Photo Credit: China Daily/Reuters

Xinjiang is situated in the far West region of China, and home to over 11 million Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic minority. 

The area is occasionally hit by bouts of violence, with some experts even referring to it as an “open-air prison”. 

As a result, Chinese authorities are collecting DNA samples, fingerprints and other biometric data from every resident, reports The Guardian

The data will be used to build a database of iris scans and blood types of everyone aged between 12 and 65, it will be used for surveillance of persons because of ethnicity, religion, opinion or other protected exercise of rights like free speech. 

The collection is being done through government-provided medical checkups,and at the moment it is unclear if patients are aware the exam is also designed to transmit biometric data to the police. 

Although the checks under what is known as The Population Registration Program are officially voluntary, it appears participation doesn’t appear to be optional. One man in particular told Human Rights Watch that local committee members “had demanded that they must [people in his neighborhood] must participate in the physicals.”

China director of Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, explained, “Xinjiang authorities should rename their physical exams project ‘Privacy Violations for All,’ as informed consent and real choice does not seem to be part of these programs. The mandatory data-banking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms, and it’s even more disturbing if it is done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free health care program.”

In an effort to collect biometric data from millions of residents, police in Xinjiang bought DNA sequencers from the US company Thermo Fisher Scientific, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the company has refused to directly address its products being used in Xinjiang, they commented, “We do expect all of our customers to act in accordance with appropriate regulations and industry-standard best practices.”

Although there is a heavy presence of armed troops on city streets, rights group say that most of the violence stems from restrictions on religion, culture, language and expression, as a well as a lack of economic opportunities in the disadvantaged region.