How have technological developments impacted the criminal justice sector?

May 18, 2021

Megan Abels

Emerging technologies in the field of criminal justice

As the field of technology advances, so too does the field of criminal justice in response to these advances. Since 2002, both federal and state governments have funded new police technological innovations, for example, TrueAllele which is a software program that analyzes DNA by using a statistical process called probabilistic genotyping.

The government has needed to stay abreast with technology developed for civilians, such as Face ID to unlock your phone or social media accounts, and at-home DNA kits like 23andme or Ancestry. Technological innovations have the potential to radically improve both the efficacy and efficiency of the criminal justice system.

This article discusses several new technologies being used both by police and the public, and considers how the deployment of such technologies affects the community in both positive and negative ways.

Face ID

Face ID uses biometric technology to measure and calculate human characteristics, that is then used as authentication or identification to access control to devices like your phone, or your social media accounts. This type of technology can also be used by police as a means of identifying individuals who are under surveillance. When you look in a mirror, your brain captures and stores this data so that you can remember what you look like. The biometrics of Face ID functions in essentially the same way.

Due to possible global scale usage, current methods of authentication, such as passwords, are likely to be soon superseded by biometric technology such as Face ID or even fingerprint ID. Additionally, biometric authentication is more secure than a traditional password, making it difficult to hack.

Another use for biometrics is for identification purposes, such as with Facebook’s tag suggestions. In this case, the platform identifies individuals from their photographs and turns their faces into a template to be used for identification in other photos (Wong, 2020).

Social media and algorithms

Facebook’s tag suggestions feature is only one example of social media integrating technology based on an individual’s characteristics. Social media platforms generally use an algorithm to determine which content to show you. An algorithm can be defined as a mathematical set of rules that are used to define how a group of data behaves. When it comes to social media, the group of data would be the userbase of these sites. While the intention of these algorithms is to better the user’s experience, oftentimes they fall short, and many people wonder if this experience is worth losing your privacy. It’s no coincidence that the things you think about or discuss with your friends end up in your feed. With every move you make, data is stored to predict what your next move is. This type of algorithmic technology can also be used in the field of criminal justice to make predictions about the behavior of an individual or group.

Social media can make criminal investigations especially if the subject is active online. There have been many instances where mass-shooters will publish their manifesto or make their intentions clear on social media before acting. Tracking such activity and using social media to pursue potential suspects could stop such behavior in the future. This can happen without breaching anyone’s privacy as many social media profiles are public and the information shared is generally with the consent of the owner of the respective profile.

While some social media algorithms can curate a better experience, some are extremely flawed and harm, rather than help, someone’s experience. For example, Twitter received backlash for their picture-cropping algorithm after it was discovered that the algorithm preferred white to black faces. This issue sheds light on potential problems related to developing algorithms, with race and gender biases being at the forefront. These issues can also reflect on issues apparent in the criminal justice system. As social media innovates new technology to combat these problems, so too should the field of criminal justice.

Digital DNA

DNA technology is perhaps the most exciting modern innovation for the field of criminal justice. One of the most commonly available software products is TrueAllele, which was developed by Cybergenetics. TrueAllele analyzes DNA using a statistical process called probabilistic genotyping. This process is the statistical method for DNA profiling that can replace manually profiling DNA and is especially relevant for small or mixed samples.

Before this technology, one of the only forms of identification that could be used was the fingerprint. While no DNA technology is currently 100% accurate, the ability to use probabilistic genotyping has the potential to save innocent people from going to prison. It is impossible to achieve perfect individualization, thus it is more important to focus on probabilities of outcomes. The problem with this technology is its assumed infallibility, which can affect the course of the police investigation and ultimately how this evidence is evaluated in court.

Another problem with the technology behind TrueAllele technology is that it is not opensource, meaning that judges and lawyers cannot see the source code. There is no way to confirm the validity of the software’s findings. Although this is not true for all digital DNA technology, it is important to note for TrueAllele.

Another example of digital DNA technology is STRmix, which functions similarly to TrueAllele. The difference being that STRmix’s source code can be obtained by purchasing the software and completing the training. So, while not public, the code is accessible and can be admissible in court.

Not only has DNA technology evolved for use by law enforcement, but also for the average person to use. 23andme and Ancestry are 2 prominent examples of at-home DNA kits. The consumer collects a saliva sample, sends it in to the company, and receives their genealogy results.

While learning about your ancestry can be personally enriching, using these types of kits can also carry several risks. One potential risk linked to criminal justice is that law enforcement officials want to acquire data from these companies, and in some instances, they already have. In the case of Joseph James DeAngelo, referred to in the media as ‘the golden state killer’, a genealogy company, GEDmatch, was used to identify him. DNA data can easily be subpoenaed by law enforcement, so while it is a risk for the consumer, it can benefit the field of criminal justice especially when a suspect’s information isn’t available in FBI databases.

Another privacy risk is having your information sold. While these companies promise not to give out your information without consent, many consumers overlook the terms of service before using these products. In 2018, over 80% of 23andme users consented to their information being sold to third parties. While this type of data sharing can be used in ways to benefit society, such as if it is being used for research purposes, it can also end up the wrong hands— because the laws in this area are very broad.

