Protecting privacy

Michael Lawton’s thesis turned into a U.S. Senate bill

In April 2022, Michael Lawton submitted a thesis to Professor Jordan Paradise as an assignment in her Genetics Law and Policy course. That was about a month after presenting it to Sen. Marco Rubio.

Now a third-year law student, Lawton has seen his idea become U.S. Senate bill S.2551, “Stopping the Genetic Monitoring by China Act,” introduced by Rubio (R-Fla.) in July. The export-control bill—expected to garner wide bipartisan support—will prevent American companies from selling DNA sequencers and testing/mapping kits to military end users and law enforcement in China.

How did you get interested in this issue?

I majored in political science at University at Buffalo, where I was also vice president of our Amnesty International Club. We talked a lot about how China is committing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Western China. And I’m always reading the news, so I knew about China’s goal to build the world’s largest genetic data bank.

What’s at stake here? 

China is pursuing a “one person, one file” program [in which] the government keeps a file on each citizen containing every piece of data they can collect on that person. The status of your file determines what rights and privileges you can experience in China. It’s not unusual for countries to keep some forensic data, but from the beginning, China has focused on groups like sex workers, religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents, activists, migrants—anyone they deem to be problematic. They use overt and also covert means to collect the data, and informed consent is completely nonexistent. So the government can use this information to identify and silence dissidents, persecute ethnic minorities, expand their surveillance state and broadly control all of their people. They also want to develop bio weapons, gain a competitive edge in the international AI arms race, and sell the information for profit.

Knowledge is power; that’s the bottom line. We don’t know yet all the ways in which this could be used for nefarious ends someday. Who knows what having a person’s entire genetic make-up will allow a government to do in 20, 30 years?

What inspired you to contact Sen. Rubio’s office?

When I was an undergrad, I worked in three different congressional offices, so I knew legislators take people’s ideas seriously. I actually reached out to a ton of Senate and House offices, and Rubio’s was the first to offer me a meeting. I’m not his constituent, but like me, he sees China as the greatest adversary facing the U.S. in the 21st century.

“Who knows what having a person’s entire genetic make-up will allow a government to do in 20, 30 years?”

How did the senator’s team respond to you?

They explained that my original idea for tackling the problem was too broad and would have negatively affected exports to our allies. At that point, I almost lost hope, but I kept researching. The Department of Commerce requires companies to get licenses in order to export certain controlled items, and I discovered that there can be license exceptions when exporting to our allies versus our adversaries. So I went back to Rubio’s foreign affairs team and asked about giving DNA sequencers and testing/mapping kits this kind of license exception. That ultimately was the way forward.

What have you learned through this process?

There’s a quote attributed to Calvin Coolidge that basically says talent and intelligence are great, but “persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” At several points, I felt pretty hopeless, but I just kept working at it. It’s satisfying to know now that I played a small role in making meaningful change for people.

I also feel really fortunate to live in a country where citizens’ input matters, and our representatives are truly open to listening to what people have to say. –Liz Miller (August 2023)


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