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Dog Poop DNA Tracking Introduces Spy Tech to Our Backyards

Companies say they can pinpoint tenants who aren’t cleaning up after their pets. But is a clean lawn worth giving up your dog’s DNA?

Illustration: Eva Cremers

TThree years ago, Giovanni Peluso was struggling to secure an apartment in Post Falls, Idaho, with his dogs, Rufus and Mac, who together weighed in at a whopping but lovable 250 pounds. After months of rejection by landlords not keen on the canines, a desperate Peluso thought he had found it: a pleasant community with all the trappings of suburbia — manicured lawns, neat picket fences, and, best of all, dog-friendly.

Only there was a catch.

Peluso’s property management company required him to surrender DNA from Rufus and Mac as part of a biometric program to catch people who don’t clean up after their pets. The service boasted the ability to match errant poop to a dog’s genetic profile, similar to police running a suspect’s DNA or fingerprints on law enforcement databases to pin them to a crime.

Peluso had no choice but to comply. The process took less than 15 minutes and was administered through a service called PooPrints. Under the supervision of his landlord, Peluso swiped Rufus and Mac’s mouths with a cotton bud provided in the PooPrints registration kit. Their samples were sent to a laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. Two weeks later, Peluso received “DNA profile certificates” for both animals through a platform called DNA World Pet Registry. Each profile displayed a colorful array of dots — blips of DNA that are otherwise meaningless to the untrained eye.

“It was unprofessional and fast,” says Peluso, recalling that he simply walked down to his property manager’s office to get it over with. “However, it seemed as secure as 23andMe.”

Though DNA investigations of dog poop are easily dismissable as gimmicks, renters nevertheless face hundreds of dollars in fines and even eviction if incriminated by this technology.

Today, thousands of property managers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are enforcing dog poop surveillance programs through two companies that have cornered the niche but profitable market: Knoxville’s BioPet Laboratories, which operates PooPrints, and Mr. Dog Poop in Tampa, Florida. PooPrints claims to serve more than 4,000 properties across the three regions and says it has registered 350,000 dogs on its DNA database. Mr. Dog Poop declined to reveal the size of its customer base but alleged that it is larger than that of PooPrints.

Though DNA investigations of dog poop are easily dismissable as gimmicks, renters nevertheless face hundreds of dollars in fines and even eviction if incriminated by this technology. According to interviews that OneZero conducted with half a dozen participants of these programs, a single offense can result in a $100 to $350 fine, a high enough financial burden to push someone out of their apartment if imposed by a greedy landlord. But another cost that landlords often neglect to consider is the psychological stress of living beneath a microscope. As invasive surveillance systems enter the mainstream, dog poop DNA services can inure us to their more nefarious effects, such as discrimination, inequality, and a loss of civil liberties. What rights do people — and, by extension, their pets — have to challenge them?

“The constant threat of being bankrupted by fines they say that you owe, but cannot prove that you owe, was a living nightmare,” Peluso says. “They are, and were, counting on people to shut up and get fleeced.”

InIn 1976, the New York Times solemnly warned that the “Urban Dog Population Is a Rising Problem” in metropolises like Chicago, which is now considered one of the nation’s best cities for dogs. As humans flock to population centers with their animals in tow, some form of the dog poop problem is inevitable. It is not only disgusting and prolific — dogs in the United States produce 21.2 billion pounds of poop annually — but also harmful to our health and environment. To calm the angry masses, San Francisco assembled its own poop patrol. Elsewhere, cities like New York have instituted, to varying degrees of success, pooper scooper laws that more or less command citizens to be good neighbors. None of these measures have stymied the bad behavior.

Enter PooPrints in 2009 and Mr. Dog Poop in 2015.

PooPrints is an offshoot of BioPet Laboratories, which calls itself an animal genetics company and offers proof of parentage testing for canines and cattle. According to J. Retinger, CEO of BioPet Laboratories, PooPrints was borne out of scientist Chesleigh Fields’ frustration with “dog poop everywhere” at her apartment. Nearly a decade later, PooPrints claims to be a multimillion-dollar company and to have generated $7 million in earnings last year.