Furthermore, it can be risky to use one of these kits due to the fact that these companies reserve the right to change their privacy policy at any point. Such changes are more likely to benefit the company and not the consumer.

How the deployment of these new technologies affects the community

The development of new technologies affects the community in a myriad of ways, both positive and negative. As new technology becomes available to use in our everyday lives, it is critical that the field of criminal justice keep up with these advances. Not only will it be easier to solve crimes, but it could also become easier to commit them. The main concern when it comes to the evolution of technology is the de-evolution of privacy. While privacy protection is possible, this is becoming more difficult to ensure due to the growing number of places where your personal information is stored.

On the positive side

With the advancement of new technology comes new jobs, especially in the criminal justice field. As more tools for forensic analysis are created, more people are needed to work these tools. For example, utilizing DNA software such as TrueAllele or STRmix requires specialized training to be able to use these tools.

Utilizing what is implemented on social media, such as facial recognition technology and algorithms, to the field of criminal justice can yield jobs for people familiar with this newer technology particularly as it relates to surveillance. Additionally, with digital DNA software and the ability to subpoena data from companies such as 23andme and Ancestry, fewer innocent people are likely to end up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. While these technologies do not have a 100% efficacy rate and their validity is sometimes questionable, they can be immensely helpful in prosecuting criminal cases. (Bauer et al., 2019). There have also been several instances in which someone innocent was released from prison due to this technology absolving them of any involvement. For instance, a man in Georgia was recently affirmed his right to a new trial based on TrueAllele evidence that statistically excluded him from the scene of the crime.

On the negative side

A negative aspect regarding the deployment of new technology in the criminal justice sector, is that information about the manufacture and use of some of these tools is kept a secret by their creators. Take as an example the case of TrueAllele which has been instrumental in saving innocent people from serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. The TrueAllele source code, from which these determinations are made, is neither open-source nor made available to anyone, including judges and lawyers. This can call into question the validity of this test and whether personal motives could influence results. Other DNA tools such as STRmix do not have this issue, and while obtaining the source code can be difficult, it is achievable.

Another negative aspect of deploying new technology in the field is the uncertainty of where data is stored and what is done with it. When it comes to Face ID technology, there are currently no federal laws concerning the use and protection of biometrics. A few states — Illinois, Texas, and Washington— have passed legislature called the Biometric Information Privacy Act, or BIPA, which regulates the use and collection of biometric data. For other states, there is no way of knowing how much of your data is being collected and what is done with it (Wong, 2020).

Recently, Facebook came under fire for giving users a privacy ultimatum: either share your data with them or delete your account. While social media collecting your data and tracking your movement isn’t new, what makes this case particularly frustrating is the lack of transparency from the company about what exactly is done with your data. Facebook, unlike WhatsApp, does not ensure end-to-end encryption, which essentially means that your message stays between you and the recipient (Doffman, 2021). Facebook Messenger does not make the same promise. So, where does your personal data go, and who exactly can access it?

The final negative way new technology can affect the community has to do with the lack of laws and regulations on direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT). When it comes to at-home genealogy kits like 23andme and Ancestry, there is not enough legislature to protect the consumer. Data and privacy policies for these kits are currently inadequate. While 23andme promises to not sell your data without consent, many consumers do not read the fine print and unknowingly consent to having their data shared. The lack of transparency and the gaps in legislations potentially removes the privacy of the consumer and permits the companies to use consumer personal data however they please (Garner & Kim, 2019).

To sum it up

Reading the fine print and knowing how to protect yourself is key in adopting these new technologies. While many of these technologies carry some associated risks, when used both by civilians and law enforcement, these risks can be mitigated by staying vigilant and doing your research before signing your data and privacy rights away. The risks associated with these technologies do not outweigh the benefits. The new innovations not only save time and legwork but could result in lives saved from the ramifications of being incorrectly charged with a crime. This is only the beginning. Technology will continue to evolve and so will the field of criminal justice alongside it.

Author unknown, (2020) Georgia Supreme Court affirms right to a new trial based on TrueAllele Evidence. Forensic Magazine (online). March 24, 2020.

Author unknown. 2020. Twitter investigates racial bias in image previews. BBC News. September 21, 2020.

Bauer, D. W., Butt, N., Hornyak, J. M., & Perlin, M. W. (2019). Validating TrueAllele ® interpretation of DNA mixtures containing up to ten unknown contributors. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 65(2), 380-398.

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Doffman, Z. (2021). If you use Facebook messenger, this is why you should switch. Forbes. February 6, 2021.

Garner, S., & Kim, J. (2019). The Privacy Risks of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing: A Case Study of 23andMe and Ancestry. Washington University Law Review, Vol: 96 Iss:6.

Klos, A. (2017). A possible alternative to secretive DNA analysis. MFIA, Yale Law School.

Machado, H. & Granja R. (2020). Genetics in the governance of crime. Palgrave Pivot, Singapore

Rosenbaum, E. (2018). 5 biggest risks of sharing your DNA with consumer genetic-testing companies. CNBC, June 16, 2018.

Wong, K. (2021). The Face-ID revolution: the balance between pro-market and pro-consumer biometric privacy regulation [Scholarly project]. Journal of High Technology Law. Vol.20, No.1.

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