Lots of media attention recently to a new company Parabon NanoLabs who is offering a forensic DNA phenotyping service (creating 3d virtual portraits from DNA) apparently to police nationwide. Popular Science broke the story as far as I can tell and I received a lot of email this week when the New York Times put their own story about the service on their homepage Monday. There are so many issues that went unaddressed in these articles which focus primarily on discussing this as a *technology*. I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times addressing one aspect of this I felt went far under-discussed: the way in which it forms a supposedly scientific basis for a new form of racial profiling. Here is the letter I wrote, we’ll see if they respond or publish it.
Update 3/5/15 – The New York Times did not publish or respond to my letter.
TO THE EDITOR:
In “Building a Face, and a Case, on DNA” (NYT, Feb. 23, 2015) Andrew Pollack describes how police departments are mining DNA evidence to create police sketches. Since 2012 I have been creating life size full color 3D portraits from DNA in chewing gum, cigarettes and hair I found on New York’s streets for an art series called Stranger Visions that has shown in locally and internationally from the New York Public Library, to the Science Gallery in Dublin and Ars Electronica, Linz.
Through my own work in the molecular biology lab, I discovered that this science is still in its infancy. As noted in your article, there are few facial characteristics that can be known for certain, lending the practice a speculative nature. While eye and hair color can be guessed with a strong probability, skin color and race, hidden behind the term “ancestry,” are much more problematic.
Rather than producing a useable sketch, the technology allows police departments to hide the practice of racial profiling beneath a veneer of “legitimate” science. After years of controversy, racial profiling has been widely controversial and rejected by the public. But if you glance at the profile that is actually generated by Identitas and Parabon, you see a composite model based on very few genetic variables that relate to facial features. It’s a portrait of a generic African American male—a visualization of a stereotype.
The real question here is whether scientists and society in general is willing to accept a new form of racial profiling that masquerades as science?
Assistant Professor of Art and Technology Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago