Police departments claim to use DNA to generate portraits of suspects

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The move drew strong criticism on social media. Police services in Edmonton, Canada, claim to use composite portraits generated by DNA analysis to identify suspects. A technology that had not proven itself…

Generating a portrait of a suspect from DNA data… The idea seems to come straight out of a science fiction movie script. However, it is this concept that the Edmonton City Police Services claim to have already implemented. In a press release posted on their website, they describe a case of sexual assault that occurred in 2019. According to them, no witnesses could be questioned. The assailant was wearing clothing that covered him and therefore the victim was unable to effectively describe him.

For this reason, police services have tried to innovate by resorting to a DNA analysis service. ” The service used in this case was DNA phenotyping, the process of predicting physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence. “, describes the press release. Recently, the Edmonton Police Twitter account posted a portrait of the suspect in question generated in this way. He was removed, after receiving widespread criticism.

The biggest criticism that can be made of this method is… that it does not seem to be scientifically validated. In addition, the press release itself already underlines the approach of the analysis: It is important to note that DNA phenotyping compounds are scientific DNA-based approximations of appearance and are not exact replications of appearance. “, we can read there.

The suspect generated by artificial intelligence being black, Internet users and experts did not take long to sound the alarm about the risks of stigmatization. ” You can’t make accurate facial profiles or pigmentation predictions from DNA, it’s pixie dust. “Says Adam Rutherford, professor of genetics at University College London, pure and simple, in a tweet replying to that of the Edmonton police.

imprecise technology

The technology behind all this debate was bought from the Parabon company. On his website, he makes no effort to draw the attention of the police or investigative services: ” Solve your toughest cases, fast! “, proclaims the company.

However, as Adam Rutherford points out, science is far from being able to meet such a requirement. At present, it is impossible to accurately assess most of the physical characteristics of a phenotype. ” Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckles, and face shape. “However, states the Edmonton police. Even beyond these considerations, a DNA analysis obviously cannot predict how an individual will evolve during his or her lifetime, depending on his or her lifestyle and environmental factors. Likewise, age cannot be guessed from DNA.

All this leaves a fairly large gray area. Under fire, Edmonton police released a second statement. “ The potential that a visual profile could provide too broad a characterization within a racialized community, and in this case Edmonton’s black community, was not something I sufficiently considered. wrote Enyinnah Okere, director of the Edmonton Police Safety and Welfare Office. ” It is important to balance the potential research value of a practice against all too real risks and unintended consequences for marginalized communities. “, so he recognized.

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