Genetic Privacy, as Explained by Mystery Poopers

A recent court case centered around illicit excrement is actually a groundbreaking judicial decision.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

My hometown has few claims to fame. It’s referenced in a Sufjan Stevens song. It’s the founding place of Domino’s Pizza. Its water tower was once named the “World’s Most Phallic Building” by Cabinet magazine.

And last year, Ypsilanti, Michigan, got a brief flare-up of Internet fame when Gawker reported on a scatological scofflaw who had been repeatedly pooping on local playground slides. A city-council member told MLive the acts were “weird and deliberate.” The manhunt launched a hashtag (#YpsiPooper), and an advertising company put up messages on a billboard it owned over the highway, urging residents to say something if they saw something: "Help us flush the pooper,” “Do your civic doody, report the pooper,” and “Help us catch the poopetrator.” The culprit—a resident of a nearby halfway house—was eventually identified and warned, which seemed to do the trick.

This is less of an isolated incident than it might seem. If the old journalistic rule that three occurrences makes a trend is true, then does five make a phenomenon? There have also been reports of mystery poopers in Akron, Ohio, Hafrsfjord, Norway (where someone has been relieving him or herself in the holes at a golf course for more than 10 years), and at the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, where you’d think people would be a little more sensitive to pollutants.

The fifth example comes from a recent lawsuit decided in U.S. district court in Atlanta, in which the case of a mystery pooper has real implications for the state of genetic privacy in the United States. Someone was dropping unauthorized packages in a warehouse that stored grocery-store products. So Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services, which owned the warehouse, asked some employees to undergo a cheek swab, to try to find a match to the DNA in the feces.

A pair of employees who were swabbed but were not a match filed a complaint under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC initially dismissed their charges, but when they filed suit in the district court, the judges sided with the employees. Atlas ultimately had to pay $2.25 million in damages.

According to Nature, this was the first GINA case to go to trial since the law was enacted in 2008. Atlas tried to argue that the law didn’t apply in this case, because it wasn’t seeking medical information about its employees, just trying to find out who was pooping by the produce. Leaving aside that the mere fact someone is deliberately defecating outside a bathroom may signal some mental health issues, GINA says that it is “an unlawful employment practice for an employer to request, require, or purchase genetic information with respect to an employee.” (“Genetic information,” according to the statute, includes “genetic tests,” not necessarily limited just to ones that reveal medical information.)

As genetic testing becomes easier and cheaper, people will likely use it more and more. If someone is pooping in a place of business, and there’s an easy way to find out who it is, why wouldn’t you? And I’m sure this dilemma will come up in less extreme scenarios too. (Though the decision does reference the EPA pooper, writing in a footnote, “Apparently, this problem is not as rare as one might imagine.”)

For people worried about their privacy, this is a troubling prospect. But the mystery pooper case should offer some relief. You can’t use genetic information to fire people—even if they are literally pooping on the floor in a place where food is stored. That’s how ironclad genetic privacy is in the workplace.