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Forensic Geneticists and the Transnational Exchange of DNA data in the EU: Engaging Science with Social Control, Citizenship and Democracy

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - EXCHANGE (Forensic Geneticists and the Transnational Exchange of DNA data in the EU: Engaging Science with Social Control, Citizenship and Democracy)

Periodo di rendicontazione: 2017-10-01 al 2019-03-31


The EXCHANGE project seeks to address the challenges to citizenship, democracy and social control posed by technological systems of surveillance and control of criminality and terrorism. The European Union (EU) has invested in the creation of a pan-European system for the transnational exchange of forensic data between Member States for the purpose of combating cross-border crime, terrorism and illegal migration: the so-called Prüm system, relying on the permanent and automated exchange of information between Member States, namely of DNA profile data, fingerprints, and vehicle registration data. The EXCHANGE project focuses on DNA data insofar as the Prüm Decisions have widened the scope of DNA profiling and databasing as an increasingly important tool for criminal investigation and criminal justice systems. At present, there are 23 operational EU Member States exchanging DNA data.
Prüm Decisions support the EU objectives to accelerate the creation of a so-called ‘area of freedom, security and justice’, and are open to other EU States that are outside the Schengen area. In other words, the exchange of DNA data in the EU aims to strengthen cooperation among Member States in order to fight transnational threats to collective security. While focusing on the role of forensic genetics and technology in the implementation of an ‘area of freedom, security and justice’, the EXCHANGE project investigates the new and old challenges provoked by this scenario to social control, citizenship and democracy in contemporary societies.
The EXCHANGE project adopts a perspective based on science and technology studies (STS) that aims to examine the co-production of science, technology and social order. The project team is also engaged in developing interdisciplinary and ground breaking knowledge, at the intersection of social sciences and forensic genetics. Therefore, one important goal of the EXCHANGE project is to develop and apply innovative theoretical and methodological tools throughout the research process based on an iterative approach of empirical analysis and continuous critical reflection.


The research topic of the EXCHANGE project tackles a social phenomenon that is highly relevant for present societies: the close links between a highly-specialised field of expert knowledge – forensic genetics and the underlying assumption of the infallibility of DNA evidence – and surveillance in the EU in the 21st century. One prominent aspect is the fact that the transnational exchange of forensic DNA data in the EU through the so-called Prüm system builds on the assumption that all EU States will share their resources and will be united in pursuing a common goal through cooperation for the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice. At a time when the vision of European integration is under considerable strain, studying the ethical, legal, regulatory, societal and political challenges of the Prüm Decisions appears to be particularly relevant.

The EXCHANGE project has the following general objectives:
1. Provide a general picture of the implementation of the Prüm Decisions in the EU;
2. Develop in-depth knowledge of forensic geneticists’ views and practices relating to Prüm, by resorting to interviews, ethnographic observation and analysis of criminal cases;
3. Understand national positioning in relation to Prüm by means of a comparative study involving Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and the United Kingdom (UK).
The EXCHANGE project stimulates interdisciplinary dialogue between the social sciences and forensic genetics. This research tackles questions that are relevant to the actors involved in criminal justice cooperation in the EU. Research results might also inform governance and policy-making founded on a respect for human rights, transparency and public trust.
In order to address the above-mentioned objectives, the EXCHANGE project is divided into four sub-projects that address the following specific goals:

Sub-project 1 | Talking Science
The transnational exchange of DNA data in the EU involves different national positioning and contexts. Exploring such a complex picture is approached through interviews with relevant forensic experts – namely all “National Contact Points” for DNA data under the Prüm system – in order to understand their expectations regarding the potential impact of DNA technologies and databasing in fighting crime and terrorism.

Sub-project 2 | Doing Science
There is a widespread belief that DNA technologies have an unrivalled capacity to provide identification of crime perpetrators. This sub-project studies processes of technological and scientific innovation as key ingredients in the construction of credibility of DNA evidence. Additional topics cover communication patterns within the forensic science community and the role of private companies in the provision of forensic services.

