so I'm putting people in uncomfortable positions. There is really something important that can be done here. I can't say that this will help solve what's happening in Xinjiang, unfortunately, and I very much wish that we could really help. But a lot of this would not have been possible without a lot of research that has occurred in the past 10 or 20 years. If researchers had been more careful, the extent of the tools that are available [now] would not be the same.  

When we do research, we should be thinking about whether people will get hurt. If we think people will get hurt, we have to do something about it. So, retractions are important because they will tell scientists that if they do something that is problematic … they will have to pay the price. 

Reported by Adile Ablet for RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rosanne Gerin.


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