Authoritarianism and Indigenous peoples in the development of forensic genetic technologies

— Mark Munsterhjelm —

A powerful new class of forensic genetic technologies being adapted by security agencies, called next generation sequencing (NGS) or massively parallel sequencing, have been sharply criticized by a number of scholars for resurrecting once discredited racial categories (Duster, 2015; Fullwiley, 2014). We might see NGS technologies in other terms, as well: They have been developed through authoritarian assemblages that can be seen as violating Indigenous people’s sovereignty, self-determination and rights, and they are now elements of cooperative ventures with repressive Chinese state security agencies.

The old regime: Violating Indigenous selfdetermination

The concepts of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty underpin major transformations in genetic research laws, ethics and protocols involving Indigenous peoples over the last 25 years. Conflicts of the mid-1990s over the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and related struggles over mass violations of ethics and consent transformed and partially decolonized research relations, leading to concepts like “DNA on loan” and ongoing informed consent, particularly over secondary usages. Many researchers, though, continue to use samples collected in the old regime, to avoid negotiations with Indigenous peoples.

For example, Yale University geneticist Kenneth Kidd and colleagues have made use of the strong dividing line between sampling done before and after the 1990s. Nearly all of the Indigenous peoples who are part of the “47 population samples routinely studied at Kidd Lab” were sampled 25 or more years ago, before the conflicts of the mid-1990s. The Ticuna were sampled in 1976, the Mbuti in 1986, the Karitiana and Surui in 1987 (which has been the subject of much controversy), and the Atayal and Ami in 1993-4.

Kidd and colleagues are well aware of the dividing line: In one publication, for example, after noting restrictions by countries like India and China on export of samples, Kidd et al. make an indirect reference to Indigenous people’s assertion of their self-determination and the restrictions this now places on scientists’ agency: “In other cases, individual populations will not allow their DNA and genotype data to be shared” (Soundararajan et al., 2016: 31).

Old regime DNA is contributing to the new technologies. The 55 AISNP (ancestry informative SNP) panel developed by Kidd has been integrated into the Illumina MiSeq FGx forensic genetic sequencer system. The FGx system’s testing by a team of scientists, including David Glenn Smith of UC Davis and the well-known former FBI Lab senior scientist Bruce Budowle (now of the University of North Texas), was done on samples from 62 members of the Yavapai Indigenous people of central Arizona that were likely taken under the old regime by US NIH researchers well before the 1990s (Wendt et al., 2016). The possession of these samples was sufficient for the UC Davis Institutional Review Board to approve this secondary usage: They did not consider it necessary for the Yavapai to approve this secondary usage, nor did they object to the fact that the samples were taken decades ago under the old regime. This validation of the FGx system is a vital step in the commercialization of this system.

Cooperation with authoritarian governments

The increasingly repressive Chinese state security apparatus  is subjecting the Uyghur along with other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province to one of the most comprehensive police states in history. According to Human Rights Watch, during 2017, under the guise of health checkups, Chinese security agencies engaged in mandatory genetic sampling of the entire Muslim minority population of Xinjiang as part of an integrated comprehensive biometric surveillance system. Human Rights Watch sharply criticized Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific for selling several high throughput capillary electrophoresis sequencers (these are not generally considered NGS technologies) to one Chinese security agency, the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security.

Like Thermo Fisher, American researchers appear to be indifferent to the repression. Kidd and a number of other American researchers, including James M. Robertson of the FBI Lab in Quantico Virginia, have cooperated with researchers affiliated with Chinese security agencies, such as Li Cai-Xia of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, to develop forensic genetic technologies, research which included use of Uyghur samples (Pakstis et al., 2015). US-based researchers have cooperated with Thermo Fisher in promoting its forensic genetic technologies in China, through conferences such as one in 2016 that include Sheree Hughes-Stamm of Sam Houston State University as a keynote speaker and Li Hai-yan of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, along with a number of other Chinese researchers from various Public Security Bureaus. Li Hai-yan’s 2016 presentation included testing the ThermoFisher HID-Ion AmpliSeq Ancestry Panel, which incorporates Kidd’s 55 AISNP panel, on Uyghur samples. Bruce Budowle was the keynote speaker at a November 2017 Thermo Fisher-sponsored conference in Chengdu, which again included Li Hai-yan and a number of other Chinese security agency affiliated researchers.

Conclusion

Forensic genetics technologies have been developed within research networks that have routinely engaged in violations of contemporary norms of informed consent regarding secondary usage. Building on that basis, US-based research assemblages have readily and seamlessly cooperated with the highly repressive Chinese security apparatus in further developing these technologies. Technologies developed in webs of oppression are being deployed in fresh contexts of oppression.

Mark Munsterhjelm is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at the University of Windsor.