Mr. Dog Poop, on the other hand, traces its genesis to The Cyber Web Inc., which describes itself as a Tampa-based internet service provider and web hosting service. Looking to move “out of the virtual world, we wanted something more hands on, more blue collar, like picking up dog poop,” explains Mr. Dog Poop’s website, which contains a section titled “Learning to Hate Dog Poop.” It once envisioned itself as the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System, the FBI’s national forensic database) for dogs, and the company’s founder, Mark Guarino, planned to sell access to law enforcement agencies, which might use it to solve crimes.

“No one signed up for that,” he says.

Both PooPrints and Mr. Dog Poop rely on the same technology, called genotyping, that is used by companies like 23andMe.

The person conducting the sample uses a cheek swab to scrape cells from the inside of the dog’s mouth and mails it to a laboratory in a sealed bag. The companies then extract DNA from those cells and test it for certain distinguishing variants. From that information, they claim to produce a unique canine profile, which is then stored in their databases for future poop matching.

“Our PooPrints program is considered a forensics application,” says Retinger, though outside experts told OneZero that the technology should be treated with skepticism.

The business of gathering poop to incriminate a dog is indeed like amateur CSI. Whoever gets the unfortunate task must lop off a piece of the specimen and drop it into a tube of chemical reagent. (“Don’t waste your waste sample on diarrhea,” PooPrint advises.) Next, PooPrints requires the lucky person to manually shake the tube, whereas Mr. Dog Poop provides a battery-powered agitator to turn it “into a sludge.” The sample is then tucked into a biohazard bag and mailed off for analysis.

But unlike the “gotcha!” scenarios on TV crime shows, a computer doesn’t just spit out a DNA match, instantly identifying the perp. Rather, both companies use random match probability to implicate a specific dog. PooPrints’ Retinger claims the company can match profiles so accurately that it has just a “one in 24 sextillion chance of being wrong.” Cross-contamination, insufficient DNA, or non-canine DNA will generate negative results, the companies add.

Even criminal forensics focused on humans is not a perfect science, however, and evidence such as bite marks, considered in some historic cases to be a smoking gun, is now being challenged by lawyers as unscientific and thus unadmissible in court. Dog poop is similarly sketchy, experts say.

“Any ‘black box’ technology in genetics concerns me,” says Elinor Karlsson, director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center of MIT and Harvard.

“It is certainly possible to uniquely identify a dog from poop, but genetic tests on feces can be a little tricky, because the DNA is low-abundance and degraded, and the dog’s DNA will be mixed in with DNA from other sources, such as diet and microbiome,” Karlsson says. “This is why we don’t use poop in any of our work.”

PooPrints and Mr. Dog Poop claim the technology they use is tried-and-true, though both rely on proprietary genotyping panels (the specific genes that are looked at) that are not publicly available. “The actual markers are part of our magic sauce,” Retinger says. Making the panels accessible to outside critique would help to dispel some of these concerns.

“The proprietary info is concerning, because we have no idea [what the sequences are] aligning to,” says Imogene Cancellare, a wildlife conservation biologist with the National Geographic Society. “Will any hound breed that poops on the sidewalk amplify and therefore register as the hound on the second floor?”

PooPrints says it has been accredited by the International Organization for Standardization, a third-party certification body that performed its own sort of peer review. (This accreditation did not particularly impress the scientists OneZero spoke with.) Mr. Dog Poop is equally confident in its accuracy. “I feel like the FBI and all of the forensic labs across the country already validated the technology for us,” says Guarino, referring to the fact that law enforcement uses genotyping.

Scientists not affiliated with either company say that errors can potentially sneak in when poop is contaminated.

