Chinese Law Enforcement Alchemists Turn Shit To Drug Bust Gold

from the put-on-your-waders,-boys dept

Oh, the glorious career path that is the drug enforcement wing of Chinese law enforcement! (h/t Boing Boing)

Dozens of cities across China are applying an unusual forensic technique to monitor illegal drug use: chemically analysing sewage for traces of drugs, or their telltale metabolites, excreted in urine.

One southern city, Zhongshan, a drug hotspot, is also monitoring waste water to evaluate the effectiveness of its drug-reduction programmes, says Li Xiqing, an environmental chemist at Peking University in Beijing who is working with police in these cities.

Li says Zhongshan police have already used the technique to help track down and arrest a drug manufacturer. He says a handful of cities are planning to use data from waste water to set targets for police arrests of drug users, some as early as next year.

That's exactly the sort of statement one would expect to be made in the wake of "do what now" responses from not just journalists and citizens, but also many of those on law enforcement drug task forces.

That drugs can be found in bodily excretions is no surprise. There's an entire corporate/medical industry reliant on that very fact. That you can track down drug manufacturers by grabbing anonymous… um… data by tapping the sewage backbone is a bit of stretch. It may have helped police get a general sense of where some sort of unadulterated drugs might be flowing from, but my guess is regular, non-shit-sifting policework was involved. Chinese law enforcement have plenty of more effective methods to deploy, especially considering they're not "hindered" by concerns about civil liberties or reputational damage.

As the article points out, this isn't the first time sewage has been examined for drug content. But prior to this point, it was done as a really odorous form of drug census. People may not be willing to talk openly about their drug habit(s), but a whole bunch of anonymous donations can be collected without worrying about consent waivers or a rush of entrepreneurial spirits diving into the brown gold for better ad positioning.

What does appear to be more useful is mining the effluvia for "data" showing the efficacy of new drug policies. If law enforcement is targeting certain illegal chemicals, measuring the output is a quick (AND DIRTY!) way to see if drug use is dropping.

Chinese law enforcement suggests its program should be adopted by other countries with drug problems. I'm not sure it will find many takers. While collecting human waste presents approximately zero civil liberties issues, the spokesperson has greatly overestimated law enforcement's willingness to get its hands dirty… I mean, at least not in this sense. We can hardly get cops to play by the rules we've had in place for more than 200 years. I don't think they're quite ready to move from the unpleasant task of trash pulls to something even more unappealing.


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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Jul 2018 @ 1:54pm

    So, shit does flow uphill?

    When (not if) this comes to the US, are our sewers going to be considered third parties and all the data collected available? At what point in following sewage upstream, as it gets closer and closer to your house/apartment, when does it become curtilage and therefore require warrants?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 2:03pm

      Re: So, shit does flow uphill?

      At what point in following sewage upstream, as it gets closer and closer to your house/apartment, when does it become curtilage and therefore require warrants?

      When the data is used against a prominent politician (cf. Robert Bork and the VPPA).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 11:11pm

        Re: Re: So, shit does flow uphill?

        That was a legislative patch to a brilliant work of journalistic trolling of an asshole who stated we have no right to privacy which is heinous even if it wasn't also a dog-whistle for 'lets repress sexual minorities again'!

        I wonder what it would have been like if that wasn't applied however and we started to see how they'd try to spin their rentals into negatives about them like desperate for tally marks prosecutors. Horror movies? He must be a bloodthirsty freak! Feature a woman with large breasts anywhere in the movie? A degenerate pervert! Doesn't rent anything? Must spend all of his time reading like a freak!

        That might have been good for our collective critical thinking skills however that would also assume that most people learned from past events which unfortunately they tend do so poorly or not at all generally - see the War on Drugs soon after Prohibition was revealed to be a resounding failure.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Sharur, 27 Jul 2018 @ 2:04pm

      Re: So, shit does flow uphill?

