We have your DNA, shame on you!
It’s a brave new world where people’s DNA can now be used as a form of public surveillance and punishment.
Hong Kong is taking samples of DNA found on publicly discarded chewing gum, coffee cups and cigarette butts to reconstruct the facial appearance of people who litter.
The reconstructed images of the people are then displayed on public posters in an effort to shame the alleged “litterbugs”.
The technology used is called phenotyping. Phenotyping can predict and reconstruct a person’s physical traits from small amounts of their DNA.
Posters of people who have littered can be seen around Hong Kong.
The Face of Litter ad campaign, as it is being called, was created by the Ogilvy and Mather PR firm along with an organization called Hong Kong Cleanup to combat Hong Kong’s growing litter problem.
The campaign uses Parabon Nanolabs, a company based in Virginia, that has developed DNA technology that can create digital images of people from small amounts of their DNA.
Parabon originally developed this technology with the Department of Defense for criminal investigations.
The sample DNA is compared to known information from the Human Genome to create a physical blueprint of the unknown person to predict what that person looks like.
The phenotyping technology focuses mostly on “highly heritable traits”. These are people’s physical traits that are the most stable and predictable from person to person.
Human traits like eye color, hair color, skin color and facial shape are more reliable to predict than other factors like age and height.
The campaign estimated the person’s age by using known market research on the types of litter the person’s DNA was found on.
People in the 18-34 age range are more likely to chew gum, so DNA from gum samples were assigned an average age in that range. However, cigarette litter is more common among people who are 45 or older.
Ogilvy claims to have received permission from all the people whose litter they collected, so this isn’t a real case of unauthorized DNA collection and public shaming.
Althought DNA phenotyping is far from perfect, it is proving useful in identifying criminals, reopening cold-case homicide files, and reconstructing faces of previously unidentifiable people.
However, the ramifications of using this technology for purposes other than the criminal justice reasons it was created for are more than a little unnerving.
Parabon claims that, aside from this ad campaign, their DNA technology is only available for law enforcement criminal investigations.
The Face of Litter campaign and DNA phenotyping raises a number of privacy and consent issues about the unauthorized use of people’s DNA as well as the specter of public witch-hunts.