State FOIA: Secret DNA Forensic Source Code
- EPIC FOIA - Information about Controversial DNA Forensic Technique Released: In response to EPIC's FOIA request, the California Department of Justice has released records on a controversial forensic technique. The records show that in 2014, the state agency spent more than $300,000 on STRMix, a secret technique for matching DNA. Investigators in Australia subsequently found an error in the STRMix code that produced incorrect results in 60 criminal cases, including a high-profile murder case. STRMix promises prosecutors the ability to "[c]arry out familial searches against a database, searching for close relatives of contributors to mixed DNA profiles" but the algorithm remains secret. EPIC is pursuing FOIA requests on the secret DNA matching algorithms with state agencies across the U.S. (Feb. 23, 2016)
- EPIC Obtains Documents on Secret DNA Forensic Source Code: In response to EPIC's state public records requests, Virginia and Pennsylvania have both released documents about "TrueAllele," a proprietary technique used in DNA forensic analysis. Virginia released to EPIC a validation study and validation summary prepared by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Pennsylvania produced purchase and service contracts, technical specifications, and user manuals for TrueAllele. Agencies in California, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have stated that they do not have access to the TrueAllele source code that they are using to produce evidence against defendants. EPIC's open government requests cited the importance of algorithmic transparency in the criminal justice system. (Nov. 10, 2015) More top news »
In October 2015, EPIC submitted FOIA requests to six states to obtain the source code of "TrueAllele," a software product used in DNA forensic analysis. According to news reports, law enforcement officials use TrueAllele test results to establish guilt, but individuals accused of crimes are denied access to the source code that produces the results.
Cybergenetics' website describes TrueAllele as follows:
TrueAllele Casework is a computerized DNA interpretation system that objectively infers genetic profiles from all types of DNA samples. These profiles can then be automatically matched against available references or large databases, producing informative match statistics that are easy to explain and report. TrueAllele Casework is court tested and offers tools for simplified validations and training. (Source: Cybergenetics).A similar program used by New Zealand prosecutors was recently found to have a coding error that provided incorrect results in 60 cases, including a high-profile murder case.
In many states, defendants have requested access to the source code of TrueAllele, but have been denied. For example:
- In California, defendant Martell Chubbs challenged his inability to examine the source code of the software that was providing evidence against him, but his request was denied.
- In New York, after an admissibility challenge earlier this year in Schenectady County, Schenectady Supreme Court Justice Michael Coccoma found that Cybergenetic’s TrueAllele software is "generally accepted" under the Frye standard despite not reviewing the source code. The TrueAllele results were admitted at trial and the defendant, John Wakefield, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
- Last year in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, defendant Maurice Shaw challenged his inability to examine the TrueAllele source code that is providing evidence against him. Without the TrueAllele source code, Shaw’s DNA forensics expert Ranajit Chakraborty stated that he cannot validate or recreate the results of the DNA test. The defendant’s motion was denied.
- In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, defendant Michael Robinson is currently challenging his inability to examine the TrueAllele source code that is providing evidence against him in a capital case. Without the TrueAllele source code, the Robinson’s DNA forensics expert Ranajit Chakraborty cannot accurately review the results of the DNA test.
EPIC also has a strong interest in algorithmic transparency. Secrecy of the algorithms used to determine guilt or innocence undermines faith in the criminal justice system.
In October 2015, EPIC submitted six state FOIA requests seeking:
- All contracts, proposals, and technical specifications from Cybergenetics regarding the automated DNA-matching program TrueAllele;
- All audits, assessments, and memoranda regarding the accuracy of TrueAllele; and
- A copy of the source code and documentation for TrueAllele software.
- EPIC's California Department of Justice Request (Feb. 2, 2016)
- California Department of Justice Request (June 15, 2016)
- Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Response (October 22, 2015).
- EPIC's Response in Clarification (October 23, 2015).
- Los Angeles County District Attorney's Response (November 2, 2015).
- East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's First Response (October 16, 2015)
- EPIC's Lousiana Appeal (October 19, 2015)
- East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Second Response (October 22, 2015)
- Allegheny County Response (October 22, 2015)
- EPIC's Appeal (October 23, 2015).
- Allegheny Response (Nov. 9, 2015)
- Documents Produced: Purchase and Service Contracts, Technical Specifications, and User Manuals for TrueAllele (November 9, 2015)
- Virginia's Response (October 20, 2015)
- EPIC's Response and Narrowed Request (October 29, 2015)
- Documents Produced: Establishing the Limits of TrueAllele Casework: A Validation Study, Journal of Forensic Sciences, September 2015 (November 4, 2015)
- Documents Produced: Virginia Department of Forensic Science: TrueAllele Casework Validation Summary, August 2013 (November 4, 2015).
- EPIC: Algorithmic Transparency
- EPIC: Genetic Privacy
- EPIC: State Policy Project
- EPIC: Florida v. Harris (concerning the reliability of an alert by a narcotics-detection dog).
- EPIC: Kohler v. Englade (the unsuccessful use of DNA Dragnets to Fight Crime
- Stephanie M. Lee, People Are Going To Prison Thanks To DNA Software — But How It Works Is Secret, Buzzfeed (Mar. 12, 2016).
- Jessica Leber, The Problem With Using Secret Computer Code To Put People In Jail, Fast Co.Exist, November 2, 2015.
- Patrick Howell O'Neill, Prosecutors are sending people to jail with software evidence that no one can double-check, Daily Dot, October 19, 2015.
- David Kravets, Secret source code pronounces you guilty as charged, Ars Technica, October 17, 2015.
- Debra Cassens Weiss, Secret computer code is used to help send defendants to jail, ABA Journal, October 8, 2015.
- Rebecca Wexler, Convicted by Code, Slate, Oct. 6, 2015.
Share this page:
EPIC relies on support from individual donors to pursue our work.
Subscribe to the EPIC Alert
The EPIC Alert is a biweekly newsletter highlighting emerging privacy issues.