      I believe the US already has rules wherein your trash is already "public domain/public property" as soon as it is only the public sidewalk. There's an easy answer to your question: as soon as your pipe connects to the public sewage main, it should be public. Apartments can be a little trickier though (how much of that plumbing is yours vs. the complex's).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 2:55pm

    While it's true that trash left at the curb is considered searchable without a warrant, sifting through stool and urine excretions is not so open ended. There, it gets into the messy category of medical information since its going to be medical personal sifting through those bodily excretions: there's the small matter of HIPAA, which judges tend to not be allowed in their courts. Not to mention it would involve a lot of doctors losing their medical licenses. HIPAA is a federal law.

    HIPAA: In 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which among other things offers protection for personal health information, including electronic medical records. HIPAA requirements and security rules give patients more control over their health information, set limits on the use and release of their medical records, and establishes a series of privacy standards for health care providers which provides penalties for those who do not follow these standards.

    This also provides civil penalties for civil lawsuits to be filed against doctors who violate patients rights regarding the HIPAA law. The United States doesn't operate like China does. It would take a lot to rewrite medical privacy laws to allow mandatory release of medical information about patients, meaning, a repeal of the HIPAA laws that are in effect for the entire country and that's a mean bull for any politician to fight, which could cause Medical Boards in every state to develop their own HIPAA laws, similar to what's going on with the Net Neutrality laws. Simply put, he HIPAA law is too large of a shark for the politicians in congress to fight over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Jul 2018 @ 3:33pm

      Re:

      I hear ya, but I have my doubts about whether sewage could be considered a medical record. The doctors, or rather the lab tech's involved in such a search would not have patients.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 4:59pm

        Re: Re:

        Stool and urine samples are very much covered under medical records, and lab technicians already do most analytical work rather than doctors. Further, it is irrelevant whether or not any particular individual, group, or organization "has patients" or not, the law specifically defines which entities are covered by the law irrespective of their relationship with any actual patient.

        That's not to say HIPAA would necessarily be helpful. Only specific entities are covered by HIPAA, and the police are not one of them. So potentially, the police could develop their own analytical facility to do all the analysis and thus avoid contact with any existing covered entity. Whether or not that would work would would depend on whether the courts buy the argument that non-consensual creation of medical data is substantially different from consensual creation of medical data, such that this new organization would not be covered.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Jul 2018 @ 5:13pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          When a lab is testing a specific patients stool or urine, I agree. But when they are testing a large pipe that runs out of a large neighborhood, there are no specific persons involved. At least not yet. When they start to track it back to a particular residence, things might change, but they still aren't dealing with records, not yet, they are dealing with as yet unidentified samples. Which is why I asked the question about curtilage and warrants. Your HIPAA theory might take effect when they get to one person or household. But, they still don't have any records, not identifiable ones.

          Then again, how do they get around HIPAA laws when they test an arrested suspects blood or urine sample for drugs? That happens all the time and would seem to make some parts of your argument moot.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 8:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Ah, I apologize for my misunderstanding.

            First, on the question of arrested suspects, HIPAA allows for transfer of medical data to law enforcement in response to a warrant, subpoena or various other types of request depending on the exact circumstances. Most generally, a warrant is required or, in the event of exigent circumstances (such as drugs which may not be detectable in urine later), a subpoena can be used. This process would help if you wanted information about a single individual and could get a warrant, but wouldn't help for larger scale collections (e.g. a neighborhood) since that would require a general warrant, which are illegal.

            To get back to the original point, HIPAA allows for "de-identified" medical data to be transferred freely. What qualifies as de-identified data is defined in law. The most relevant term to sewage collection that I can find is the requirement that data can be identified by the first 3 digits of the zip code, but only if the geographic area formed by combining all zip codes with the same initial three digits contains more than 20,000 people. So a large neighborhood would likely not qualify as de-identified. But a city might be ok.

