The changing relationships between digital technologies, DNA and evidence

Project summary

The relationship between digital technologies, DNA and evidence is changing so rapidly and profoundly that in-depth and creative analyses of the links between them are urgently needed. Digital innovations within forensic DNA analysis affect the making of DNA evidence. For example, new computer programs create identikit pictures from DNA. At the same time, DNA and evidence-based reasoning also change digital technologies, for example when DNA is used as a storage medium for digital data.

Digital DNA provides pioneering empirical insights and theorization on the reciprocal influence of digital technologies, DNA and evidence. The project defines an emerging field: the digitization of forensic biology and the influence of the biosciences on digital technologies. It provides systematic interdisciplinary studies on three sets of developments.

  1. Changes in hardware. It investigates how smaller and more mobile hardware influences the production of DNA evidence, and how DNA is used as hardware in computing.
  2. Changes in databases and analytic instruments. It studies how a growth in DNA databases and their algorithmic analysis influence the production of DNA evidence, and to what extent digital databases and algorithms are associated with evidence-based reasoning.
  3. Changes in information per se. It discusses how the ability to alter DNA influences the production of forensic evidence, and how DNA influences the concept of digital data.

Current debates tend to focus on ethical, legal and societal aspects of forensic innovation or on the roles that big data and algorithms play in society. Digital DNA focuses on more fundamental developments: how DNA evidence changes when it is integrated with digital technologies, and the re-orientation that digital data and technologies undergo when they are integrated with biology. A unique combination of methods from the social sciences, information studies and natural sciences is used in the project.

Tasks relevant for the candidate

Together with Kaufmann, the candidate will work on developments (2) and (3) mentioned above with a focus on the influence of databases and genetic engineering on DNA evidence. All studies take place in the UK and Norway. The candidate is not expected to have in-depth knowledge about these technologies from before. However, through interviews and fieldwork the candidate shall develop an understanding of how the technologies work and how they influence practices, opinions and results. Science and Technology Studies will be an important framework for studying these developments. While the actual themes of the tasks are set by the project, the candidate is encouraged to further detail the type of questions they would like ask in each task and define their own perspective. In relation to that, they elaborate on the case studies, theory, method and ethical challenges.

Task 2 How does a change in the collection, availability and algorithmic analysis of DNA influence the production of DNA evidence?

Why this question? The recent growth of DNA databases not only leads to a general increase in available DNA data, but also affects the access that the police, scientists and lay people have to such data. Due to the rise of DNA databases, the data available tend to become more comprehensive and diverse. While mainstream discussions focus on the sensitivity of data, this task studies the more fundamental ways in which digitization and digital storage transform DNA evidence. The specificities of databases therefore need to be better understood. Database design, how information is made available, and to whom, are the first things this task studies. Differences in the kind of data biobanks collect and how they categorize them affect the way information is accessed and analysed by algorithms. Thus, the second aspect of this task is to study the analysis of the information available in biobanks. DNA data are processed by software, i.e. algorithms which search information for patterns. These algorithms are programmed in specific ways, which determines the ways in which they identify results. It is crucial to get a better understanding of what happens when DNA information is subjected to algorithmic analytics.

Case study 2: Study of public and private DNA databases and their use by forensic professionals.

Method 2: Data is collected about the technical specifications of DNA databases and the way in which they gather and structure data, e.g. in interviews with DNA databank owners. This insight into the structure and design of databases is paired with interviews to find out how forensic professionals use such databases and how they use the results.

Task 3: How does the ability to alter human DNA influence the production of forensic evidence?

Why this question? Data about DNA do not speak for themselves. This task looks at DNA vis-à-vis the rise of synthetic biology. In the last decade genetic engineering – the manipulation of genes via biotechnology – proliferated, e.g. with the CRISPR-Cas method. Though a connection between forensics and synthetic DNA is surprising at first, new relationships emerge.

The rise of synthetic DNA means that DNA itself, the object that is considered a gold standard in forensics, can be altered by means of digital technologies. Working with DNA has become relatively cheap and easy, using online programs, for example. However, the way in which DNA works with the body and the body’s environment is so complex that it is often narrated in the language of orchestration. Changing DNA requires professional training and expensive laboratory equipment. Even if changed DNA is unlikely to be planted at crime sites, the trend to contest the reliability of forensic science’s most significant player in establishing evidence is worth investigating. The aim of this task is to inspire discussions about the relationship between data and evidence. This relationship is challenged when information that is considered a ‘given’ is changing.

Case study 3: Development of scenarios and discussion with biologists involved in DNA research, philosophers and forensic professionals about DNA, synthetic biology and forensics.

Method 3: A qualitative interview study with biologists is organized. The study explores the future scenarios in synthetic biology that professionals from various fields envision, and their views on data and material evidence as ‘given’. Scenario planning workshops with biologists, forensic scientists and bio-philosophers further explore the meaning of these developments.

Published Apr. 25, 2022 11:06 AM - Last modified June 15, 2022 6:08 AM