Sub-project 3 | Traveling DNA
The operation and effective mobilisation of transnationally exchanged DNA data is made visible through criminal investigation of cross-border criminal cases. Discourses about such criminal cases emerging within and circulating across different domains of practice – forensic science, criminal justice and the media – are in the focus of this sub-project. Furthermore, the interest in this sub-project is investigating how human rights, data protection and issues related to the distinctive statutory laws are addressed in different EU Member States.

Sub-project 4 | Globalising-Localising Forensic Genetics
This sub-project relies on the comparison of five national cases – Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and the UK – with differing conditions and positioning in relation to the transnational exchange of DNA data. It aims to understand how forensic genetic laboratories are organized in different countries and how stakeholders in the context of the criminal justice system perceive the transnational exchange of DNA data in relation to the social, political, and legal contexts in which they operate.
The work performed during the reporting period has fully accomplished the objectives and the timeline defined in the Action. Results can be divided in five specific stages:
(1) Inception;
(2) Design of the theoretical-analytical framework and methodological tools of the research;
(3) Fieldwork;
(4) Production and dissemination of preliminary results and development of the research impact;
(5) Transfer of the team to a new host institution.

In the period of month 1 to month 24, the EXCHANGE project was based at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra. Due to the PI’s promotion to a Full Professor position at the University of Minho, the EXCHANGE project moved to a new host institution. Therefore, between month 25 and month 30, the work performed by the team continued at the University of Minho.

PERIOD: Months 1 to 4.

The inception period involved defining the management structure of the project and comprised the following activities:
(a) Setting up the Team. The PI and 2 senior researchers together with the technical support of the first host institution - CES Project Management Office defined the recruitment strategy for the research team. The guidelines were defined in order to ensure the presence of researchers with skills in qualitative methods and previous research experience in social studies of crime or social studies of science and technology. The EXCHANGE project hired 2 post-docs, 4 PhD students, and 1 research manager.
(b) Constitution of the Scientific Advisory Committee. The EXCHANGE project benefits from the support of a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of internationally renowned forensic experts and social scientists who provide advice to the team at various stages of the project. Members of SAC are: Amade M’ Charek (University of Amsterdam, NL); Barbara Prainsack (University of Vienna, AT); Peter Schneider (University of Cologne, DE); Kees van der Beek (Netherlands Forensic Institute, NL); Robin Williams (Northumbria University, UK).
(c) Definition of Guidelines for individual and Teamwork. The definition of general and practical aspects of the project development and implementation included: (i) designing guidelines for joint team work; (ii) defining authorship rules; (iii) creating a shared data archive with the goal of collecting and sharing common documents; (iv) establishing a bibliographic database with the support of the program Mendeley; (v) and elaborating annual individual work plans for each researcher which mirror the distribution of thematic areas and case studies. These plans are, therefore, connected to the overall and particular goals of the project and define the researchers’ commitments and expected outputs.

PERIOD: Months 9 to 15. Updating: Months 16 to 30.

A fundamental objective for the implementation phase of the project was to build a team of researchers with a solid knowledge basis to understand the topic of the project, and with the necessary theoretical and methodological skills to engage in the empirical fieldwork. To achieve this objective, the following activities took place:

(a) Organization of an Internal Training Course on the Core Research Topics related to the EXCHANGE project (October 2015 to April 2016). A Course on Social Studies of Forensic Genetics has been specifically designed by the PI as a means to gain a thorough knowledge of key theoretical concepts and thematic issues related to the core topic of the EXCHANGE project, and to develop awareness of the international scientific and non-academic debate on key topics of interest to the project. This training plan was carried out on a weekly basis between October 2015 and April 2016 in thematic sessions covering all relevant subjects in the domain of the investigation. The strategy for the training of the team involved internal discussions but also intensive interaction with the international and national academic community. The course also included ad-hoc intensive workshops and courses with invited external speakers on different empirical, theoretical and methodological aspects of the research.

