Kevin Dooley/flickr

Kevin Dooley/flickr

A series of Hong Kong ads shame litterbugs using DNA forensic technology to replicate their faces, showing that the science is making a shift into the public’s hands. How long before we can expect it on our smartphones?

In Hong Kong, if you drop a cigarette or an empty bag of potato chips on the ground, your face could go on display for everyone to see.

Thanks to technology created by Parabon Nanolabs in Virginia, [tweetable alt=”With amazing #tech from @Parabon Nanolabs, portraits can be constructed from the smallest traces of DNA.” hashtag=””]portraits can be constructed from the smallest traces of DNA — less than one billionth the mass of a penny.[/tweetable] A Hong Kong NPO is using it to shame those who litter in a widespread ad campaign called The Face of Litter, which displays estimations of the litterbug’s face on screens around the city.

With Apple’s recent release of the ResearchKit platform, a boon to medical researchers that helps them reach more potential study and survey participants, many are wondering how long it will take before we’re sending and saving DNA info on our iPhones.

But is this really possible, and given the reaction to the Face of Litter campaign, is it really something we’d be comfortable with?

Facing the Problem

According to Next Nature, China and Indonesia are responsible for more than a third of all trash that’s been washed out to sea, and most of that trash comes from its littered streets.

The ad agency Ogilvy and NPO Hong Kong Cleanup (HKC) jointly decided to take advantage of Parabon’s new technology. The two work in tandem: HKC gathers litter and sends it to Parabon, who uses the technology to craft portraits from the DNA found in dried saliva.

They then launched a campaign, The Face of Litter, that displayed the faces of litterers throughout the city.

Reed Collins, Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy, told the Daily Mail: “Litter is such a major problem in Hong Kong, and thanks to newly available DNA technology, we can now put a face to this anonymous crime and get people to think twice about littering.”

It’s definitely got people thinking. A Daily Mail video catches the initial reactions of passersby to the launch of the ad campaign. And more importantly, it’s sparked discussion, having inspired 3.9 million social media engagements in only two weeks.

Positive or Negative Publicity?

[tweetable alt=”The company responsible for the HK DNA litter campaign @ogilvypr says they asked permission from each person whose trash they picked up.” hashtag=””]Oglivy claims to have asked permission from each person whose trash they picked up,[/tweetable] according to WIRED. Even if this is true, the repercussions for public shaming could be immense. Is this really the answer to Hong Kong’s litter issues?

This public demonstration of DNA forensics shows that not everyone is comfortable with such easy access to the private info in our genetic makeup.

As the MIT Technology Review reports, the Apple ResearchKit platform has already used iPhone sensors to collect information from Parkinson’s sufferers with an app called mPower. “The obvious next thing,” says geneticist Gholson Lyon, “is to collect DNA.”

But as close as this technology may be, the implications of such an app could be sprawling and hard to contain. If the amount of material needed to gauge someone’s genetic makeup is microscopic, what’s to stop someone from “hijacking” another person’s DNA, using their fingerprint to look up sensitive information about them?

We might even trust companies like HKC and Google with our genomes, as Technology Review explains, but can we trust everyone with access to a smartphone?

App developers have a responsibility to be conscious of delicate borderlines, and it’s up to them to balance the need for more effective research solutions with users’ right to privacy. Whether you want to help researchers get more data on diseases and find a cure or public officials looking to rein in problems like littering, developing an app can help you achieve almost anything.

With Infinite Monkeys, you can easily develop and execute your idea — and if DNA forensic technology comes to smartphones soon, you’ll have one more tool to do it with.