An Artist Who Uses DNA to Make Life-Like Masks Is Wary of Cops Doing the Same

Heather Dewey-Hagborg said the limits of phenotyping are cause for concern when it's used by law enforcement.

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Nov 18 2016, 7:00pm

Some of Dewey-Hagborg's work on display at the Biofabricate conference. Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

When artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg released her Stranger Visions project back in 2012, she had a feeling it was only a matter of time before her vision became a reality. The artist collected scraps of strangers' DNA left in public—strands of hair, cigarette butts dotted with saliva—analyzed them, and created facial projection masks based on the information she could glean.

For Dewey-Hagborg, it was an art project. But now, that same technology is used by dozens of law enforcement agents to make guesses about witnesses, victims, or suspects whose DNA was left at crime scenes, and she's wary of what that could mean.

"It's not to say that DNA doesn't say a lot, and it's not to say that DNA can't be used to predict things—of course it can," Dewey-Hagborg told me at the Biofabricate conference in New York Thursday. "It's just that it can only predict like one-third of the picture. The question is: is that really good enough?"

One company she pointed to specifically was Parabon NanoLabs, which specializes in DNA phenotyping—the process of making predictions about an organism based on its genes. Working with the Department of Defense, Parabon created software called Snapshot, that allows law enforcement to access this technology and use it when investigating a crime. It's currently used by more than 80 law enforcement agencies, according to Parabon.

Parabon started with a reference database of subjects that include both their genetic information and physical traits. Then, the company's team of bioinformaticians and computer scientists "reverse-engineered" this data to figure out which genomes were linked with which traits, according to Parabon's CEO Steve Armentrout.

One of Dewey-Hagborg's work on display at the Biofabricate conference. Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

Parabon used the DoD's supercomputers to refine the technique to create Snapshot, which allows cops to send off DNA and get a genetic profile and even a composite sketch of what that person may look like, based on their DNA.

"It's great for narrowing suspect lists, generating leads, or identifying remains," Armentrout told me. "Its primary strength is giving the investigators to exclude individuals as they're going through the course of their investigation."

Of course, there are limits to what DNA can tell you about a person. While it can pretty accurately predict something like eye color, it doesn't account for weight, age, or, of course, appearances like dyed hair or facial hair. And that's part of the reason Dewey-Hagborg says the public should be looking at this kind of technology critically.

She is concerned that putting too much faith in DNA could exacerbate existing problems within law enforcement, such as racial profiling. DNA can give us information about a person's ancestry, and a good idea of what their skin tone is, but it can't conclusively determine something like race.

"Ancestry becomes a sort of short-cut term for race," Dewey-Hagborg said. "When it's a person reading their own genealogical information, they're going to look at that in light of what they know about their own personal history. But when it gets into the hands of the police, that all gets thrown out the window, because there is no self-knowing subject there."

Armentrout told me they have received this kind of criticism since day one, but that they never intended Snapshot to be a magic bullet. "It's no different than a composite taken from an eyewitness account or surveillance camera. It's information that investigators can use," Armentrout said. "It goes without saying that investigators still have to make a case they way they've always had to make a case."

Dewey-Hagborg was also concerned that the software was not available to the general public to test, and Parabon hasn't published any research on its technology, but Armentrout told me the company has been working with third-party researchers to test it and publish the findings.

It's not unexpected for new technology to face scrutiny, especially from an artist who spends a lot of time thinking about the limits and possibilities of DNA. Armentrout said Parabon has always been clear about the fact that Snapshot is only a tool, it can be part of an investigation, but it can't replace police work.

Still, these kinds of discussions are a good reminder of what we do and don't understand about our genes.

"There is no code of life that can tell you who are," Dewey-Hagborg said. "More importantly there is no code of life that can tell you who someone else is."

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