“Using poop science as a forensic tool is definitely an option, but I would also be concerned about contamination issues, since dog poop samples would be collected within apartment complexes that potentially contain high densities of dogs,” says Claudia Wultsch, a wildlife biologist and research associate at CUNY Hunter College and the American Museum of Natural History.

“It would be difficult to control for contamination with other dog DNA prior to sample collection,” Wultsch adds.

TThe idyllic facade of Peluso’s dog-friendly community came crashing down within six months. One of his dogs had a bout of diarrhea, something that to his understanding “did not count” under the PooPrints program so long as tenants tried to tidy it up. “I cleaned it up, then headed upstairs to get a jug of water to come back and rinse off the grass,” Peluso says. He was still hit with a $300 animal waste fine — someone must have collected a sample in that short time. “Management couldn’t provide any proof of the dog waste,” Peluso says, despite PooPrints having been used to identify him.

After the incident, Peluso grew paranoid that his landlord was abusing PooPrints to extort money from residents. He began photographing every bag of waste. Instead of walking Rufus and Mac on the apartment grounds, he would cross the street. “I had to Google if DNA was found in dog urine in case they marked another dog’s waste pile that I would then get blamed for,” he says. (Another dog’s pee would “absolutely render the sample unreliable,” Cancellare says.)

Unfortunately, opting out of dog DNA testing at your apartment building isn’t usually an option. Tenant laws and regulations are fairly loose about what can be included in a lease, and most property managers who use a program like PooPrints will have renters sign a lease or lease addendum that requires DNA testing. Violating these terms may then become grounds for eviction. (PooPrints even suggests language for these contracts.) In cities like San Francisco, where PooPrints serves roughly 100 properties, and where landlords of rent-controlled apartments need just cause to evict a tenant, lease violations such as dog poop fines can displace people with less recourse.

“I had to Google if DNA was found in dog urine in case they marked another dog’s waste pile that I would then get blamed for.”

“When housing providers want to evict tenants to increase rents, especially in below-market-rate apartments, they will find a pretext, and this potentially serves as another pretext,” says Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a California-wide renters’ rights organization.

As “proptech” (real estate technology that is often driven by some sort of data collection) becomes more pervasive, the onus disproportionately rests on tenants to challenge its use. Renters in a New York City apartment building organized to protest biometric security cameras in their lobby, for example. On a larger scale, civil liberties advocates have accused Facebook of aiding housing discrimination through ad targeting that excludes users by race.

“A lot of these technologies are not being regulated,” says Erin McElroy, a researcher with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. “It is a very new domain that really combines real estate profiteering and technocapitalism in a novel way.”

The more extreme use cases of PooPrints and Mr. Dog Poop are also troubling to housing advocates. In California, service or emotional support animals are exempt from certain deposit requirements under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Does this apply to dog poop DNA fees? And are there special considerations for renters who are seniors, have disabilities, or are living on fixed incomes?

“It makes sense that [dog ownership] is not a right, and that you may have to submit to the cheek swab to participate or live in an apartment complex,” says Laura Reese, a professor at Michigan State University’s Global Urban Studies Program. “But what about a city as a whole?” Widespread adoption, she fears, would thrust significant costs upon dog owners and place a heavy burden on poorer individuals.

At least one city has already signed on. In 2015, the London borough of Barking and Dagenham announced the world’s first citywide implementation of PooPrints. The city council, under controversial legislation that governs the use of public spaces, could thereby ask residents to DNA test their dogs. It was also reviewing a mandatory microchipping program. To encourage people who are hesitant to participate in the program, the council planned to work with veterinarians on a two-in-one swab and microchipping initiative.

But not everyone who has been subjected to these services loathes them.

Petaluma resident Mikah Sargent, a podcast host at This Week in Tech, “felt a little grumbly” about PooPrints being a requirement at his apartment building but appreciates that “it keeps people honest.”

