Police Use DNA Phenotyping to Limit Pool of Suspects to 15,000

The Queensland police department said that the DNA sample from the case generated a genealogy tree of “15,000 ‘linked’ individuals” and they have not been able to find a close match yet. 
Image: Queensland Police Department
This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

The Queensland, Australia police have used DNA phenotyping for the first time ever in hopes of leading to a breakthrough for a 1982 murder. 

The department partnered with a U.S.-based company called Parabon NanoLabs to create a profile image of the murder suspect, a Caucasian man with long blonde hair. Police claim that this image was generated using blood samples found at the scene of the murder of a man from 40 years ago; according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this is the first time "investigative genetic genealogy" has been used in Queensland. 


This image does not factor in any environmental characteristics, such as tattoos, facial hair, and scars, and cannot determine the age or body mass of the suspect. However, Queensland investigators have published the image online and are offering a $500,000 reward and indemnity from prosecution to anyone who might have information about the suspect. 

The image is a vague rendering of a man that does not provide any more information than the sketch that the department already has of the suspect. This further perpetuates the hyper-surveillance of any man who resembles the image. Parabon NanoLabs has already been criticized by criminal justice and privacy experts for disseminating images that implicate too broad a pool of suspects.

“Broad dissemination of what is essentially a computer-generated guess can lead to mass surveillance of any Black man approximately 5'4", both by their community and by law enforcement,” Callie Schroeder, the Global Privacy Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Motherboard in October in regards to a suspect profile created by Parabon that was released by the Edmonton Police Department in October. “This pool of suspects is far too broad to justify increases in surveillance or suspicion that could apply to thousands of innocent people.”


The Queensland police department said that the DNA sample from the case generated a genealogy tree of “15,000 ‘linked’ individuals” and they have not been able to find a close match yet. 

Instead of facing the possibility that DNA phenotyping may not be an effective tool for narrowing down a suspect, the police department’s strategy is to ask the public for their DNA samples. Criminologist Xanthe Mallett said in a press release that to help police find a match, people can “opt-in” to share their own DNA samples with investigators through DNA services such as Family Tree and GEDMatch.

These DNA databases raise questions about the privacy violations of DNA phenotyping. Though Mallett encourages people to voluntarily submit their DNA to help police investigations, many users who submit their samples to free DNA researching sites may not fully understand how their data will be used. 

“People should know that if they send their DNA to a consumer-facing company, their genetic information may fall into the hands of law enforcement to be used in criminal investigations against them or their genetic relatives. None of this data is covered by federal health privacy rules in the United States,” Jennifer Lynch, the Surveillance Litigation Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard. “While 23 and Me and Ancestry generally require warrants and limit the disclosure of their users’ data to law enforcement, other consumer genetic genealogy companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTree DNA provide near-wholesale law enforcement access to their databases.” 

Parabon claims it has worked with hundreds of law enforcement agencies to use its Snapshot prediction tool to create composite sheets from DNA samples that include the suspect’s gender, skin color, eye color, and hair color. Those characteristics are often the only similarities between the predicted and actual photo of the suspect, with the actual photo showing a person with completely different facial features and age. 

The image of the generated face alone, without the rest of the DNA composite information including the confidence percentages of each characteristic, strips the image of necessary context. “Many members of the public that see this generated image will be unaware that it's a digital approximation, that age, weight, hairstyle, and face shape may be very different, and that accuracy of skin/hair/eye color is approximate,” Schroeder said.

DNA phenotyping is especially harmful to people of color, specifically Black and Latino communities, which are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Sharing the suspect images created by Parabon will only heighten the public’s suspicion towards certain demographics of people. 

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.