(b) Basic DNA Course (2-5 November 2015). The course was run by Dr Kees van der Beek, custodian of the Dutch DNA database and a member of the EXCHANGE project’s scientific committee, and was specifically conceived for the perceived needs of the researchers of the project. All team members attended the course. Six genetic scientists from the Portuguese Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF) were also invited to attend. The course aimed at providing the team a general overview of all procedural, scientific and organisational aspects of forensic laboratory working, genetic criminal investigation and transnational exchange of genetic data.

(c) Training in Academic Writing and in Qualitative Methods (January 2016 to March 2016, January and February 2017). The PI and the team organized several sessions covering strategies of creative writing for academics, and methodological aspects of qualitative research. The PhD students attended training courses in academic writing. During internal meetings all methodological tools applied in the project were debated in depth. On a regular basis, between months 5 and 30, all team members discussed their doubts and difficulties regarding individual and joint work tasks, and shared strategies for dealing with the methodological and operational challenges of the project.

(d) Scientific Advisory Committee Meeting (2-3 May 2016).
The first meeting of the EXCHANGE project team together with SAC provided a comprehensive overview of the project’s aims, challenges, research perspectives and expected impact, and engaged the team and SAC members in a constructive debate on the possible research developments and difficulties arising from the fieldwork. The variety of expertise represented in the Committee allowed a thorough exploration of the project’s potentialities and aims through an interdisciplinary discussion of the research topics and design.

(e) Organization of an Interdisciplinary Think Tank Day about the “Ethical implications of NGS in the criminal justice system” (20 February 2017).
In an interdisciplinary event the EXCHANGE project team involved some SAC members, and other experts from different countries (Germany, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, and UK) and diverse disciplinary backgrounds (forensic genetics, sociology, anthropology, and political science). The Think Tank Day event addressed a recent technological innovation in the field of forensic genetics, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), also known as Massive Parallel Sequencing (MPS), and the complexities surrounding the application of NGS technologies and the ethical issues which may arise with their implementation. As a Think Tank Day the event aimed to explore these issues from the perspectives of the social and forensic sciences. The 1-day program was organized along the presentation of real-life or hypothetical cases of NGS in forensics that contained unresolved ethical questions or posed interesting social challenges. In particular, guest speakers and participants were invited to contribute with reflections on the risks and benefits of using – but also of not using – different NGS-based technologies in specific contexts; the balance between individual and collective rights and interests; transparency and public trust; public understanding and debate; and future monitoring.

(f) Internal Thematic Meetings (Months 5 to 30).
On a regular basis, the EXCHANGE project researchers present a topic from their individual work to their colleagues and to the PI. These internal seminars ensure debate and allow researchers to share their opinions, comments, doubts and/or critical assessment of a particular theme. Such discussions are subsequently revised and stored as final outputs in the project’s digital archive, for future consultation. These thematic seminars have taken place since the beginning of this period and are expected to occur until the end of the project: they are not only a valuable instrument of team-building, but also an opportunity for the researchers to share their individual experience, to gain mutual benefit from each other’s expertise, and to develop new research-related and critical skills.

(g) Organization of Thematic Seminars with Invited Speakers (Months 5 to 26)
The PI and the team regularly have been organizing and continue to organize thematic seminars covering relevant topics for the EXCHANGE project, such as, semiotics, similarities and differences between biobanks and forensic DNA databases, DNA databases in non-EU States, forensic uses of neuroscience, the implications of the Prüm Treaty decisions in particular contexts and academic citizenship. Besides allowing fruitful debate with invited experts from several fields of knowledge, by being open to the wider public, these seminars are also used to expand the sphere of scientific discussion to non-expert participants. They are also a useful platform for constructing and/or further developing networks of contacts with academics and professionals from several different institutions. These events were also dedicated to the debate on possible research developments and difficulties arising from the fieldwork.

(h) Participation in ESRC Research Seminars (Months 3 to 22)
A periodic activity of EXCHANGE project researchers was the attendance of Research Seminars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on genetics, technology, security and justice, held in the UK. These seminars had particular relevance to the EXCHANGE project’s aims: first, they constituted a unique formative opportunity for early-career researchers involved in the project. Second, by gathering high-profile academics, practitioners and other relevant stakeholders from several countries, fields and disciplines, these seminars provided a privileged opportunity to meet relevant stakeholders and build connections that may help to gain access to the field and the development of fieldwork. The PI was a keynote speaker in one of these seminars.

