When you consider how law enforcement officials track the movements of illegal drugs, you probably imagine something out of a television show. Undercover DEA agents in mortal peril, cozying up to slimeball drug lords for information; that sort of thing. Or at the very least, surveillance in a high-tech van parked around the corner from the neighborhood drug dealer. And that sort of thing does happen, of course, but there are much more mundane ways of obtaining information about illegal drug use. One new way that officials can keep track of where people are using drugs is probably the least glamorous thing you can think of – sewage.
As the irreverent children’s book reminds us, everyone poops. Wastewater-based epidemiology, or WBE, is a way of tracking the drug consumption of a particular community. Because human waste contains traces of everything we consume – from food to cigarettes to medication – testing the wastewater gives us an idea of whether people in the area are using illicit drugs. The method is used in a few European countries, mostly for research purposes, but recently China has begun testing it for law enforcement use.
This isn’t always terribly accurate, because it just gives information about a general area and not about specific people. Here’s where another method of drug tracking comes into play – cell phone data. The Norwegian Institute for Water Research tracked cell phone usage (without any identifying information; still, it’s unclear how this would play out with the U.S.’s privacy laws) to see whether an influx of people into a certain area corresponds to an increase in illegal drugs in the water. For example, they looked at data for the city of Oslo in June and July – tourist season – and found that the levels of cocaine jumped by a factor of 1.6 and levels of MDMA by a factor of 2.4 during the weekends.
There are privacy concerns, naturally. Just because these researchers didn’t look at the personal information doesn’t mean they couldn’t. It’s also possible that less scrupulous government entities could use this information to target certain vulnerable groups of people, like welfare recipients.
China’s efforts have already led to the arrest of one drug manufacturer. China has faced serious drug problems, and its president calls drug control a matter of national security. The waste belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, not to the people, at least according to government officials, so they can do what they please with it. Considering the fact that things like personal freedom and privacy are somewhat more tenuous there than in the United States and other democratic countries, this particular use of WBE data might not spread far. On the other hand, it’s hard to say what U.S. courts might make of the implications of the Fourth Amendment in the search and seizure of bodily waste.
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