Humans contain about 25,0000 protein coding genes and much more non-protein coding DNA, all of which uniquely identifies us. Because of this, DNA tests have become the standard is criminal forensics for identification of individuals at the scene of a crime. When done properly these tests can identify individuals with a theoretical probability of 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000(1018). These statistics come from using the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS and focuses on identity through only 13 genes (alleles). Well, it is not actually 13 genes, it is only small parts of 13 genes. To me this seems like a very breakable and hackable system so let’s talk think about that for a minute or seven.
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.
Everywhere we go we leave microscopic traces of ourselves, and we collect microscopic traces of others. Microscopic DNA left at the scene of a crime is commonly used to identify criminals and substantiate evidence against them. What about other microscopic traces humans leave behind or even collect, can we be identified or tracked based solely on the bacteria that inhabit our body?
Everyone’s skin is covered in bacteria, it is all over you and the surfaces you interact with. Scientists call each community of bacteria a microbiome. Until the past few years this knowledge was little more than a curiosity as Scientists attempted to understand if this population of bacteria on our bodies affected us in any way. Then some studies came around which suggested that bacteria influence things like mammalian circadian clocks and appetites. Some others attempted to quantify the types and amounts of bacteria on our skin, inside our body, and in our environments. From all of this, Scientists began to see that both the microbiome of our environments and our bodies have unique qualities.
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