Accepted Paper:

Intersecting discourses of security, commerce and race. Forensic DNA phenotyping and biogeographical ancestry prediction in the German public debate  


Matthias Wienroth (Northumbria University)
Veronika Lipphardt (University of Freiburg)
Denise Syndercombe Court (King's College London)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyses intersecting interests, moral economies, epistemic claims on "race" and "ancestry", and competing expertises in the German public debate around the legalisation of new forensic genetics technologies, contextualising the analysis with the current regulatory situation in the UK.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the German public debate around new forensic technologies which promise to reliably infer visible traits (FDP) and predict biogeographical ancestry (bgA) from a person's DNA. Advocates of introducing these technologies into criminal justice practice - including senior policy-makers, forensic scientists and practitioners - posit them as powerful weapons to fight crime quickly and efficiently, to stabilize the populations' "feeling of security" in the face of increased migration, and to help victims' relatives to overcome trauma.

Proponents claim German legislation is too prohibitive due to exceeding political correctness and data protection. Moreover, they cite very high prediction accuracies for bgA, i.e. 99.9% for continental ancestry regarding the population categories "African", "European", "Asian" and "Pacific". This resonates well with ways in which some German publics make sense of commercial ancestry testing results, namely in terms of racial categories.

The legal and current use of bgA in German forensic laboratories for victim identification seems uncontroversial; however, in criminal cases, some bgA analyses also appear to have been conducted unofficially to support investigations.

In this paper, we analyse the recent law amendment initiative to permit the use of FDP and bgA, and the associated public debate. For contextualisation, we draw on the UK situation, where the new technologies are currently informally regulated by commissioners of the tests but used very rarely. We discuss the interwovenness of a number of intersecting interests, moral economies, epistemic claims on "race" and "ancestry", and competing expertises in the public portrayal of the technologies.

Panel C01
Genetic technologies: intersecting criminal investigation, disaster victim identification and commercial uses