Is It Time to Regulate Facial Recognition and Other ‘Frontier’ Police Technology?

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DNA Collection Swabs, Photo by Evoultion Labs via Flickr.

The developments in law enforcement forensics and technology have begun to shape the science into something reminiscent of blockbuster movies — technology that could seemingly only exist inside the minds of creatives and storytellers. 

But, the developments are real, and they’re “pushing the frontiers of forensics” with a new “secret algorithm” from TrueAllele that’s transforming DNA evidence and advanced facial-recognition software that’s forcing lawmakers to call for regulation, The Washington Post and Bloomberg Law detail. 

And, as TrueAllele has become a household name in forensics, one major caveat still exists: Not a single prosecutor, government crime lab, or defendant has had a meaningful look at how the technology works — forcing advocates to push for answers.

In regards to DNA evidence, many still deem one’s unique genetic code the “gold standard of evidence in criminal trials” proving unequivocally that an individual was involved. When genetic profiling began in the 1980s, the Washington Post details with the help of experts, forensic laboratories needed a blood or semen sample the size of a quarter to test. 


Photo by Jan A. via Flickr

These large samples usually contained one — or maybe two — DNA profiles easily distinguishable based on the quantity, so it was relatively simple to make a match with a suspect’s profile.

But, as criminals have become more forensically aware by frequently wearing gloves, wearing hats, covering their face, and cleaning up a scene afterward, tests have needed to become more sensitive. Investigators broadened their search for trace amounts of DNA, amplifying even the smallest foreign substance. 

Today, experts explained to the Washington Post, DNA advancements are being made with touch DNA, the genetic material a suspect leaves behind in skin cells on a gun barrel, steering wheel, or victim’s shirt, as well as advanced DNA vacuums that are able to collect 22 times more saliva on fabrics than other collection methods.

However, as evidence collection becomes more advanced, so does the likelihood that samples include multiple DNA profiles, and softwares are attempting to “unmix the mixtures” to isolate profiles — a task that some say is impossible. 

Enter TrueAllele and their “secret algorithm.” 

Mark Perlin, TrueAllele’s inventor and co-founder of Cybergenetics say their groundbreaking software looks at the DNA cocktail and proposes profiles about race, gender, and other attributes that best fit the evidence and have the highest probability of being accurate. These profiles are then compared to a suspect’s genetic profile. 

TrueAllele’s end result is a “likelihood ratio” that expresses the chance that a suspect’s DNA is within the jumbled evidence sample, relative to a random person in the population. 

While this type of result is nowhere near as definitive as a true match, the Washington Post details, it’s still compelling and can help close countless cases. In one case where TrueAllele was used, they found that a suspect’s DNA on a shirt was 180 quadrillion times more likely to come from that suspect than any other individual of a similar genetic profile.

“Probabilistic genotyping software is a game changer for forensic DNA testing,” Michael Coble, associate professor of genetics at the University of North Texas, wrote in an email to the Washington Post. “It has ... produced results in a wide range of cases involving violent crime, sexual assault, and other criminal cases that just a few years ago would have been considered too complex to interpret.”

While TrueAllele’s software sounds like it should be implemented in every lab across the globe, the company has been reluctant to share how its technology arrives at its conclusions, raising doubts about its algorithm and efficacy. 

A state court in New Jersey also ruled this year that TrueAllele’s source code had to be disclosed to the defendant in a murder case, but in recent days prosecutors decided to withdraw the TrueAllele evidence rather than go forward with the review, raising even more eyebrows. 

“Without scrutinizing its software’s source code — a human-made set of instructions that may contain bugs, glitches, and defects — in the context of an adversarial system, no finding that it properly implements the underlying science could realistically be made,” the judge in the New Jersey case wrote.

See Also: Maryland, Montana Curb Use of DNA Genetic Software

As scrutiny regarding the latest in DNA technology continues, lawmakers are lighting the same fire under facial recognition software used by law enforcement, saying that the misidentification and violations of constitutional rights are enough to regulate the technology. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers agrees. 

facial recognition

Female head with a biometric polygon map of facial features superimposed. The identification of a behavioural or physical trait for recognition purposes is known as biometrics, and is used for facial recognition software. Photo by Martin Jolicoeur via Flickr

“We should be engaged in oversight and legislative response,” Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security said at a hearing Tuesday, as quoted by Bloomberg Law. The top Republican on the panel, Representative Andy Biggs backed the sentiment.

“If we’re talking about finding some kind of meaningful regulation and oversight of facial recognition, which is what I think the chair is alluding to, then I think we can find a lot of common ground here,” he said.

See Also: Facial Recognition Software Fuels Growing Concerns in State Legislatures

Republican Senator Tim Scott, who is working with two Democrats on legislation to overhaul policing, said last month lawmakers were close to an agreement on a bill to make law enforcement officers more accountable for injuries and deaths they cause.

“To add untested and unvetted facial recognition technology to our policing would only serve to exacerbate the systemic issues still plaguing our criminal justice system,” Jackson Lee said, as quoted by Bloomberg Law. 

Additional Reading: FBI Approves DNA Booking System

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