Paul Speaks at INTERPOL 2019 Singapore

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

DNA and Biotechnology – the industry perspective

On 2-4 July 2019, Interpol hosted the Interpol World 2019 Conference at the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore. Having recently left a career in government service and moving to the private sector, I was honored to be invited to provide the industry perspective on the ‘DNA and Biotechnology’ session. These are my remarks:

The Science

Forensic DNA is a forensic science capability that is a critically important capability to the justice systems around the world. As of 2018 in the United States:

400,000 cases have used DNA to aid criminal investigations350 people, many of whom were on death row, have been exonerated through subsequent DNA testing16 million people are in a criminal or arrestee DNA database

New developments in DNA technology, analysis and interpretation are enhancing this capability to the benefit of the justice system. For example, between 1974 and 2004, Dennis Rader murdered 10 women. Although police had evidence to suspect, it was insufficient to arrest him. Investigators were able to subpoena his daughter’s medical records to obtain her DNA after she had undergone a routine PAP smear test. Analysis of his daughter’s DNA was able to establish a familial relationship between his DNA and his daughter’s DNA. As a result, in 2005, he was arrested and subsequently convicted.

Sometimes, however, the expectations of science can be overestimated to propose unscientific hypotheses. For example, there is a belief in the ‘criminal gene’ by some people. To this end, a judge ordered “DNA analysis” of the Newtown, Connecticut murderer, Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook tragedy, to identify mutations or abnormalities. The geneticists undertaking this work will possibly identify some abnormalities, but it would be unscientific to draw a conclusion of causation. The same abnormalities, albeit unexpressed, may be present in the DNA of other individuals which could to lead to suspicion of, and prejudice, against them. Some genes are thought to be linked to aggressive behaviour, but human behaviour is a result of a complex web of (probably) many genes, cultural norms, the individual’s environment, previous experiences and other activities in which the individual might be engaged.

Phenotypic expression (the manifestation of an organism’s genetic make up) is complex and, for some things that would be thought to be straight forward, such as eye and hair colour, are not expressed absolutely, but are subject to variation between populations. Although scientific knowledge in the field of phenotypic expression is growing rapidly, experts will not express conclusions in absolute terms as scientific uncertainty remains.

As with the experience in science and technology more broadly, the cost of DNA analysis will decrease over time as will accessibility. An example is accessibility to the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Although gene editing is currently imperfect, it provides the real possibility of precise and permanent change to any part of the genome of any organism. Importantly, it can be performed without requiring expertise in protein engineering. Reinforcing its accessibility, leading universities are offering short courses CRISPR gene editing applications. Although technologies, such as CRISPR, are aimed to provide public benefit, technology will quickly move from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ uses.

Through the use of CRISPR, it is theoretically possible to:

Edit out inherited disease from the germ lineDevelop novel therapies Release genetically modified organisms with selected characteristicsSubmit an altered DNA sample to insert oneself into a familyCreate ‘super beings’Produce transgenic animalsDirect evolution

This could result in dual use problems, including:

Manipulation of viruses for therapeutic use, but the same technology can be used to develop weaponised biological agentsCommercial exploitation of crops

The Importance of Partnerships

The modern challenges for law enforcement in dealing with rapidly advancing science and technology can only be met through partnerships with industry and academia. There are benefits to be gained, but there are also risks that need to be addressed in order for the partnerships to be viable.

Partnerships can provide the societal benefits through private sector investment. Governments do not consistently and universally have the funds to invest in science and technology based solutions. Conversely, the private sector can invest and defray the financial risk from the government purse using the ‘build once, use many times’ approach, ie developing a high level of expertise that can be then efficiently applied in many situations and for many customers.

The challenges and risks of partnerships between entities within the three sectors include:

Trust – working in the law enforcement environment with its inherent high impact and significant consequences requires a high degree of trust and shared understanding between the partner organizations and individualsResources – the quantum and type of resources that are contributed by each partner for application to the solution without vested interests unduly impactingData and information – who owns the data needs to be established at the beginning. For example, most users of social media do not recognize who owns the information that they post and their rights in respect of that dataRisk management framework must be established:Define the ethical framework in which the partnership will be operating to guide decision making for all players. Do partnerships between law enforcement, the private sector, and academia require additional attention over existing ethics frameworks?Does the precautionary principle apply. The precautionary principle, in this context, is the need to anticipate harm before it occurs, which is a reversal of the onus of proof to become one of the responsibility that the activity will not cause harm.


The rapid progress in the science of forensic DNA and biotechnology is leading to improved societal outcomes including in the justice system. While the opportunities for the justice system appear to be limitless, they cannot be achieved by law enforcement alone. The potential can only be reached by partnerships between law enforcement, business and academia. In a cautionary note, science and technology can move from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ very quickly if those who would do harm set their mind to it. The risks posed by the ‘bad’ use of science technology must be managed appropriately.

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