Thermo Fisher halting sequencer sales in western China following reports of DNA surveillance program

Thermo Fisher Scientific is halting sales of its DNA sequencing hardware in western China, following a series of reports that the genetic sequencers were being used to help power a state surveillance program aimed at ethnic minorities in the region, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“We recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used—or may be used—by our customers,” the company said in a statement to the WSJ.

The program in China’s Xinjiang region, which forms the country’s western frontier along with Tibet, has been described by human rights organizations and journalists as one of the most sweeping surveillance operations in the world, targeting the primarily Muslim Uyghur ethnic group and other minorities. The Chinese government police has described the measures as necessary for countering antigovernment activities and violence.

A subsequent article in The New York Times detailed how Chinese authorities have collected blood samples, fingerprints, facial and eye scans, as well as voiceprint recordings, to build a citizen identification database as part of its high-tech campaign. In addition, the WSJ had previously reported how police collected saliva from schoolchildren in the region.

At least 35 million people in 2016 and 2017 participated in a state medical exam program dubbed “Physicals for All,” where DNA samples were collected, according to the article. In a statement to the Times, the Xinjiang government denied that DNA samples were collected through the free checkups, and that sequencers were bought by authorities for internal use.

According to Human Rights Watch, the submission of biometrics was mandatory for people considered a threat to the regime, as well as their family members.  

Thermo Fisher told the Times that it has been working with U.S. authorities to determine how its equipment, including its Applied Biosystems brand genetic analyzer, was being used in the region. The company has not specified whether it would continue DNA sequencer sales and services elsewhere in China.