School of Medicine emeritus professor Kenneth Kidd shared genetic data with scientists from China’s Ministry of Public Security, which then used the information to profile and oppress the country’s Uighurs — a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in China, according to an investigation by the New York Times published on Thursday.
The report cited human rights groups that denounced the surveillance efforts of the Chinese government and explained how sharing new technology and data can prove damaging, if such information is misused. According to the Times report, China’s now-comprehensive DNA database — which was built with help from Kidd and a U.S. biotechnology company Thermo Fisher — can help the country’s government identify and chase down Uighur dissidents.
In an email to the News, School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern wrote that “we are looking into this.”
Li Caixia, chief forensic physician of China’s Institute of Forensic Science who obtained DNA samples from Kidd, was at one point a visiting research scientist in genetics, according to the University’s “Directory of Individuals.” While Caixia once was employed by Yale, he is no longer listed in the directory. In an interview with the Times, Kidd said he was unaware of how the Chinese police was using the DNA samples he had shared.
And when Chinese government scientists uploaded genetic information of more than 2,143 Uighurs to an online genetic platform run by Kidd, he believed that the researchers had acquired permission from DNA donors, Kidd said.
“I had thought we were sharing samples for collaborative research,” Kidd said in an interview with the Times.
Per the Times report, Kidd’s collaboration with Chinese government researchers began in 2010, when China’s Ministry of Public Security — or the Chinese police — hosted Kidd for an expenses-paid trip to Beijing.
The Times reported that in 2014, ministry researchers published a paper that described a method for scientists to distinguish between ethnic groups — including Uighurs from Indians — in Forensic Science International.
According to the Times, Kidd said he was “not particularly happy” that the ministry cited him in their work and explained that his data should not be used in ways that could allow people or institutions to potentially profit from it.
University spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale is gathering information and declined to comment further for the story.
Kidd did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Senior Associate Provost for Research Administration Pamela Caudill directed a request for comment to University Spokesperson Karen Peart, who did not respond to requests for comment.
It remains unclear whether Kidd violated the University’s policies on disclosing genetic information.
According to the University website, while the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act imposes restrictions on the disclosure of protected health information, the law does not regulate the use of “de-identified information.”
“It is therefore the policy of Yale University to use and/or disclose de-identified information … where appropriate, in accordance with the procedures set forth below,” according to the University policy website. “De-identified information and/or limited data sets may still be subject to other confidentiality requirements (e.g., because the information is proprietary) and should be marked confidential when appropriate.”
In an interview with the News, Kelsang Dolma ’19 — a Tibetan student who has long protested the Chinese government — said she was furious and “astonished that people are still complicit in this egregious human rights violation.” She called for Kidd to resign.
Dolma added that Kidd’s comment in the New York Times that he was not “particularly pleased” with how his data was used was “absolutely laughable.”
Thermo Fisher will no longer sell its products in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is identifying and tracking Uighurs.
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