Critical perspectives exploring the technological ethics in ‘The Face of Litter’ campaign

Written by: HO Pik Wa, Vivian

Have you ever thought that one day your face will be shown on a wanted poster just because you littered on the streets? In Hong Kong, an environmental campaign called “The Face of Litter bugs” was launched in 2015 by Hong Kong Cleanup to tackle and deter the littering behavior using high-tech simulated portraits. The campaign randomly collected litters[1] on local streets and used DNA phenotyping technologies to render portraits of the litterers. Portrait posters were then placed across the city’s transit media, social media and print publications. With a strong caption “I Recognize You. Don’t litter”, the campaign warned litterbugs across the city there is no place to hide, as technology surveillance can track their every move.


The campaign employed negative emotional appeals to shame the litterers by placing computer-generated portraits across the city. Although it is for a good cause to discourage littering, the approach of public shaming is questionable as it may raise ethical concerns and questions about the manipulation of negative emotions in advertising. Public shaming uses public pressure and insults as a means of punishment to the litterer, it can be a force to corrective actions or could be a form of harassment. The use of portraits could lead to harassment to those who look alike the suspects, causing unnecessary emotional overload. Moreover, littering probably does not warrant the level of public shaming we use for terrorists and murderers.

Accuracy of the simulated portraits may prompt another potential problem of the campaign, DNA phenotyping can only reveal characteristics such as skin color, eye color and hair color, while age cannot be determined by DNA alone. Therefore, the team relies on other factors from market research such as the types of litter and the places of the litter found, to estimate the age of the suspect. Since age has been one of the unknown factors, the simulated portraits are doubtfully accurate. That means it is possible that people might be seeing their likeness on those posters, which may cause harm to people who may or may not deserve it.

V2The collection of DNA samples and data analysis may lead to possible privacy breaches and data misuses. DNA is a highly sensitive personal data. Unauthorized disclosure of DNA data could lead to grave impact[2] for individuals.

As for data use and security, it provokes conversations on whether the collected DNA samples were properly destroyed after use and were there any other uses of data involved without the consent of the data subject. It also leads to the questions of privacy in public spaces, where individuals should have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces without unwanted surveillance.

This campaign was very innovative and successful by many measurements, but it does put questions on the ethics in promotional tactics. ‘The Face of Litter’ could serve as a basis to critically discuss how ethics, privacy and the use of negative emotional appeals should be adopted in advertising.


[1] The samples came from a six-week challenge in which teams collected more than 4,000 tons of litter from streets. (Worland, 2015)
[2] DNA could reveal other characteristics, such as physical and mental health conditions. (PCPD, 2015)



Digital Synopsis. (2015). Anti-litter campaign from Ogilvy HK uses DNA to identify offenders and shame them. Retrieved from

Ecozine. (2015, April 22). The Face of Litter. Retrieved from

Gan, V. (2015, April 30). Using public shame to stop litterbugs. CityLab. Retrieved from

Miller, M., Tan, E. (2015, April 22). DNA identifies Hong Kong’s litterbugs. Campaign. Retrieved from

PCPD. (2015). Guidance on collection and use of biometric data. Retrieved from

Sharp, M. (2015, May 20). Hong Kong Litterbugs shamed in billboard portraits made using DNA from trash. SCMP. Retrieved from

Sile, A. (2015, April 23). Hong Kong’s ‘name and shame’ litter campaign. CNBC. Retrieved from

Worland, J. (2015, May 20). Hong Kong anti-littering campaign uses DNA from trash to shame people. Time. Retrieved from