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Tom Keenan: DNA technology used to shame litterbugs

by Tom Keenan

Calgary Herald
June 3, 2015

If you’re like most guys, you’re a good person most of the time, but there are occasional lapses. You don’t have a tissue, so you spit your gum on the street.  The dog poops, you’re out of bags, so you just keep walking. After a few beers, perhaps you relieve yourself in a back alley.

Imagine your surprise when you see a pretty good likeness of your pooch, or yourself, displayed on a “public shaming” digital billboard.  You’ve been caught by the latest advances in DNA technology.

Let’s start with that errant piece of chewing gum.  Hong Kong had a problem with littering, so authorities went to marketing communications company Ogilvy & Mather for some creative solutions.  They suggested putting a face on this anonymous crime with new DNA technologies.

Workers collect discarded gum, cigarette butts and coffee cups and send them to a lab. Scientists extract the DNA and use it to make educated guesses about the perpetrator’s appearance.  Soon the offender sees a photo that looks eerily familiar, posted near the scene of the crime. The public shaming is reinforced with an online video (https://vimeo.com/124896310).

The DNA magic behind this happens at West Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs. Starting with a tiny sample, their Snapshot™ Phenotype Report yields a composite profile that “includes sex, ancestry, pigmentation (skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, freckling), and even face morphology.”  It can also provide characteristics that, with 95 per cent certainty, the person who belongs to the DNA does not possess.

Ah, but how do they figure out the approximate age of the litterer, since our DNA sequence doesn’t divulge that? This involves more sophisticated guesswork, based on factors like the type of litter and where it was found. It’s too early to judge if this shaming approach is effective. It is certainly a harbinger of a future world where your DNA can be used, without your knowledge or consent, for all kinds of purposes.

As you might guess, this technology was funded by law enforcement, specifically the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Parabon says it’s being used by “state and local police departments throughout the U.S … to generate viable leads in cases that might otherwise go cold.” Somewhat creepily, they also report use by “private citizens seeking ancestry information.”

As for Fido’s excretions, some apartment complexes are dealing with that smelly problem by forcing all residents to submit doggy saliva samples. Then, if an unidentified turd appears, the dog owner can be tracked and possibly fined.  This largely American phenomenon came to Canada recently with the opening of PooPrints Canada.  They claim they can identify the “poopetrators” and are attracting the attention of building managers in cities across Canada. It costs about $50 per dog to set it up, but, with fines of $100 or so, poop penalties may become a profit maker for beleaguered condo associations and managers.

Men have special reasons to worry about DNA tracking, since our Y chromosome is passed down virtually unchanged from father to son to grandson, and it can divulge lots of information about us. Consider a time-honored hobby of male college students — raising cash through sperm donation. It’s certainly easier, quicker and more pleasurable than putting in eight hours as a sales clerk or digging ditches, and sperm donors were often promised that their handiwork would be anonymous.

As I explained in my book, Technocreep, this comforting assumption is crumbling in the face of new technologies. A 15-year-old boy, armed with his own DNA, was able to track his “anonymous” sperm donor father, even though Dad had never submitted his own DNA for analysis.

As documented by writer Alison Motluk in the journal New Scientist, “the teenager tracked down his father from his Y chromosome”. Then, all he needed was someone else in the same paternal line to provide a sample to a genetic database. Two men came up as matches for the boy, and they had the same surname. This allowed the lad, armed with other information such as his father’s birthplace and date of birth, to hunt him down using another online service called omnitrace.com.

Motluk does not say how Dad felt about this, or whether or not junior asked for college money. Given his sleuthing ability, he should be able to win a scholarship.

The moral of these stories is that our DNA will almost certainly be used for purposes we couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago. Laws are definitely lagging technology here. Pop star Madonna has taken control of her genetic privacy. She has a “sterilization team” that removes any stray hairs or saliva she leaves behind in her dressing room.  Nobody will be able to clone Madonna! This may sound paranoid — until you see your face smiling back from a digital billboard.

Dr. Tom Keenan is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, professor at the University of Calgary, Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, and author of the new book, Technocreep, (www.technocreep.com).


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