Undark: What are your first impressions of this technology? On the one hand, it’s been touted by police and law enforcement as this breakthrough technology that has helped solve cases that had hit a dead end. On the other hand, you have people saying it is potentially discriminatory technology and might actually be very bad for communities that are marginalized.
Jonathan Kahn: My general sense, aside from the issue of the possible discriminatory impacts — which I think are significant — but on its own terms I’m very skeptical of the practical efficacy of this technology. I think there’s a lot of hype around it because it’s sort of the mystique of DNA and the idea of its great power. It’s been around for a long time. The evidence that it’s actually been primarily responsible for having this sort of breakthrough, so far as I can tell, is very scant. When Parabon is saying things like “Oh, we have contributed to solving X numbers of cases,” well, what does “contribute to” really mean? What we don’t see is how often it’s used and it doesn’t lead anywhere. At least I haven’t seen that data.
More generally, my other feeling is, yes, of course it’s going to happen just the way it did in Edmonton, which is you get the presentation of this proposed phenotype. And the idea that you can turn DNA into a specific picture, I think, is well — I guess the word that comes to mind is “ludicrous.” I’m not an expert in that technology, per se. But I’m sort of familiar generally with how it works and it seems like it’s just way overclaiming.
UD: One of the questions that critics have raised is whether these ambiguous descriptions and images open up possibilities for discrimination and racial profiling, given U.S. law enforcement’s history of police violence and brutality.
JK: Well, I mean, I guess it’s sort of yes and no. It’s not uncommon in any sort of crime for the victim to use racial descriptors in characterizing the perpetrator and say, “Oh, yes, the person who attacked me was and looked to be Black, Latino, Asian, White,” whatever. So the genetic technology here doesn’t add a whole lot to that. What it does is, where the victim can’t speak for whatever reason, it tries to provide some information — and that in itself is not unreasonable to try to fill that in, because racial descriptors are used in crime all the time.
Where the racism comes in is oftentimes not the fact that you’re identifying a potential suspect by their race, but by how the law enforcement authorities act on that information. There are histories of doing things like this based on DNA, like “racial dragnets” or more particularly there are just innumerable stories, especially for African Americans in the U.S., of being pulled over for driving while Black, where they say, “Oh, yes, we had a report that there was a Black person and a Black male in the neighborhood doing X, Y, or Z” and they just leave out the fact that the report was of a Black man who was like, 6’4’’ and looked to be around 20 years old and they’re pulling over some 45-year-old Black man who’s 5’5’’ and weighs 400 pounds and saying, “Oh, we had a report of a Black man.”
And those sorts of occurrences are daily things happening that have nothing to do with the DNA technology. But the question is whether or not this technology is feeding part of that world. Is it augmenting that tendency?
UD: So forensic DNA phenotyping will create an image and provide confidence estimates about whether the suspect has brown skin or black hair or other. Then the police will have a face that they can use as a reference to narrow down their suspect list. Is that feeding into the problem in any way?
JK: The thing about presenting the picture, something that actually looks like a specific human being, is it potentially places dozens, hundreds, thousands of people under unwarranted suspicion. Especially because it’s rendered almost photographically, which is even different from a crime sketch that you get from a witness.
It’s not going to place people specifically under suspicion because of their race, per se. But people within that racial group who bear any phenotypic resemblance to this produced photograph become subjects of surveillance and suspicion in a way that, I think, is very problematic.
Leave a Reply