Chloe Xiang, Vice:
On Tuesday, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) shared a computer generated image of a suspect they created with DNA phenotyping, which it used for the first time in hopes of identifying a suspect from a 2019 sexual assault case. Using DNA evidence from the case, a company called Parabon NanoLabs created the image of a young Black man. The composite image did not factor in the suspect’s age, BMI, or environmental factors, such as facial hair, tattoos, and scars. The EPS then released this image to the public, both on its website and on social media platforms including its Twitter, claiming it to be “a last resort after all investigative avenues have been exhausted.”
This is not the first time police in Canada have turned to Parabon to create DNA-based predictive composites of suspects.
Sarah Rieger produced some terrific reporting on the use of this tool and its murky ethics while she was at CBC News. Here is Rieger in 2018 after a Parabon portrait was used to try to find the mother of a baby abandoned in Calgary:
Benedikt Hallgrímsson, a biological anthropologist and evolutionary biologist who studies the significance of phenotypic variation and variability at the University of Calgary, said he wouldn’t recommend phenotyping be used as a regular technique by law enforcement.
Hallgrímsson said the risk of these composite images is “twofold.” First, the image might lead to someone being falsely accused of a crime. Second, the actual suspect might not look anything like the picture and could be overlooked.
And here is a 2018 followup story from Rieger, answering the question of why they are used at all in Canada instead of family matches from the national databank of DNA from convicted criminals, missing persons, and volunteered samples:
A public affairs spokesperson told CBC that Canada is one of the only western countries not to allow familial DNA typing, even though it has been used to solve dozens of cases in the United States and around the globe.
“Jurisdictions that currently do use familial searching do so either on the basis of explicit legislative permission, or in some cases, more disturbingly, in the absence of any legislation explicitly prohibiting it,” Patricia Kosseim, the senior general counsel at the office of Canada’s privacy commissioner, said during a 2015 speech at the Canadian Institute on the Administration of Justice.
Rieger says consumer DNA databases like those used to crack cold cases in the U.S. would still be permissible for police to search. All of these options make me uncomfortable, but permitting exploratory use of the national database of criminals’ DNA seems like it could incentivize its expansion. When it was launched in 1998, only serious crimes required the collection of a convicted offender’s DNA. In 2008, amidst Stephen Harper’s crime-and-punishment tenure, law enforcement was permitted to collect offenders’ DNA for less violent criminal convictions. It would be worrisome if there were more reasons for more Canadians’ DNA to be in that databank. The whole point of the DNA Identification Act was to ensure the database does not become a means to collect a biological identity marker for everyone.
At the end of the second story, Rieger points out that the mother of the abandoned baby would not be identified using familial DNA matching unless one of her relatives was a convicted criminal. Rieger also notes that, at the time of writing, many of the cases involving Parabon’s predictive portraits remained open.
One of those cases was the 1998 murder of Renee Sweeney in Sudbury. In January 2017, police used Parabon’s software to update a sketch of the suspect. The suspect was arrested in December 2018, but police said they only received a tip that November. Even in favourable coverage, police do not seem like they want to draw a straight line between Parabon’s generated portrait and an arrest nearly two years after its release.