Edmonton sexual assualt DNA phenotyping accused of racial stereotyping

Occurred: December 2022

The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) came under fire from Black and civil rights organisations for using a controversial DNA prediction technology to solve a 2019 sexual assault in which there no witnesses, surveillance video, public tips or DNA matches.

Their investigation having gone cold, the police turned to Parabon NanoLabs to conduct DNA phenotyping, which uses a person’s genetic material to predict parts of their appearance such as eye, skin and hair colour, as well as facial features including shape. Police can use such information to narrow suspects and generate leads in criminal investigations. 

Parabon produced for EPS a composite 'Snapshot' of a five-foot-four Black man with dark brown to black hair and dark brown eyes based on trait predictions from DNA evidence collected from the victim. The police published the image of a suspect for circulation in the hope it would generate leads. 

However, it led to a significant backlash, with local communities accusing the police of stereotyping a Black suspect and stigmatising racial groups. Two days later, the EPS apologised and removed the image from its website and social media accounts.

Transparency 🙈

Like other DNA analysis tools, TrueAllele's Snapshot is an algorithmic black box 'the exact details of our method [which] have not been published', the company acknowledges, adding that it has 'attempted to be as transparent as possible by presenting our work at conferences and posting every single composite that goes public on our website, so people can draw their own conclusions about how well our technology works.'

University of Calgary biological anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Benedikt Hallgrímsson told the New York Times in 2015 that forensic DNA phenotyping was 'a bit of science fiction at this point', and that Parabon 'oversell their ability to predict the facial-shape phenotypes.'

Operator: Edmonton Police Service
Developer: Parabon NanoLabs
Country: Canada
Sector: Govt - police
Purpose: Predict physical appearance
Technology: DNA phenotyping
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Bias/discrimination - race, ethnicity; Privacy
Transparency: Governance; Black box; Marketing

Page info
Type: Incident
Published: December 2022