Anti-litter bug ads use DNA to publicly shame perps

John Hopton for – @Johnfinitum

DNA profiling and artists impressions are associated with catching serious bad guys, but now litterbugs in Hong Kong are subject to the same techniques.

DNA collected from tiny traces of saliva on cigarette butts and gum is being used to create a highly accurate (if slightly creepy) impression of perpetrators’ faces. The images are then plastered around the city like advertising, in what Wired describes as “high-tech scarlet lettering”.

Hong Kong’s Face Of Litter campaign is the work of ad agency Ogilvy for the non-profit Hong Kong Cleanup, together with Parabon Nanolabs, a company out of Virginia that has developed a method to construct digital portraits from small traces of DNA.

Less than a nanogram (or less than one billionth of the mass of a penny) of dried saliva is need for scientists to construct a digital likeness.

Parabon’s technique benefits from the growing information we have about the human genome. Blood or saliva can be analyzed in order to make an educated prediction of what a person might look like. “We’re interested in using DNA as a blueprint,” explains Steven Armentrout, founder of Parabon. “We read the genetic code.”

The DNA from trash in Hong Kong is taken to a genotyping lab, where a massive data set on the litterbug is produced. This data, when processed with Parabon’s machine-learning algorithms, helps to form an assessment of certain phenotypes, or traits. In this way, it is different to DNA profiling that matches to existing samples.

Method can’t judge how trendy the subject is (hairstyle, facial hair)

The method is only accurate with things that have little environmental variability, such as eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape. Height and age are less easy to ascertain, as are hair appearance (straight, wavy, or curly) and style, which is probably why most of the poster images appear bald. (It could be a way of saying “this is what you’ll look like when you’re doing hard time for littering.”)

But actually, the campaign is not quite as sinister as it seems. All of the people whose DNA was used were contacted and asked for their permission to use their images. So really it is a public confession rather than a shaming as they are contributing to public awareness of littering and of a cool new technology.

The method also used market research to ascertain things that DNA profiling found difficult, such as age. Because they were aware that people of 18 to 34 generally chew gum while those who drop cigarettes were likely to be over 45, the scientists were able to incorporate age into the images.

This is not yet a exact science but is perhaps a sign of things to come, and a reason for debate on the ethical use of increasingly easy-to-use DNA samples.


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