Forensic science: Paving the technological way for future discoveries

An image of fingerprint analysis to illustrate forensic science
© iStock/D-Keine

SciTech Europa explores developments in forensic science and how they are paving the way for future discoveries.

Forensic science has existed since the 16th century. Since then, developments such as the concept of using fingerprints for identification and DNA analysis have revolutionised the way forensic science is both used to investigate and examine evidence. Arguably, the rapid development of technology has only contributed to the growth of and techniques seen in the forensics industry today.

In 2016, the then UK Secretary of State for the Home Department, Amber Rudd, released the Forensic Science Strategy: “Over the past 20 years, advances in technology have led to automation of processes, reductions in cost and time, and a change in the skills required by forensic scientists. […] Complex analysis that once took days or weeks could soon be completed within hours or minutes.”

SciTech Europa takes a look at some of the recent technological developments in forensic science, including alternative light sources, forensic gait analysis, and forensic DNA phenotyping.

Alternative light sources

Techniques such as alternative light sources (and photography) have been developed over recent years. This development enables forensic scientists to find substances that are not apparent to the naked eye, such as DNA.

The Forensic Technology Centre of Excellence (FTCoE), which is led by RTI International, released a Landscape Study of Alternate Light Sources in early January last year. The report defined Alternative Light Sources (ALS) as: ‘A tool used to help visualise evidence that is not apparent to the naked eye. ALS typically utilise the UV and visible light spectrum.’ ALS devices are used in forensic science for the identification of evidence at a crime scene, which is then sent to a suitable forensic discipline; ‘Forensic biology, latent prints, and trace evidence are three major crime laboratory units that commonly use ALS.’
Earlier this year, B Fakiha from the Department of Medical Health Services at Umm Al-Quara University in Saudi Arabia released a report that stated: ‘Using alternative light sources to classify biological samples is preferred because it is simple, non-destructive, and presumptive and can be used to detect a wide array of biological samples. It is possible to identify biological samples using forensic light because of the natural characteristics that make them distinguishable from their surroundings.

‘For instance, blood is identified using this method because of its light absorption properties while urine, saliva, and semen can be identified because of their fluorescence effect. Untreated dry blood lacks the fluorescence effect but has a high absorption across a wide range of light wavelengths, being capable of absorbing light of wavelengths between 300 and 900 nm. This range encompasses the entire light wavelength including visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.’

Forensic Gait Analysis

Throughout the years of forensic science, techniques such as fingerprint and DNA analysis have developed and enabled us to discover, track and find individuals. An upcoming method, primarily used in the UK, the Netherlands, and Denmark, is referred to as ‘Forensic Gait Analysis’ (FGA).

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), defined FAG in 2017 as: ‘The direct visual comparison of two or more video recordings to establish whether they are of the same individual or different individuals based of the gait pattern alone.’

In 2018, forensic researchers from the department of digital technology and biometry at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, Mastrigt and Celie et al, released a report surrounding the use of FGA in Europe. This described how this technique can be used in the process of a crime investigation: ‘Gait is defined as the pattern of movement utilized during locomotion. It is a cyclic activity which is easily captured on video, even from a distance. Since the amount of surveillance cameras in public environment has grown, the chance of retrieving video footage of walking perpetrators or suspects has increased.’

The use of 3D motion analysis is increasingly being used in laboratories for gait measurement. This technology calculates the spatiotemporal characteristic (step frequency and length etc.) and kinematic variables (such as joint and segment angles) during a gait cycle of an individual. Therefore, automated gait recognition algorithms can be used for quantifying or observing gait features from surveillance video footage.

However, despite the suggestion by Mastrigt and Celie et al. that: ‘FGA has been used as supportive evidence in several criminal trials in Europe in the past 15 years, mostly based on the congruence between observed gait features of perpetrator and suspect(s),’ it is important for the industry to acknowledge that, as with all similar technologies an techniques, there are potential limitations.

For example, alongside RSE’s view that FGA ‘is a young discipline and remains essentially subjective in nature,’ it should not be overlooked that an individual can manipulate their gate to be different from their ‘typical’ gate characteristics. Arguably, the more awareness there is surrounding this forensic technique, the more likely it is that perpetrators could use this to their own advantage so that when captured on CCTV their gait does not result in them being identified.

Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP)

Another development in forensic science is the upcoming technology known as forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP). FDP tests provide genetic data which can then be used to infer an individual’s phenotype characteristics. This genetic data can include characteristics such as biological age, bio-geographical ancestry, and externally visible characteristics such as hair, skin, and eye colour. FDP technology works by evaluating SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and analysing DNA loci that only affects physical traits and appearances.

As of 2018, FDP in the EU is only officially regulated in Slovakia and the Netherlands. According to the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine from King’s College London: ‘In the Netherlands, testing for sex, biogeographical ancestry (‘race’) and hair and eye colour is permitted and practiced; in Slovakia, testing for ‘visible phenotypic traits’ is allowed. In all other EU countries, regulatory frameworks for, and practices relating to, FDP are complicated by either implicit or absent legislation. An important reason for this is that most EU countries regulated forensic DNA technologies in the 1990s, when FDP was not yet known.’

Furthermore, as technology continues to develop, FDP will arguably come to be verified more substantially across Europe and will be able to branch out on predictions; including physical traits such as height, baldness, and facial structure.

In conclusion, as the world rapidly develops in it use of technology and innovation, fields such as forensic science have been able to expand in terms of its tools and techniques. Previous concepts that revolutionised forensics, such as DNA analysis, have been developed further in order to increase the richness of the information being found; such as DNA phenotyping and externally visible characteristics.

Although this growth has enabled new discoveries to be made in both past and on-going crime investigations, these developments are still not accepted and practiced globally. This, it seems, can be due to a number of reasons including a need to update regulations and policy and the fact that some techniques, such as Forensic Gait Analysis, are potentially open to manipulation by the criminal fraternity.

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