3D Printed heads created from DNA sampling in NYC. Artist Dewey- Hagborg working with Russian Police to solve crimes.
Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s 3D portraits are unnerving. They were made using DNA samples she extracted from discarded cigarette butts and chewing gum. She collected these samples from public spaces in New York City. Basically, that means that any of her portraits could be YOU, as collecting DNA from public spaces is currently 100% legal.
So, what’s the process- how exactly does one go from trash to these realistic 3D portraits?
Dewey-Hagborg uses her background in science to extract DNA from the samples she collects in Brooklyn’s GenSpace lab. She then uses genetic markers (taken from single nucleotide polymorphisms) to map out physical attributes such as eye color and skintone. Once she has the results back, she maps out the face with 3D modelling software, and then sends that to get printed on a 3D printer.
There are currently no laws around public usage of DNA collected from a communal area.
“It is not likely be legislated for twenty years,” said lawyer Philippa Loengard, Assistant Director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts. “This area is so avant-garde. However, if a drivers license was in the public garbage no one has a right to open credit cards with it, and this analogy could be used for collecting DNA from cigarettes in the trash.”
Collecting DNA samples from the street ( courtesy Dewey-Hagborg)
When it comes to personal privacy, people are aware they need to take certain measures to protect themselves. Shredding papers, changing passwords, and turning auto Foursquare checkins off. The question now posed is just how do you keep your DNA private? The human body sheds around a million skincells and 70 hairs a day, and there is no way of controlling who collects this.
“You have to consider a couple of things about this issue,” said Loengard. “First of all, is it violative? Also, how recognizable is the result? There;s a two step process. First of all, was the DNA legally available? If it’s taken from public property than the answer is yes. Secondly, what did you do with it? Evil would be taking DNA and using it in a crime.”
This topic is one that Robert Ellis Smith, privacy expert and publisher of PrivacyJournal.net finds tricky to navigate. “Usually what people abandon at the curb is not entitled to privacy protection, according to the Supreme Court,” he said in an email. “I can envision some instances where the practice might be so “shocking to the conscience,” as the courts say, that it could give rise to a private lawsuit based on invasion of privacy.”
Smith has stronger views regarding DNA sampling. “With regards to ownership of DNA, I believe the courts will come to accept that. The states and the U.S. have laws against use of genetic material in most insurance and employment decisions.”
Emily Bell, digital director for the Tow Center of Journalism, NYC, finds Dewey-Hagborg’s work intriguing. “This is a good example of the intersection of science, art and identity. It has a distinct juxtaposition here,” she said. “The government has an interest in keeping information about you and is biased towards personal data collection.”
Bell believes that this type of DNA collection will ‘be everywhere eventually,” but she’s not concerned at present. “What Dewey-Hagborg is doing is making art,” she said. “There’s so much about data privacy that people haven’t even begun to imagine yet, but right now it’s just art.”
Dewey-Hagborg said that it’s more than galleries who have displayed interest in her work- many unusual people have reached out to her about creating her 3D realistic portraits.
“I’ve been contacted by the police in Moscow,” she said.
“They want me to try to generate a portrait of a suspect, based on DNA samples. It’s a crazy case- this one person has been raping and assaulting hundreds of women since the 1970’s and they’ve never been able to capture him. They know it’s the same man, as they have DNA from his semen. This is one of those cases where the potential for good outweighs the potential for harm”
Dewey-Hagborg attempt at self portrait
Bell is concerned about Dewey-Hagborg’s dealings with the Russian government. “It sounds like she’s working as a spy to map out DNA data for them,” she said. “When an overseas government with a questionable human investigation network starts reaching out to map DNA it does feel concerning, and doesn’t feel very comfortable.”
Dewey-Hagborg is also working with other law enforcers- many USA based. “A medical examiner from Delaware wants me to help create faces for unidentified victims, people who’ve been found with faces beyond recognition,” she said.
The portraits Dewey-Hagborg creates right now are not identical images of people. She tracks a certain number of marks- eye color, skin type, freckles, etc., and then recreates a face. Many more features CAN be tracked, but each element is costly and time consuming.
Dewey-Hagborg believes that what she is doing is just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s just another set of clues we have,” she said. “It’s starting to be rolled out in law enforcement and scientists have already been contacted. This is happening, it’s just whether we engage with the issues that surround this or not.”
Dewey-Hagborg sighed. “I hope it will do good, but maybe I’m being naive.”