Edmonton police are facing backlash online for what some are calling racial profiling after posting an image of a suspect in a sexual assault case that was prepared using DNA testing that some qualify as “very controversial”.
Police have since apologized for the DNA phenotyping and said the technology “raises concerns about profiling a marginalized group”.
In a statement, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) said this was the first time it had used a type of test called “DNA phenotyping” to create an image that could identify the suspect from a case dating back to 2019.
In March 2019, police responded to reports of a woman being “violently sexually assaulted” by an “unknown male” in a field surrounding St. Basil and Spruce Avenue schools.
Shortly after the incident, EPS requested information about the suspect, who was described as 5ft 4in tall and wearing a black toque, pants and sweater or hoodie. He has also been described as having an accent.
After a lengthy investigation without “witnesses, CCTV, public counsel or DNA matches”, EPS said it turned to DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs, which uses DNA phenotyping technology to predict physical appearance and ancestry at from “unidentified DNA evidence”.
“Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckles, and face shape. By combining these appearance attributes, a composite “Snapshot” was produced illustrating what the POI might have looked like at 25 years old and with an average body mass index of 22,” police said.
However, police also noted that “environmental factors” such as smoking, alcohol, diet and other non-environmental factors such as facial hair, hairstyles and scars cannot be predicted by DNA analysis and could lead to greater variation between the suspect’s predictions. and actual appearance.
After posting the image, EPS faced backlash online, with many accusing police of racial profiling.
What is DNA phenotype technology?
Joshua Stein, a postdoc at Georgetown University whose research includes medical ethics, told Narcity that DNA phenotype technologies are typically used to produce predictions about things like skin color. and eyes based on probabilities, but early research on facial structure is “highly controversial”.
Stein said EPS presented a suspect’s full face despite “no information given as to how the face was constructed”.
Even with aspects such as skin and eye color, the predictions are made “within a range of probabilities” and so may not be an accurate representation, he added.
“Due to the probabilistic nature of the assessment, the snapshot can be used as justification to treat as a person of interest essentially any male who matches the existing description which is merely a pretext for racial profiling” , Stein said.
Stein also said the company behind the technology – Parabon NanoLabs – had “repeatedly refused” to subject the technology to scientific peer review.
In a phone interview with Narcity, Dr. Ellen Greytak, technical lead for the Snapshot division at Parabon NanoLabs, confirmed that the technology had not been peer-reviewed, but said the company was being as transparent as possible with its “trade secret technology”.
Greytak also disputed claims that the technology enabled racial profiling and said the company “simply predicts factual information” about a person’s identity based on their DNA.
She went on to say that the snapshot is “the same as if a witness were giving a description of this person. You wouldn’t accuse this witness of racial profiling because of their description of this person,” she said. .
In terms of technology, Greytak said the company has studied “thousands of people’s faces” and the snapshots attempt to broadly predict what a person’s face may look like compared to the “basic face of the same gender and of the same ancestry.
Edmonton police apologize
In an additional statement, Enyinnah Okere, chief operating officer of EPS’ Office of Community Safety and Wellbeing, said they “were and are not oblivious to the legitimate questions being raised as to the relevance of this type of technology”.
The potential for a visual profile to provide “far too broad characterization within a racialized community” — in this case, Edmonton’s black community — was not something that was “sufficiently considered,” he said. added Okere.
“I prioritized the investigation – which in this case involved the pursuit of justice for the victim, herself a member of a racialized community, rather than potential harm to the black community. This was not not an acceptable compromise and I apologize for that,” they said.
The statement added that the suspect’s visuals would be removed immediately along with the social media images and that the police would review their internal processes.