Digital Water Marks Thieves

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Tue Feb 15 10:40:33 PST 2005

Until, of course, people figure out that taggants on everything do nothing
but confuse evidence and custody, not help it.

Go ask the guys in the firearms labs about *that* one.



Wired News

Digital Water Marks Thieves 
By Robert Andrews?

Story location:,1282,66595,00.html

02:00 AM Feb. 15, 2005 PT

CARDIFF, Wales -- Crooked criminal hearts may have fluttered and skipped a
beat Monday when some of Britain's most notorious thieves opened a
valentine from an unwelcome secret admirer -- one of London's top female
police chiefs.

 But the greeting -- in which Chief Superintendent Vicki Marr wrote
"thinking of you and what you do" -- was not so much an amorous expression
to the underworld as part of a sting designed to catch hard-core burglars
using new chemical microdot crime-fighting technology.

 SmartWater is a clear liquid containing microscopic particles encoded with
a unique forensic signature that, when found coated on stolen property,
provides a precise trace back to the owner and, when detected on a suspect,
can conclusively implicate a felon.

 Likened to giving household items and vehicles a DNA of their own, the
fluid is credited with helping cut burglary in Britain to a 10-year low,
with some cities reporting drops of up to 85 percent.

 A decade in the making, SmartWater is the name for a suite of forensic
coding products. The first, Instant, is a property-marking fluid that, when
brushed on items like office equipment or motorcycles, tags them with
millions of tiny fragments, each etched with a unique SIN (SmartWater
identification number) that is registered with the owner's details on a
national police database and is invisible until illuminated by police
officers using ultraviolet light.

 A second product, the Tracer, achieves a similar goal by varying the blend
of chemical agents used in the liquid to produce one of a claimed 10
billion one-off binary sequences, encoded in fluid combinations themselves.

 SmartWater CEO Phil Cleary, a retired senior detective, hit upon the idea
after watching burglars he had apprehended walk free from court due to lack
of evidence.

 "It was born out of my frustration at arresting villains you knew full
well had stolen property, but not being able to prove it," he said.

 "Just catching someone with hot goods, or a police officer's gut belief a
suspect is guilty, are not enough to secure a conviction -- so we turned to

 Cleary is reluctant to discuss "trade secret" details of a product he has
patented, but he concedes that, together with chemist brother Mike, he has
developed "a mathematical model that allows us to generate millions of
chemical signatures" -- an identifier he boasts is "better than DNA."

 But more than property can get tagged. In spray form, the fluid marks
intruders with a similarly unique code that, when viewed under UV in a
police cell, makes a red-faced burglar glow with fluorescent green and
yellow blotches. The resemblance to Swamp Thing and the forensic signature
found on his body are telltale signs the suspect has been up to no good at
a coded property.

 "It's practically impossible for a criminal to remove; it stays on skin
and clothing for months," Cleary added. "If a villain had stolen a watch,
they might try to scrape off the fluid -- but they would have to remove
every last speck, which is unlikely.

 "Sometimes burglars who know they are tagged with the liquid scrub
themselves so hard behind the ears to get it off, police arresting them end
up having to take them into hospital for skin complaints. But we don't have
much sympathy for them."

 Law enforcers are confident SmartWater can help improve Britain's mixed
fortunes on combating burglary. Nationwide, instances of the crime have
fallen by 42 percent since 1997, but the proportion of those resulting in
convictions has also halved, from 27 percent to just 13 percent. So, while
SmartWater is available commercially with a monthly subscription, many
police forces are issuing free kits to vulnerable households in crime hot
spots, hoping it can help put away more perps.

 The microdot tech could prove invaluable in a courtroom, but it is also an
effective deterrent. Most burglaries happen because criminals know there is
little chance of being arrested during a break-in, according to U.K.
government data (.pdf). But posters and stickers displayed in
SmartWater-coded cities and homes warn off would-be crooks.

 Word on the criminal grapevine, say police, is that anyone stealing from a
coded home is likely to leave the crime scene having pilfered an indelible
binary sequence that will lead only to jail time; it's not worth the risk.

 Marr sent her valentine -- reading "roses are red, violets are blue, when
SmartWater's activated, it's over for you" -- to known criminals in
Croydon, London, reinforcing the message in what Cleary said amounts to
"psychological warfare" against burglars.

 "Since we started using it in Croydon, burglaries are down by 27 percent,"
said Sgt. Phil Webb of the Metropolitan Police, which started testing the
product in the region in late 2003 and has given 2,000 packs to citizens.

 "It puts the fear back into the criminal -- we know who they are, and we
will use every new tool and technology at our disposal to bring them to

 Other forces using SmartWater have reported burglary reductions of up to
65 percent, while Cleary said England's West Yorkshire force was due to
announce a decrease of 85 percent after testing the product in the northern
town of Halifax.

 Graham Gooch, a criminal investigations tutor at the University of Central
Lancashire and a former detective of 30 years, said the product is the
market leader, advancing crime-fighting efforts.

 "Now, if a suspect caught with a stolen VCR turns green, they can't claim
they got it from some bloke down the pub," he said.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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