PERIOD: Months 6 to 30.
The team of the EXCHANGE project successfully developed the following fieldwork activities, in full accordance with the objectives set out in Annex I of the grant agreement (description of the work):
a) Sub-project 1 – The researchers carried out 32 interviews with 41 professionals in charge of operating the Prüm system in 23 EU Member States in order to understand their expectations regarding the potential impact of DNA technologies and databasing applied for the purpose of fighting crime and terrorism. In addition, they interviewed 10 forensic experts based in 8 EU Member States. The latter aimed to foster a better understanding of the organization of the provision of forensic genetics services in different countries and grasp perceptions concerning DNA technology developments and innovations.
b) Sub-project 2 – Researchers conducted ethnographic observation at 1 forensic genetics laboratory and at 10 meetings and scientific events of experts working with DNA technologies for fighting criminality and terrorism. Such activities were conducted in order to understand professional practices and cultures in the area of forensic genetics and policing which contribute to the performance and the construction of credibility of DNA evidence. Other topics of interest include communication patterns within the forensic science community and the role of private companies in the provision of forensic services.
c) Sub-project 3 – Researchers used document analysis for 390 press news and 5 court decisions (publicly available) related to criminal cases involving transnational police cooperation and uses of DNA technologies. The aim is to understand how discourses about this kind of criminal cases circulate among the different domains of practice – forensic science, criminal justice and the media.
d) Sub-project 4 – Researchers carried out a total number of 44 interviews with stakeholders in the context of the criminal justice system, experts in forensic genetics including staff at forensic laboratories, academic experts, private companies providing forensic genetics services, professionals in the criminal investigation body (police), experts in respective legislative and regulatory bodies, professionals in oversight and advisory authorities linked to DNA databases (data protection authorities or ethics boards), in five different national contexts – Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and the UK. The aim is to understand how the transnational exchange of DNA data to fight criminality and terrorism are perceived in relation to the social, political, and legal contexts.

PERIOD: Months 4 to 30.

The dissemination and communication strategy of the EXCHANGE project aimed to reach academic and non-academic audiences, and to promote the engagement with civil society. The dissemination strategy developed during the reporting period covered the following actions:
a) Creation of the project’s design of visual identity, namely the EXCHANGE project website ( as well as a Twitter account ( );
b) Production of 2 short videos/interviews, available at the website and at the EXCHANGE Youtube channel ( and participation in 1 webinar;
c) Participation in international and national conferences and organization of scientific events (more details are provided along the report);
d) Production of scientific publications (more details are provided along the report);
e) Coordination of a distance learning course on “forensic genetics and criminal justice” with university students and practitioners from several areas of expertise;
f) Interaction with schools and students through presentations held in various secondary schools of Northern and Central Portugal and a dissemination activity held at Qualifica, an annual career fair with a target audience mainly composed of secondary school students;
g) Interaction with university students through the organization of a movie session and of sessions with students in which the work of the EXCHANGE project is presented and debated.


Period: months 25 to 30

The PI gained a position, through a competitive call, as Full Professor at the Department of Sociology, Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Minho. Since this new job offered excellent conditions for consolidation her academic career, the PI has accepted this new job. The University of Minho with its research centres in the domain of social sciences offered adequate conditions to proceed with the EXCHANGE project in compliance with the grant agreement.
During this period, the EXCHANGE project faced several difficulties (reported in the specific section of this report) due to the necessity to adjust to new bureaucratic and administrative procedures which were an obstacle to continue to conduct the fieldwork, to have access to translation services, and to buy books and consumables. Additionally, it was impossible to attend any conferences during this period.
Despite of these difficulties, the EXCHANGE project was able to pursue and consolidate its activities, namely by continuing the organization of thematic seminars, conducting interviews in Portugal, and pursuing the dissemination of preliminary results through the elaboration of publications (3 book chapters and 1 article in academic journal were published during this period).

