Through a fantastic biononymous workshop in Berlin we developed a new, more DIY than ever guide to erase and replace your DNA in your kitchen!
Published 7/6/15 by The New Inquiry
The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting,” and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP has already been used to create a new kind of police sketch.
While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted from DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites. We tend to look at technical systems as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and look at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.
FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space,” a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African.”
The act of creating computational averages and looking for correlated features in large datasets has an air of authenticity and scientific validity, but what this actually does is create a system of types — you might call them stereotypes.
Yes, this looks very familiar…
No I had nothing to do with it, I was not consulted or cited, and I’m not surprised.
And it isn’t surprising that an ad agency press release was recycled from one media outlet to the next as “news” without research or problematization of the obvious issues here around surveillance, genetic privacy, and public shaming as a technique of social control.
Finally, it isn’t surprising that DNA might be used to monitor, survey, and publicly shame individuals deemed deviant.
But what is the “face of litter” campaign really? DNA phenotyping isn’t cheap, and it’s telling to contemplate why a Parabon Nanolabs, a small biotech startup, would donate this expensive technology to an ad agency for a pro bono ecological project. It’s called PR.
Not satisfied by having our emails, chats, status updates, search histories, clicking behaviors, and shopping preferences, some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech titans are in an arms race to get access to your most personal information:
Last week, for instance, the MIT Technology Review reported that Apple was looking to integrate genetic data into studies that run atop its new open-source research platform, ResearchKit. That should come as no surprise. There’s a national focus on personalized medicine, and since DNA information is becoming cheaper to get and store, the healthcare industry is hoping that personalized medicine will be part of the solution to rising costs.
Here’s a look at how three tech companies are preparing to dominate your DNA:
In 2013, Yaniv Erlich’s genetics lab at MIT (now at Columbia) called the entire possibility of genetic anonymity into question when they discovered the identities of DNA donors by cross-referencing their genetic data with publicly available information from genealogy databases. Their article “Identifying Personal Genomes by Surname Inference”(1) published in Science created a stir across privacy and medical research communities.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg: In your own words, can you give us a brief explanation of the study? What did you do and what did it mean to you?
Yaniv Erlich: We showed that it is possible in some cases to infer the surnames of males from their allegedly de-identified DNA samples. In most societies, a male receives his surname from his father, who received his surname from his own father and so own. Now, since males receive their Y chromosome from their father and the father of their father, this process creates a correlation between surnames and y chromosomes.
Our technique exploits this correlation to identify the surname of individuals and uses open genetic genealogy databases to infer the right surname. Surnames are strong identifiers. Correctly inferring them dramatically narrows the search space. We specifically showed that if the age and state of the targeted individual are known (HIPAA does not protect these two identifiers), then a surname inference can virtually resolve the identity of the person.
To show that this technique works, we were able to identify with extremely high probabilities close to 50 people that were part of a large scale study, called the 1000 Genomes.
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
Timothy Campbell is a Professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University and together with Adam Sitze, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social thought at the Amherst College he recently edited a new collection of essays on the topic of biopolitics. Campbell translated Roberto Esposito’s Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minnesota, 2008) and Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (Stanford, 2009). He is the author of Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minnesota, 2006), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2007 Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Technics and and Improper Life: Biopolitics and Technology from Heidegger to Agamben (Minnesota, 2011). He also edits the series “Commonalities” for Fordham University Press and is currently completing his study of cinema and biopower titled Grace Notes: Cinema and the Generous Form of Life.
Biopolitics: A Reader published in 2013 collects pivotal texts defining the concept of biopolitics. Opening with Michel Foucault’s coining of the term in his 1976 essay “Right of Death and Power over Life” we follow biopolitics through the edited collection as it is anticipated by Hannah Arendt and later altered, critiqued, deconstructed, and refined by major political and social theorists who explicitly engaged with Foucault’s ideas.
This blog post is abridged. A PDF of the entire interview is available here.