In DepthEthics

German law allows use of DNA to predict suspects' looks

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Science  25 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6391, pp. 841-842
DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6391.841

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Police in the German state of Bavaria now have the authority to analyze forensic DNA samples to predict the geographical ancestry and physical characteristics—hair color, eye color, skin color, and age—of an unknown suspect who poses an imminent danger. The controversial law, which passed the Landtag, the state parliament in Munich, on 15 May, is the first in Germany to allow what has been dubbed DNA phenotyping, and it has sparked renewed debate here and in other countries about the advantages—and risks—of the technology. German federal authorities, and police in the country's 15 other states, are only allowed to perform DNA fingerprinting, in which they look for an exact match between crime scene DNA and samples in a database of known criminals or from a suspect. DNA phenotyping and ancestry prediction, however, have been used in the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and several U.S. states. Some critics caution that although the underlying science connecting genetic markers to certain physical features is solid, DNA phenotyping and ancestry prediction still come with significant uncertainties that can be easily misunderstood by police and the public.