The topical themes that have emerged from the empirical research and theoretical analysis are t
he following:
1. Overview of transnational DNA data exchange in the EU;
2. Analysis of ethical aspects of the operations related to Prüm;
3. Regimes of data protection in the EU;
4. Forms of criminalization of populations involved in transnational movement within the EU;
5. Differentiated provision of forensic services in the EU;
6. Broader aspects of societal and regulatory aspects of forensic genetics technologies: comparing the UK and Portugal;
7. Ethical controversies of familial searching: comparing the UK and Poland;
8. Ethical, societal and regulatory aspects of controversial and emerging technologies;
9. Processes of (de)materialization of criminal bodies;
10. Criminal cases in the media;
11. Challenges to communication of science, accountability and public participation;
12. Emergent and co-produced issue-publics;
13. Conceptualization of ‘bio-bordering’.

Inspired by an interdisciplinary approach which combines social studies of science and technology with critical studies of surveillance, the work performed from the beginning of the project until month 30 has resulted in the following quantitative indicators describing scientific output:
a) Publications: 1 book, 15 book chapters, 7 articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, 4 proceedings in conferences, and 1 report. In addition, 4 articles were submitted to academic journals and scientific books and are currently waiting for reviewers’ reports and 3 articles were in the final stage of preparing submission during this reporting period.
b) Papers presented at scientific conferences: 27 papers at international conferences and 22 papers at national conferences.
c) Organization of thematic panels at international, high profile conferences: 1 thematic panel at EASST/Barcelona 2016 and approval of 3 thematic panels at EASST 2018 (2 thematic panels) and 4S 2018 (1 thematic panel).
d) Organization of seminars and scientific events: 1 international conference, 1 Think Tank Day, 9 seminars, 1 training course on basic DNA, 1 summer school, 1 Scientific Advisory Council meeting, 1 distance learning course, and 2 workshops.
e) Events of engagement with civil society: 7 sessions with secondary schools, 1 participation in an annual career fair, 1 movie session addressing university students, and 3 presentation of the EXCHANGE project to university students.

