DNA face-mapping raises ethical issues

DNA phenotyping is able to create facial images based solely on a DNA sample. Scientists use the technique to analyze genes for traits like skin color, eye color and ancestry. Researchers are trying to perfect the science to create facial images that are accurate enough to identify criminals and victims.

Last year, the Maryland police used DNA phenotyping to identify a murder victim. In 2015, North Carolina police arrested a man on two counts of murder after crime-scene DNA indicated the killer had fair skin, brown eyes, dark hair, and little evidence of freckling. The man pleaded guilty.

Despite such success stories, experts question the effectiveness of DNA phenotyping. It often produces facial images that are too smooth or indistinct to look like the face being replicated. DNA cannot account for the other factors that determine how people look, such as their age or weight. DNA can reveal gender and ancestry, but the technology can be hit or miss when it comes to generating an image as specific as a face, reports The New York Times.

DNA phenotyping also raises ethical issues, according to Pilar Ossorio, Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Police could use it to target ethnic groups or round up large numbers of people who resemble a suspect. The technology also raises issues of privacy from those who never consented to be in a database to begin with.

Concerns over China’s use of DNA technology

China has the world’s largest DNA database, with more than 80 million profiles as of July, according to Chinese news reports. As part of their efforts to stop terrorism, Chinese authorities have already collected data from the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs and members of other minority groups locked up in detention camps in Tumxuk, Xinjiang. Experts on ethics in science worry that China will use DNA phenotyping to justify and intensify racial profiling and other state discrimination against Uighurs.

Some of this DNA research is taking place in labs run by China’s Ministry of Public Security, with funding coming from respected institutions in Europe. In addition, international scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in the Xinjiang area. A growing number of scientists and human rights activists say the Chinese government is exploiting the openness of the international scientific community to harness research into the human genome for questionable purposes.

The Chinese government is essentially building technologies to hunt people, said Mark Munsterhjelm, an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who tracks Chinese interest in the technology.

In January 2018, Tumxuk opened a high-tech forensic DNA lab run by the Institute of Forensic Science of China, the same police research group responsible for the work on DNA phenotyping. According to The New York Times, the lab relied on software systems made by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts company, to work with genetic sequencers that analyze DNA fragments. Thermo Fisher announced in February that it was suspending sales to the region after undertaking ‘fact-specific assessments’.

Dr Ossorio stated: “What the Chinese government is doing should be a warning to everybody who kind of goes along happily thinking, ‘How could anyone be worried about these technologies?’”

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