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Two police officers in China patrol a city square

Across the world, DNA databases that could be used for state-level surveillance are steadily growing.

The most striking case is in China. Here police are using a national DNA database along with other kinds of surveillance data, such as from video cameras and facial scanners, to monitor the minority Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang.

Concerns about the potential downsides of governments being able to interrogate people’s DNA have been voiced since the early 2000s1 by activist groups, such as the non-profit organization GeneWatch UK, and some geneticists (myself included). Partly thanks to such debate, legislation and best practices have emerged in many countries around the use of DNA profiling in law enforcement2. (In profiling, several regions across the genome, each consisting of tens of nucleotides, are sequenced to identify a person or their relatives.)

Now the stakes are higher for two reasons. First, as technology gets cheaper, many countries might want to build massive DNA databases. Second, DNA-profiling technology can be used in conjunction with other tools for biometric identification — and alongside the analysis of... see more