In Mishawaka, Indiana, resident Angela Stephens also “didn’t mind participating in PooPrints,” albeit with some reservations. “The lighting outside our building isn’t the best, so I was worried about missing a piece at night by mistake. [Poop] was a huge problem before, so it seems to be working.”

TTen million people across the globe have at one point spit into a tube and mailed their saliva to a consumer genetics platforms like 23andMe or MyHeritage. The unchecked proliferation of these services predicts that our DNA may someday be used against us or our relatives, yet the pool of genetic data — willingly shared — keeps growing.

There are endless sources of friction that erode our resistance to invasive technologies on a daily basis. (Think of the iPhone’s Touch ID, CCTV networks, internet tracking cookies, or airport facial recognition scanners.) Technology ethicists worry that dog poop DNA testing, no matter how harmless sounding, could normalize the spread of surveillance systems in our own backyards and create a culture of acceptance around the creation of permanent biometric databases.

“There is no purely neutral technology,” says Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Somebody devised that technology with something in mind, and it can be used in very different ways than initially intended.”

“We don’t hear those kind of comments,” says Nick Boosalis, PooPrints’ San Francisco distributor.

Both PooPrints and Mr. Dog Poop say they do not sell or share customer information with third parties, though Mr. Dog Poop maintains the right to share aggregated consumer data with its partners. PooPrints customers can request that their information be removed from the company’s DNA World Pet Registry, but a dog’s genetic profile is stored permanently, and “data generated by the creation of the DNA profile of the dog will remain the property of BioPet Vet Lab,” its privacy policy states.

When OneZero asked if law enforcement could theoretically access their databases, both companies replied yes. (though PooPrints said it would do so only if subpoenaed). “To start doing DNA databases and then talk about them in the context of law enforcement does bring up broader issues of what we are doing as a society for something with rather limited benefits,” Raicu says.

Furthermore, whether these technology companies will be able to self-regulate before public outcry forces them to is debatable. The DNA platform GEDmatch, which hosts the raw genetic data of at least 1.2 million people, tightened its policies after police investigators used the database to identify the notorious Golden State Killer suspect, reminding users that law enforcement agencies were able to sift through their profiles. Meanwhile, the doorbell camera company Ring is scrambling to mend its reputation after reporters exposed its secretive partnership with hundreds of police departments across the country.

Our pets are also unwitting security liabilities. Whereas humans have the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a broad set of rules that safeguard our medical records, there is no HIPAA analog for animals like dogs, which do not have personhood and are technically considered property (though a few states do have veterinary patient confidentiality laws). Two years ago, Ohio State’s Veterinary Medical Center suffered a data breach that jeopardized the private information of nearly 5,000 people. No fraud reportedly stemmed from the event, but it was an overdue reminder of this vulnerability.

“I would certainly hope that the information [on dog DNA databases] was subject to standardized protections that are supposed to exist for human DNA databases created by government agencies,” says Lisa Moses, a practicing veterinarian and research fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume that similar problems could happen with pet DNA databases if the information is made available for outside uses without clear and transparent standards for when that is allowed,” Moses adds.

AAfter two years, Peluso moved out of his Post Falls apartment when the property manager declined to renew his lease — “The staff became outwardly hostile after I paid the $300 fee while making it known that I was protesting it,” Peluso explains — but he says he would move into another community that had a dog poop DNA testing program. The PooPrints contract and rules “were draconian and dumb,” he says, but in theory, “if me picking up more than 9,600 poops actually firewalled me from false accusations and any mention of pet waste,” the DNA service, he admits, can do some good.

Both PooPrints and Mr. Dog Poop maintain that they have never helped to falsely incriminate anyone, and the dystopian fears around dog poop DNA surveillance have yet to be legally tested. Still, history has taught us something about these technologies, and people everywhere are now proactively fighting for their privacy, or what remains of it.

“The widespread deployment of unquestioned of technology is suddenly being challenged by more and more of us,” Raicu says. “We worry that we’re losing the ability to be private and free and creative — and not just our freedom to leave poop on the lawn.”

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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