The EXCHANGE project is highly committed to developing theoretical and methodological tools that produce results that serve the purpose of developing interdisciplinary and ground breaking knowledge. The innovative nature of the project activities was fulfilled by conducting theoretical reflection and critical analytical thinking over the following research questions, which allows to achieve progressive results beyond the state of the art:
- What are the main characteristics of the “genetic age” of criminal investigation? Which new and old ways of investigating crime do emerge from the exchange of genetic data (and personal data) at a transnational level? How is Prüm expected to help with criminal investigations and what types of crimes can be solved with the help of Prüm DNA exchange?
- What are the main challenges in trying to implement and achieve the harmonization and stabilization of the uses of DNA technologies in the EU within a scenario where divergences and asymmetries still exist on several levels? What is the role of private companies in supporting the provision of forensic services? Which new types of interactions emerge between laboratories and forensic practitioners on the one hand, and the police forces and the criminal justice system on the other hand?
- How are human rights framed in distinct countries? Which new rights and duties emerge within the transnational data exchange? How is techno-scientific development within forensic genetics accompanied (or not) by due legal, regulatory, and ethical governance?
- How does Prüm facilitate a standardization of forensic genetics – and a mainstreaming of genetic surveillance across European democracies? How do countries with different forensic and democratic cultures respond to it? What do different countries do to address the dilemma of finding transparent and accountable governance solutions to create a balance between the limitation of citizenship and human rights of some on the one hand, and the safety and integrity of the majority of society on the other hand?
- How are citizens and stakeholders affected by societal and ethical implications of DNA technologies and DNA data exchange across the EU? What is the role of the media and how does it shape the public discourse about these technologies?
- Finally, what are the old and new challenges of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system emerging from transnational DNA data exchange? What risks and benefits are perceived taking into account the fact that DNA data travels between labs and criminal justice systems of distinct countries?
Up to this point, some of these questions have been part of EXCHANGE’s preliminary findings. In particular, the team has been publishing on the following themes, which go beyond the state of the art:
1. Overview of transnational patterns of DNA data of exchange in the EU, showing that most of the volume of exchanges and DNA profile matches have occurred in central European countries which have taken lead roles in the implementation of Prüm;
2. Analysis of controversies on the ethical aspects of the operations of Prüm, demonstrating that forensic practitioners’ accounts on ethics can be understood as socially embedded in the ways through which the sociality of science is activated and the scientific work legitimized;
3. Regimes of data protection in the EU, considering how, in a context of legislative and jurisdictional diversity among Member States, the processes of technological harmonisation produce neutralizing effects of the legislative, technical, cultural and political differences;
4. Multiple forms of the criminalization of populations involved in transnational movements within the EU, presented in the narratives of professionals in charge of operating the so-called Prüm system;
5. Differentiated provision of forensic services in the EU, outlining the character of the relations between the providers of forensic services and law authorities; the downstream challenges for national jurisdictions involving exchange of personal data procedures; and the differentiated availability of resources and how these processes impact on national criminal justice systems;
6. Broader aspects of societal and regulatory aspects of forensic genetics technologies, exploring what are legitimate forms of public knowledge production in forensic genetics, how epistemic authority of knowledge claims is produced, and how DNA technologies and forensic DNA databases become regulated in democratically responsible ways;
7. Ethical controversies of familial searching in the field of criminal investigation and in the domain of missing persons and how those relate to specific notions of social risks, public good and the accountability of the state;
8. Ethical, societal and regulatory aspects of controversial emerging technologies, exploring how techniques such as familial searching are actively constructing new sets of suspects in ways that move from individual identification towards the clustering of “suspect” populations on the basis of biological make-up;
9. Processes of (de)materialization of criminal bodies, exploring how technologies such as forensic DNA phenotyping render bodies as (un)readable, attribute variable meanings to bodies according to different contexts, and relate to issues of reliability construction of (non)scientific boundaries;
10. Criminal cases in the media, demonstrating how media accounts ignore the accumulation of a very diverse network of individuals, organizations, and knowledge practices, and disregards the transformative power of the circulation of information by using a narrative of simplification;
11. Challenges associated with communicating science, illustrating how forensic geneticists deal with the views of “enthusiastic” publics on DNA evidence within the criminal justice system;
12. Emergent and co-produced issue-publics, e.g. which different types of issues affect and mobilize publics, and how such issues are brought into being by assembling along particular matters of concern and in interplay with the institutionalization of regulatory and governance solutions for DNA databases;
13. Conceptualization of ‘bio-bordering’ in order to sensitize for the multiple border practices related with biometric data exchange across Europe which impact on the permeability of borders for data and criminal bodies.


The EXCHANGE project addresses issues that are relevant not only for stakeholders involved in criminal justice cooperation in the EU, but to citizens in general. The expected results until the end of the project might also inform governance and policy-making founded on respect for human rights, transparency and public trust.
The EXCHANGE project aims to provide research results which will answer the following research questions, which exemplify in a particularly elucidative way the importance of our research to society as follows:
How are citizens and stakeholders affected by societal and ethical implications of DNA technologies and DNA data exchange across the EU? Which new rights and duties do emerge within the transnational data exchange? How are human rights framed in distinct countries? How is techno-scientific development within forensic genetics accompanied (or not) by due legal, regulatory, and ethical governance?
By producing cutting-edge knowledge, the EXCHANGE project means to stimulate public debate on the role of science and technology in surveillance apparatuses. In this sense, this study is expected to be of high relevance to interest groups such as watchdog group concerned with genetics and data protection, civil rights groups, and media. Similarly, the EXCHANGE project team expects that governmental institutions such as law enforcement agencies and policy makers will find its research results relevant, too.
Additionally, and hopefully, the impact of the EXCHANGE project will also be of value for the next generations of scientists. Through this project, it will be possible to promote the intensive training and long-term engagement of early career researchers in the still emerging – but already vibrant – field of social studies of forensic genetics.