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Hong Kong using billboards to publicly shame litter bugs

Hong Kong Cleanup’s initiative, called “The Face of Litter,” was launched with the start of Global Earth Day. The ads, created by marketing agency Ogilvy, in coordination with Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based biotechnology company are creating quite a sensation.

The faces on the electronic billboards are composites created using DNA taken from gum wrappers, candy wrappers, chewing gum, and other trash. While DNA may not be able to put an actual face on the litter bug, other parameters were added to create a profile.

According to Wired, “The DNA found on the Hong Kong trash 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, begins to form a rough snapshot of certain phenotypes, or traits. Parabon focuses on what it describes as highly heritable traits—or traits that have the least amount of environmental variability involved. Things like eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape are far easier to determine than height, age, and even hair morphology (straight, wavy, or curly).”

It took the Ogilvy marketing team, using age demographics to help in putting a face to some groups of litter bugs. Market research found that most gum chewers were in the 18-34 age group while cigarette butt litter bugs were more likely to be over the age of 45.

Now most people would say this anti-littering campaign is not very ethical and an “invasion of privacy.” But Ogilvy insists they are “above the board” in this ad campaign, saying they “received permission from every person whose trash they picked up.”

Just so you know, in the six weeks the litter bug campaign lasted, volunteers picked up 4,000 tons of litter from the streets. This was just a drop in the old trash can from the estimated 6.5 million tons of litter and trash that accumulates on the streets of Hong Kong every year.

But more provocative and downright scary is the fact that a “can of worms” has been opened. Just how far can an organization, or for that matter, a governmental entity be allowed to go in invading our privacy, consent, and ethics with the unsanctioned appropriation of someone’s DNA?

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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