Monthly Archives: February 2015

Forensic DNA Phenotyping in the news

From NYTimes. Original caption read: The police in Columbia, S.C.,  released this sketch of a possible suspect based on DNA left at the crime scene. Parabon NanoLabs, which made the image, has begun offering DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement agencies.

From NYTimes. Original caption read: The police in Columbia, S.C., released this sketch of a possible suspect based on DNA left at the crime scene. Parabon NanoLabs, which made the image, has begun offering DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement agencies.

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?

Sincerely,
Heather Dewey-Hagborg
Assistant Professor of Art and Technology Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Newborn DNA Storage Raises Serious Privacy Concerns

Before they are even a week old, ninety-eight percent of the 4.3 million babies born annually in the United States have a small sample of blood taken from their heels. These newborn bloodspots (NBS) are then screened for a variety of inherited conditions and are often later stored in state-operated databases. Newborn screening itself is an important public health program and some have described these residual sample “biobanks” in equally positive terms. Although there are concrete benefits of newborn testing, there are also troubling consent and privacy issues raised by the screening, storage and use of the samples.

 

Newborn screening began in the United States as a series of state level pilot programs in the 1960s to test for PKU, a rare genetic condition that is easily treatable if caught early. The success of these early programs led to rapid adoption of newborn screening among all states in the US and the number of conditions screened for has grown progressively since with additional funding at the Federal level. Because of the singular history of newborn screening, it remains the only widespread health testing in the US conducted not by an individual’s doctor, hospital, or health care provider but by individual state departments of public health. This singular history can also account for a wide disparity in state law and policy with regards to parental consent, sample storage and use.

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