DNA Testing Could Identify Litterbugs and Dog Poop Miscreants

Anonymous crimes may not be quite so anonymous anymore

In a recent ad campaign, portraits of litterers made from DNA taken from tossed cigarettes, coffee cups and condoms were posted in public places around Hong Kong. Ogilvy & Mather

Toss a soda can on the street in Hong Kong, and you could find a DNA-generated picture of your face on the side of a bus shelter.

Last month, composite portraits of litterers generated from DNA taken from tossed cigarettes, coffee cups and condoms were posted in public places around Hong Kong. The portraits were part of an ad campaign called “The Face of Litter,” created in honor of Earth Day. The campaign was meant to raise awareness about the city’s litter problem, and hopefully frighten a few would-be litterbugs in the process.

The company that produced the DNA portraits, Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, calls its DNA portrait technology “Snapshot.” It’s mostly aimed at law enforcement looking to solve cases where there is a DNA sample but no suspects or DNA database hits. With as little as 50 picograms of DNA—the average human cell contains about 6 picograms of DNA—Snapshot can create a composite profile of a person, including likely skin, eye and hair color, face shape and ethnic ancestry.

While the Face of Litter campaign may have been more about shaming litterers than law enforcement, DNA is increasingly being used to catch and prosecute minor criminals and civic nuisance-makers. In the United States, DNA was used to identify a culprit responsible for vandalizing businesses in Oregon, and, in one case in Iowa, scratching “derogatory words” into a Volkswagen Beetle with a knife. When someone scaled the Brooklyn Bridge and planted white flags on top last year, police reportedly collected DNA evidence in hopes it could be used to catch the pranksters. The effort was unsuccessful, as the DNA database had no matches for the samples; two German artists later claimed responsibility.

Parabon’s portraits have serious limitations—DNA alone can’t reveal age, skin condition, weight or exact shape of facial features. In the Hong Kong campaign, ages were approximated based on the type of litter and on demographic information for the areas where the litter was found. Nor can DNA analysis offer any data, obviously, about hairstyle—all the heads in the campaign were completely bald.

“It’s a nice public service message, but it’s difficult to imagine that it will be widely used to prevent litter,” says Steve Armentrout, the founder and CEO of Parabon.

As Armentrout explains, Snapshot can tell us the likelihood of a person having or not having a certain trait—a 90 percent likelihood of having brown eyes, say, or a 95 percent likelihood of not having freckles. But it may or may not create a picture your mother would recognize. Parabon’s website shows sample profiles taken from known donors. Some of the DNA portraits look strikingly like the donor photographs, while others could perhaps be distant cousins.

DNA of a different breed—literally—is increasingly used to track that most odious type of litterer—the dog owner who fails to pick up their pets’ poop. A number of apartment complexes, housing developments and municipalities have employed dog-dung DNA-identification services to keep their sidewalks clean. Dog owners are required to submit a cheek swab sample from their dog to be entered in a DNA database. Unpicked-up poop in the community is then sent to the DNA ID service for matching. Guilty owners are fined or even evicted.  

“In the U.S., close to 30 percent of all people own a dog, and we calculated 40 percent of owners don’t pick up after their dog,” says Tom Boyd, the founder and CEO of dog DNA tracking service PooPrints. Though that number may seem startlingly high, surveys, including some conducted in and around Washington, D.C., have indeed shown that only about 60 percent of dog owners always pick up their dog’s waste.

PooPrints works with hundreds of communities across the United States, and has recently been contracted by the London borough of Barking (no joke) and Dagenham. The borough plans to make dog DNA registry mandatory by 2016, and will fine poop-leavers £80 (about $120).

Like littering, leaving behind dog poop is usually an anonymous transgression. Even otherwise good citizens will sometimes fall prey to the allure of “but no one is watching” when faced with an unpleasant task like dog doo duty. Public information campaigns about the importance of picking up dog poop in preventing stormwater pollution have failed across the world, Boyd says.

“[Local governments across the world] thought they could educate the public to pick up after their dogs, they spent millions on fines—it just doesn’t work,” says Boyd. “With this, they cannot get away.”

As DNA testing becomes cheaper and DNA databases grow larger, it’s likely that the use of human DNA to nab minor offenders will continue to grow. Toss the end of a joint in a public trash can, and the police could catch you for drug possession. Spray paint a wall, and get nabbed for vandalism from the DNA on the tossed-off paint can.

Some will worry about state-sponsored “biosurveillance” and loss of privacy. Biotechnology watchdog groups like the UK’s GeneWatch have written about worrisome consequences that could come from using DNA databases to capture minor offenders. Investigators could use genetic information to harass innocent family members of criminals and terrorists, and might use it disproportionately against minorities, they say. Others will no doubt simply be pleased to have cleaner parks and to avoid planting a shoe in a pile of poo.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.