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DNA phenotyping depicts Hong Kong litterers

Signal of change / DNA phenotyping depicts Hong Kong litterers

By Laura Picot / 11 Jun 2015

Digital images of people who litter, derived from their DNA traces left on dumped items, were on public display in Hong Kong on Earth Day (22 April 2015). The Face of Litter campaign was run by the non-profit Hong Kong Cleanup and marketing communications company Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong. It displayed 25 digital visualisations of litterers on posters around the city and online. Permission was received by everyone whose litter was collected.

Using DNA samples, US-based ParabonNanoLabs were able to determine biogeographic ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, freckling, and face shape of the perpetrators with a technique called DNA phenotyping. It is not possible to tell age from DNA, so demographic data was used to determine the likely approximate age of the person based on the type of litter, for example, people ages 18-34 are more likely to chew gum.


So what?

The aim of the campaign was not to “shame” specific individuals, but to raise awareness of the element of personal choice in littering, in order to reduce the 16,000 tons of waste that are dumped in Hong Kong every day.

Hong Kong Cleanup CEO Lisa Christensen explained that the organisers hoped to make people think twice about littering and “provoke a conversation to create positive social change for the people of Hong Kong”.

ParabonNanoLabs normally use DNA phenotyping as a forensic tool to aid in criminal investigations. Currently only a rough visual representation can be made and individuals cannot be accurately portrayed. However, if DNA phenotyping becomes more commonly used in investigations, what are the implications for policing and privacy? Is there a risk that a visualisation may by chance resemble someone who did not commit an offense? How might the technique change the face of the justice system, or be used to influence behaviour in other contexts?


Ogilvy & Mather (2015, April 22) O&M Hong Kong uses DNA testing to put a face to litterbugs 

ParabonNanoLabs (2015, April 22) Ogilvy & Mather "The Face of Litter" Campaign Launches on Global Earth Day to Support Hong Kong Cleanup Challenge

South China Morning Post (2015, May 20) Hong Kong litterbugs shamed in billboard portraits made using DNA from trash

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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