The Edmonton Police Service has shared a computer-generated image of the suspect created through phenotyping DNA, which they used for the first time in hopes of identifying a suspect in a 2019 sexual assault case.
Using DNA evidence from the case, Parabon NanoLabs created an image of a young black man. The composite image did not take into account the suspect’s age, body mass index, or environmental factors such as facial hair, tattoos, and scars. Police released the image on their website and social media, saying it was “a last resort after all investigative avenues have been exhausted.”
Privacy experts say the police decision to produce and release the image is extremely damaging because it raises questions about racial bias in DNA phenotyping for forensic investigations and the breach of confidentiality of DNA databases that investigators can search through.
The victim of the crime had only a limited description of the suspect, describing him as 5.4 feet (1.64 meters) tall, wearing black pants and a sweater or a hooded sweatshirt, and “with an accent that makes the image vague and indistinct.”
Kelly Schroeder, global privacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, questioned the utility of the image: “Even if it is a new piece of information, what are you going to do with this? Question every approximately 5’4″ black man you see?”
“Releasing one of these Parabon images to the public like the Edmonton Police did recently, is dangerous and irresponsible, especially when that image implicates a Black person and an immigrant,” said Jennifer Lynch, the Surveillance Litigation Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Motherboard. “People of color are already disproportionately targeted for criminal investigations, and this will not only exacerbate that problem, it could result in public vigilantism and real harm to misidentified individuals.”
Seeing the combined image without context or knowledge of DNA phenotyping can mislead people into believing that the suspect looks exactly like the DNA profile.
In response to criticism following the release of the image and use of DNA phenotyping, the Edmonton Police Department issued a press release, in which they announced that they had removed the combined image from their website and social media.
Parabon NanoLabs sent Motherboard a series of case studies in which DNA phenotyping helped solve cases of murders and assaults. However, these examples do not address larger issues that are much more difficult to measure, such as how many innocent people were questioned before the last suspect was arrested, and how a suspect’s image might affect the public’s racial biases.