Pre-Crime Australia: Police will use DNA sequencing to predict what suspects look like

Australian federal police have announced they are using next-generation DNA sequencing technology to predict the physical appearance of potential suspects.

Based on DNA left at a crime scene, the technology – also known as massively parallel sequencing – can predict externally visible characteristics of a person even in the absence of matching profiles in police databases.

MPS can “predict gender, biogeographical ancestry, eye colour and, in coming months, hair colour”, according to the AFP.

Experts say the technology is a “gamechanger” for forensic science but also raises issues around racial profiling, heightened surveillance and genetic privacy.

DNA forensics used to rely on a system that matched samples to ones in a criminal DNA database, and did not reveal much beyond identity. However, predictive DNA forensics can reveal things like physical appearance, biological sex and ancestry – regardless of whether people are in a database or not.

What is massive parallel sequencing?

MPS has been used commercially for more than a decade and has been used overseas in forensic cases.

Linacre describes it as a “massive gamechanger”. The technology is capable of sequencing “tens of millions of bits of DNA in one go”, he said. “This new methodology is telling you things about the person … externally visible characteristics.”

How will next-gen DNA sequencing be used in Australia?

The new sequencing technology will allow investigators to gain information about the physical characteristics of a potential suspect even when there is no matching DNA profile on a law enforcement database. The AFP plans to predict biological sex, “biogeographical ancestry”, eye colour and, in coming months, hair colour. Over the next decade they aim to include traits such as age, body mass index, and height, and even finer predictions for facial metrics such as distance between the eyes, eye, nose and ear shape, lip fullness, and cheek structure.

Pushing the Ethical boundaries?

The highly sensitive nature of DNA data, and the difficulty in ever making it anonymous creates significant privacy concerns. According to a 2020 government survey about public attitudes to privacy, most Australians are uncomfortable with the idea of their DNA data being collected.

Using DNA for forensics may also reduce public trust in the use of genomics for medical and other purposes. It will be important to set clear boundaries around what can and can’t be predicted in these tests – and when and how they will be used. Despite some progress toward a privacy impact assessment, Australian forensic legislation does not currently provide any form of comprehensive regulation of forensic DNA phenotyping.

Soruces: The Gaurdian

The Conversation