Thursday, July 13, 2006

DNA Testing and Racial Profiling

A while ago, I posted about my wariness of using DNA testing for genealogy research --– specifically my frustration with the fact that these tests are over-hyped by the media and sold as being able to say things like, you are or aren't African-American, which simply isn't scientifically possible at this point. It's just not that simple.

Well, I just read an interesting article by Sheri Fink --a physician and journalist -- in the current issue of Discover: "“Reasonable Doubt: Questions about the forensic infallibility of DNA emerge even as police begin to use it to profile suspects by race."” Toward the end of the article, she mentions that police departments are now using the exact tests (and companies) I wrote about in my earlier post and my Popular Science article to predict the race of potential suspects based on DNA samples.

One company, DNAPrint, takes DNA samples from crime scenes and creates a hereditary profile: 60% sub-Saharan African, 37% European, and 3% Native American, for example, then sends photos of people with similar genetic makeups, so the police can have something to go by when it comes to, among other things, skin-color. Fink writes:
"DNAPrint's senior scientist Matthew Thomas rejects the charge that the company'’s test, known as DNAWitness, is itself a form of racial profiling. '‘DNAWitness will hold up to scientific scrutiny whereas personal feelings and biases won't,'’ he said."”
DNA stands up to scientific scrutiny when comparing a crime-scene sample to the DNA of an actual suspect, but using it to predict a suspect's skin color is a different story (the genetics of skin color, and the genetics of race, are far more complex than that). Apparently this doesn't matter:
"“The company has handled about 100 criminal and victim identification cases. '‘The technology can aid pretty much any case where you don'’t have a suspect but you have a biological sample,'’ Thomas says. DNAPrint has received a $50,000 subcontract to provide raw data to a National Institute of Justice grantee. "
Here's what I'm interested in (of course): When they send out those profiles of people with genetic makeups similar to the criminals, they'’re using information they've collected in a database from testing many people. I wonder if this includes the DNAPrint database, which houses genetic information from thousands of people who submitted their samples for genealogy testing. I'’d like to see the consent forms they're using for whatever databases are involved in DNAWitness: My bet is they don'’t say anything that resembles, "“Can we use your genetic information for racial profiling?"” Which is an important point: Many people wouldn't want their DNA contributing to this project, whether the science were questionable or not.

Imagine all the African Americans who've submitted DNA to the database: How would they feel about their samples being used to get black men into a line up?

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