TrueAllele automated DNA forensic analysis
TrueAllele is a widely used DNA analysis system developed by Pittburgh-based Cybergenetics that has been used in over a thousand criminal justice cases in the US and internationally.
TrueAllele uses probabilistic genotyping, a fully automated algorithmic method the accuracy and reliability of which has been questioned many times.
TrueAllele is not open source and whilst its algorithm has been published in peer-reviewed literature, TrueAllele has repeatedly refused to release its source code to prosecutors, government crime laboratories, researchers, civil rights and privacy organisations and others on the basis that it is a trade secret, despite the high risk of wrongful convictions.
In 2017 the results of a TrueAllele DNA assessment were used to sentence Billy Ray Johnson to life in prison without parole. But the court denied the defense team access to TrueAllele’s source code, leading the ACLU to call the use of TrueAllele 'unconstitutional'.
In July 2021, the Washington Post reported on a court case in Fairfax County, Virginia, that saw public defender Bryan Kennedy informed by Cybergenetics that the algorithm could only be reviewed by a defence expert under an the terms of a non-disclosure agreement the terms of which included a USD 15,000 fee and permission only to take handwritten notes.
The Markup notes that New York City’s proprietary DNA analysis software Forensic Statistical Tool (FST) was assessed in 2016 and found to have a serious flaw that 'tend[ed] to overestimate the likelihood of guilt.' FST was replaced by STRmix, a competitor to TrueAllele the makers of which have admitted to software bugs that led to prosecutors having to replace 24 expert statements in Australia.
According to Mark Perlin, founder and CEO of Cybergenetics 'You don’t learn how a car works by reading its blueprints; you take it for a test run.'
Operator: Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS)
Sector: Govt - justice
Purpose: Analyse DNA
Technology: Probabilistic genotyping
Transparency: Governance; Black box; Legal
Investigations, assessments, audits
US Government Accountability Office (2021). Forensic Technology: Algorithms Strengthen Forensic Analysis, but Several Factors Can Affect Outcomes
ProPublica (2016). Where Traditional DNA Testing Fails, Algorithms Take Over
Greenspoon S.A., Schiermeier-Wood L., Jenkins B.C. (2015). Establishing the Limits of TrueAllele Casework: A Validation Study
News, commentary, analysis
Published: November 2021
Last updated: December 2022