            Also, to be clear, HIPAA does not make the distinction that you are making between "records" and "unidentified samples." If the sample was analyzed for medically relevant data, then it is a medical record, even if nobody knows where the sample came from. If no identifying information is included with the sample data (again, defined by law), then the sample data can be freely transferred, but it is still a medical record and HIPAA is still the applicable legal framework.

            A brief aside, but it's actually very, very hard to create datasets that cannot be linked to individual people. In the case of your neighborhood, you could combine knowledge of the local sewage system and water usage at each house (which would allow rough estimates of when toilets are flushed/when samples should reach your collector), good old-fashioned surveillance (to monitor when people are home), and analysis of intestinal bacteria in stool samples (which varies pretty widely between people) to eventually get a pretty good map of which stool samples belong to which individual.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 9:47pm

      Re:

      Since the opiod epidemic has been classified a national public emergency wouldn't HIPAA be treated like all the other laws and constitutional provisions the federal government ignores in the name of national security?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    norahc, 27 Jul 2018 @ 7:35pm

    It's the Pee Pee Po Po

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 8:03pm

    While Techdirt does the opposite: turns all to CRAP.

    If scatological AND drug-related, sure to be re-written for here, with unnecessary vulgarity in the headline, then the idiots try to out-do each other with puns.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 27 Jul 2018 @ 9:09pm

    SmartPipe in real life

    This looks to me like the first staggering steps of the SmartPipe "concept" implemented in real life. Oh, it's obviously not general yet, but big brother must start somewhere.

    But, make no mistake, it is coming. As the detectors necessary to process effluent become cheaper, there will be more and more pressure by the governments to install this on everyone's home. The expressed purpose will be to track illegal flushing, but somehow drugs will just happen to be included as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 9:43pm

    Drug users now knowing this will resort to peeing in grass and defecating in the streets rather than their own home/apartment. Are they TRYING to start a second black plague epidemic?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Jul 2018 @ 9:45am

    I've known for the longest time I have never liked those Chinese beginning with their eager willingness to undercut our labor, but this new shit really puts them in a new light just how low they'll go. Its very likely le around the globe are going to become honeydippers as well seeing China's great success starting up this shit!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Jul 2018 @ 9:51am

      Re:

      In a future US courtroom..

      Judge to witness cop: "and your method for collecting the evidence against the defendant?"

      Officer: "uh.. we honeydipped your Honor."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 29 Jul 2018 @ 7:41am

    Getting harder to keep secrets

    As science advances and the tech gets cheaper, it gets harder and harder to keep secrets. This is just one example.

    Same for computers. We are going to have to come to grips with that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Jul 2018 @ 9:39pm

      Re: Getting harder to keep secrets

      Your brain will be read and written by force, there are no protections. You are who we say you are puppet, and don't forget it. Actually, you won't be able to.

      People like you are defeatists, and as much I wish you'd get exactly what you deserve for that outlook on life, unfortuantely for the rest of us, we can't allow that "dream" of yours to come to pass.

      Do us all a favor and grow up. Is it a crap ton of fighting? Yes, but the consequences of bending over in defeat are far worse. More so than you can imagine.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jul 2018 @ 11:01am

    Come on, it's CHINA. Any discussion of their law enforcement practices or "rights of the accused" should be book-ended with a hearty belly laugh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ritik, 30 Jul 2018 @ 6:50am

    Getting harder to keep secrets

    Your brain will be read and written by force, there are no protections. You are who we say you are puppet, and don't forget it. Actually, you won't be able to.

    People like you are defeatists, and as much I wish you'd get exactly what you deserve for that outlook on life, unfortuantely for the rest of us, we can't allow that "dream" of yours to come to pass.

    Do us all a favor and grow up. Is it a crap ton of fighting? Yes, but the consequences of bending over in defeat are far worse. More so than you can imagine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 30 Jul 2018 @ 7:58am

    I've already read stuff about drug use measuring through sewage sampling. What struck me is that drug usage is insanely high and I found myself asking why are people using so much drugs. How shitty our general lives have become that we, and I'm using we humans, are needing to resort to such means as relief to our daily lives.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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