DNAWitness Bio-Geographical Ancestry DNA Test for Fighting Crime

DNAWitness Bio-Geographical Ancestry DNA Test for Fighting Crime

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 9, 2008 in DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

mug shotWhat is fair in love and war? When it comes to crime, does anything go as long as the perpetrator is caught? DNAWitness, a DNA test for race based on technology from DNAPrint Genomics, which also sells AncestryByDNA*, is considered by some law enforcement officials to be unfair and akin to racial profiling.

Unlike AncestryByDNA, which is used by genetic genealogists looking to learn more about the percent distribution of their racial ancestry, DNAWitness is used by law enforcement to narrow the pool of suspects or victims of crime. DNAWitness can determine which of four main continental groups an individual may belong to: European, East Asian, Native American, and Sub-Sahara African. And according to Wired, DNAWitness has been used in approximately 200 criminal investigations. While it has been useful, its reach has been limited because of the cost ($1,000) and controversy surrounding race and crime.

Troy Duster, former president of the American Sociological Association:

Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it’s not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA — why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test.

From the comments in response to the Wired article, it’s clear that race (as always) is a hot button subject especially as it relates to DNA.

amckenzie4 said,

Excuse me, but how the heck is this “racial profiling”? This is a certain statement that the person who left DNA at a crime scene was of a particular ethnic background. That’s looking at facts. Racial profiling is making an unfounded, unsupported assumption about how someone will act (or has acted) based on race. Big difference there.

On the other hand, maybe this would be a good argument to get rid of security cameras. “Well, they’ve caught a black guy in the process of committing a crime. Clearly this is a racial issue, and we should stop using them.”

And sueno said,

Of course this technology is great to catch killers but will its long term effects be worth the ethical problems it raises and the abuse of raw data. The problem with this technology is there will be people who think they aren’t racist who will see the data of crime statistics and if they show one race being disproportionately criminal they will assume genetics/race is the reason while ignoring environmental factors and income levels, etc. Another problem is the government collecting DNA samples. It starts with criminals and then will branch out into all children in public school and then if you want to get a drivers license. If you don’t see the slippery slope there I suggest you read or watch some sci-fi (Brave New World).

Would you support the use of DNA testing to identify the race of a crime suspect?

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*NB: The company I work for, DNA Direct, is a partner of DNAPrint.



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Comment by Yvette

Anything that provides further, valid information in a criminal investigation is helpful. I think this tool has a familiar ring to it, however. What is the next step in the investigation/public reaction after, for example, a male suspect is identified via DNA as possibly descendant from sub-Saharan Africa? This may narrow the potential subject pool in some senses–eliminating, for example, all Whites. However, for *any given African American male* this information does nothing to rule him out.

Think the idea that all Black men would be suspect is far-fetched? I lived in Boston during the Charles Stuart murder investigation: Ask any number of Black male residents–from 16 to 60, of all sizes and hues–who were rounded up by police at the time whether they think the idea is crazy.

Hi Yvette! I think the public needs to know that ancestry DNA tests such as DNAWitness are not the only bits of information law enforcement uses to identify suspects. Combined with other pieces of evidence, including good ol’ trusty fingerprints, and criminal records, it should be far easier to narrow down which specific suspects could be the one.


[...] at Eye on DNA discusses the use of DNAWitness, a Bio-Geographical Ancestry analysis, to narrow the pool of potential [...]


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