DNA Portraits

The Forensic Possibilities and Ethical Quandaries

With a 3D portrait of Chelsea Manning created using only DNA from cheek swabs and hair clippings soon to be displayed at the V&A, Callum Tyndall examines the potential wider uses of the technology in a forensic context and whether we should be concerned about its broader usage

Created from analyses of the DNA contained in cheek swabs and hair clippings, Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Radical Love portraits of Chelsea Manning are notable not only for being the only public portrait of Manning prior to her 2017 release, but for the broader possibilities the technology may hold.

Using a process called phenotyping, in which an organism’s phenotype (the composite of its observable characteristics) is predicted using only genetic information collected from DNA sequencing, the portraits show two faces, one with an algorithmically neutral gender and the other assigned female, to represent Manning being transgender.

Now part of the V&A’s The Future Starts Here exhibition, opening in May, the first UK display of these portraits is also a look into a forensic science that could transform policing.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg preparing Manning's DNA samples. Images courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg 

Forensic future: Problematic profiling and a question of accuracy

In January 2015, police in Columbia, South Carolina, put out a press release containing what is believed to be the first composite image in forensic history to be published entirely on the basis of a DNA sample. The image was produced by Parabon NanoLabs using its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping System and consisted of a digital mesh of predicted face morphology overlaid with textures representing predicted eye colour, hair colour and skin colour.

Parabon’s Snapshot System, which has received funding from the US Department of Defense, has been developed using deep data mining and advanced machine learning. The company claims it “accurately predicts genetic ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, skin colour and face shape in individuals from any ethnic background”,  and since its first use has apparently become the most popular tool of its kind among US police forces.

Several counties refuse to allow DNA phenotyping, and it is evidence that may not be allowed in court

However, Parabon’s PR may paint a rosier image of the technology than should be considered truly realistic.

While the potential of the technology certainly seems impressive, it should be noted that several counties refuse to allow DNA phenotyping, and it is evidence that may not be allowed in court.

Furthermore, the accuracy of the technique has been called into question. Some factors that make up a person’s appearance, for example scars or facial hair, would not be taken into account, and we may not yet be familiar with all the genes that play a role in a person’s appearance, making the depiction potentially incomplete.

In addition, the resulting images from this method can be somewhat generic, meaning they could result in the targeting of the wrong person, playing into existing problems with profiling. Even assuming the perfect functioning of the technology, however, there are ethical quandaries to consider.

Image-based values: ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’

While Radical Love was certainly designed with the aforementioned issues in mind, it more specifically was intended to explore the issues of the technology in relation to aspects of Manning.

Presenting both of the possible faces alongside each other, according to Dewey-Hagborg, “draws attention to the problem of utilising chromosomes or birth-assigned sex to assign gender, as well as a larger issue of what it means to rely on stereotyped ideas of what a gendered face is ‘supposed’ to look like.”

Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain 'pics or it didn't happen'

If we consider the further ethical considerations here, taking into account the relative ease with which a huge database of phenotyped portraits could be created and held by law enforcement or government (assuming some sort of forced drive to gather DNA samples), it’s not hard to imagine a society defined by its DNA alone.

Given the struggles that already exist for those whose identity does not conform to what are considered societal norms, the prospect of a biologically defined image of what you ‘should’ look like seems concerning. With Manning in particular, the contrast between her erasure from the public eye while imprisoned and the likeness her DNA produces shows how phenotyping portraits could be used to define the visual perception of a person outside of their own agency.

As Manning herself said, in an interview with Cory Doctorow in Boing Boing, "Our society's dependence on imagery says a lot about our values. Unfortunately, prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world. Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain 'pics or it didn't happen.'"

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