Yves Moreau believes scientific advances should never be built on the backs of the oppressed.
A professor and bioinformatician at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven, Moreau urges other scientists not to publish studies based on DNA taken without consent from Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) oppresses Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups.
The PRC has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in internment camps and turned Xinjiang into a surveillance state. Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region also collect DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from minority group members as part of a public health program, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
HRW says it is unclear whether program participants are informed of authorities’ intention to collect, store or use sensitive DNA data, but argues that real choice does not appear to be a part of the program.
This biological data is part of the PRC’s mass surveillance in Xinjiang, a system that includes cameras equipped with facial recognition technology that has turned the region into an open-air prison. Moreau says the data also supports research, often conducted in partnership with local public security officials, and he urges Western journals to retract any published studies that are based on Uyghur data.
“We shouldn’t be doing this kind of research,” Moreau told Radio Free Asia (RFA) in an August 10 interview.
In the 2017 report, HRW said taking blood without consent “can violate an individual’s privacy, dignity, and right to bodily integrity,” while advancing the PRC’s surveillance.
Two prominent scientific journals recently retracted two studies that relied on data from Uyghurs, citing concerns over “ethics and consent procedures,” the New York Times reported September 9. The studies listed the chief forensic scientist at China’s Ministry of Public Security as a co-author.
The U.S. Department of State has called the PRC’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang genocide and the Belgian parliament has approved a resolution stating a serious risk of genocide exists. And the United States, along with Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union, sanctioned top PRC officials in Xinjiang for human rights violations and called for an end to the PRC’s abuse of ethnic and religious minorities.
The United States and the EU are also taking steps to ensure future technologies reinforce shared democratic values. The U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which held its inaugural ministerial meeting in Pittsburgh September 29, seeks to ensure artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies help tackle modern challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate crisis, without enabling authoritarian abuse.
Moreau argues that scientific studies based on data taken from Uyghurs and conducted with PRC security officials violate principles of ethical research codified after World War II. The 1947 Nuremberg Code — named for the trial of Nazi doctors who conducted human experiments — requires voluntary consent of all human subjects and that experiments benefit society.
In a review of more than 500 studies published from 2011 to 2018 and based on data from people in China, Moreau found that Uyghurs were far more likely to be study subjects than Han Chinese, and that PRC security or judicial officials co-authored roughly half of the studies.
The idea of voluntary consent “does not make sense when we are talking about this type of study on the most vulnerable groups,” Moreau told RFA, faulting research involving PRC state security officials. “This research is fundamental to actually building this DNA database infrastructure” to support PRC surveillance.