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DNA: Tattletale Extraordinaire

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

For decades now DNA has been a powerful tool for the crime-fighter. Samples gathered at crime scenes can be compared to samples taken from suspects and used to connect them to a crime. Yet the analysis of DNA technology is advancing and may soon be able to provide more detailed and intimate information about the owner of a given sample. Thanks to the chromosomal code inherent in DNA, scientists can sequence out information like hair, eye, and skin color. Yet with the new techniques on the horizon that promise to reveal age and biological history, we are standing on the precipice of a new attack on privacy.

Though this type of Forensic DNA Phenotyping can help to focus authorities when they are searching for a suspect with no description from witnesses, it is an ethical mire for society as a whole. For one, Biographical Ancestry has not been proven to be an objective, scientific replacement for race. Secondly, these models are a product of their input. Complex algorithms assign individual human genotypes to a classification system and with not enough safeguards in place within the industry to ensure that accurate and diverse training samples are used, there is the potential for bias.

In a paper out of Germany on the Use of Forensic DNA Phenotyping in Predicting Appearance and Biogeographic Ancestry, they analyzed the accuracy of the predictive models used in the practice and discussed the possible societal issues if it were to be legalized. This kind of DNA profiling technology goes far beyond standard investigative measures. DNA Phenotyping is stripping the average citizen bare for authorities. Your DNA no longer provides just a prediction of age and sex, but what color your hair is likely to be and if you are probably going gray. DNA can not only show your biological sex, but what your eye color is likely to be, likely problems with your health given your age and race, and even what continent your genetic history may originate.

If authorities can discover information about your genetic history, like hormone levels, steroid use, heart problems, if you have sickle cell, and many other protected pieces of your medical history with DNA Phenotyping, what would be the point of a warrant for your medical records from your doctor? And what if your information becomes public as details of police investigations often are? Your employer may find out you have a debilitating disease and though it shouldn't, that knowledge may affect your career opportunities or insurance premiums. Let's say your DNA ends up at a scene of a crime after you already left. Your DNA profile is vetted via one of these programs to rule you out as a suspect. That information is now no longer under your control. What are the guarantees of privacy protection offered by the investigating entity? As of now, not a lot.

The question is what value would this bring to an investigation and does it outweigh the right to privacy for suspects? Currently, the predictive models are accurate when determining red and black hair because blond and brown hair tends to change over time. Consequently, people born blonde but turned brown in adolescence are predicted to have an almost equal probability of either blonde or brown. Add in the fact that one can simply dye their hair, how necessary is this invasion into the very essence of an individual? Experts argue that the greatest risk is that this technology will be used in a discriminatory way against minority groups. With no finer tuned models yet available and no safeguards universally used to protect individuals, is disturbing that some of these programs are already in use overseas.

I write thrillers that predict how tech currently on the horizon can be used for both good and back in society. Unfortunately, the idea of this kind of powerful tool in the hands of authorities without regulatory safeguards is a recipe for controversy. What do you think?


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