Microdotting - New technology for a new breed of criminalBy: Herman van Zyl - servamus.co.za 8th September 2011
Many of us remember the good old days when, in terms of criminal tendencies, criminals had the "decency" to wait for you to leave your home or car before going about their business. The majority of criminal attacks took place in your absence, resulting in a nasty surprise when arriving home or in the parking lot, such as being greeted by a broken window or an empty parking bay. Shock and frustration follow when you realise that your house has been broken into or your car has been stolen, but at least you would seldom get severe trauma, injury and death as part of the package. A few phone calls to the police, insurance broker and maintenance companies would sort out the majority of one's problems, and soon one would be able to continue with a normal life.
Sadly, things have taken a turn for the worse. Armed robbery has increasingly become the preferred option for criminals to source what they want. Nowadays, an array of visible security measures such as high walls, all‑round security gates and burglar proofing too often seems to serve the sole purpose of attracting criminals, due to their perception that the owner is hiding highly sought‑after valuables on the inside. The added security result with this new breed of criminals ‑ against whom we are often almost defenceless, and who deliberately wait for owners to return home before launching their attack ‑ is that they are ruthless, unable to feel remorse, and treat victims with unthinkable violence and cruelty. So‑called property crime increasingly takes place in the presence of the owner/legal possessor of the property. All too easily, what started as a "mere" property crime can end up becoming a contact crime, often with irreversible consequences. Daily reports about street, house and business robberies, hijackings and farm attacks make these crimes seem like a never‑ending onslaught and nightmare. At the very least, the victim suffers severe trauma.
How well are we protected?
How effective are our current security methods against this type of criminal attack? The short answer is that, in many cases, they are pretty much useless. The principle on which almost all current security methods are based is the principle of time delay. Security devices are supposed to limit the amount of time that the criminal has to commit the crime ‑ the longer the delay, the more effective the device, and the safer we are, often resulting in the attacker turning and running away. Anti‑theft devices have no effect when a gun is put to the victim's head. All the time bought by expensive devices is neutralised in an instant. Furthermore, it serves no purpose to spend more money on more of the same: higher walls and more electric fencing will get us nowhere. We need to start thinking in a new direction to ensure the safety of communities and the protection of valuables.
A new strategy is critical
It may prove fruitful to have a better understanding of the way crime syndicates set up their environment to best suit their activities. Generally speaking, criminals need a super‑quick procedure to acquire goods of value and to convert those goods into cash. This procedure must be riddled with escape routes in case something goes wrong. This will allow the perpetrator to walk away, avoiding arrest or (at the very least) not being found guilty in a court of law. We can consider these basic requirements for an effective criminal acquisition and disposal process. But what if we were able to seriously compromise typical criminal procedures? Microdot technology may have a capacity that can easily be overlooked, as the majority of people who have been exposed to this technology perceive it merely as a system which enables authorities to return lost property to its lawful owners. Insured owners in particular often do not want their property back ‑ they prefer to get paid out and buy new property. Short‑term insurers, on the other hand, prefer to budget for a certain projected loss rate and set monthly payments accordingly to ensure annual profit. The recovery of property that has already been paid out for is viewed as a bonus and, at best, it is utilised to quote more competitive monthly insurance premiums where required. Thus, insurers are also not keen on the microdot system. Despite all this lukewarmness towards microdot technology, security experts around the world agree that in terms of cost, ease of application and effectiveness, this system has the best potential to bring down crime levels significantly and permanently. Several South African cases have been documented wherein microdot technology, in these cases the services of DataDot, became involved in crime prevention projects with astonishing results.
What can be expected from this amazing forensic technology?
Some of the benefits are that:
- Robbed and stolen items stay traceable and identifiable even under extreme conditions.
- The technology creates doubt in the criminal mind, because it doesn't involve just a single device.
- Marked items can often place the person found in possession on the scene of the crime.
- Being found in possession of stolen property marked with microdots complicates efforts to give a reasonable explanation of how you had come into possession of it ‑ which creates an added chance of arrest.
- It often provides a starting point for an investigation, reducing the number of dockets that are closed without meaningful investigation.
- It is likely to provide an early breakthrough in the investigation, thereby easing the load on detectives.
- The involvement of microdot technology can improve the quality of dockets that are sent to court, making life easier for prosecutors.
- It can be instrumental in exposing corrupt government officials who either fail to check for property found in suspicious circumstances, or who do not follow up on alibis properly.
When applied correctly and policed correctly, microdot technology is a formidable weapon against any form of property crime, regardless of the method of acquisition preferred by the perpetrator. Consider the fact that criminals usually prepare for an attack and assess the circumstances surrounding the area of the intended attack. For example, they need to know the movements of a potential victim, what they can expect to source, how many people reside in an identified residence and what the security measures are on the property. Criminals are known to create "briefing sessions" where liquor is supplied free of charge on Fridays and Saturdays at predetermined locations. Domestic workers and gardeners, mostly unintentionally, disseminate the security information required by criminals during such sessions, often because they are "under the influence" and talk easily. In one reported case, certain high schoolchildren were targeted whilst parents went away for the weekend. Think of the benefits that can be had where the domestic workers of an entire residential area can be exposed to the implementation process of a microdot project. The news will most certainly spread.
Also, ideally for the criminal, crime takes place in an environment that is insufficiently controlled, but once proper control is brought into any area, the crime rate usually drops. However, this is often easier said than done. Microdot technology provides a means to bringing sustainable control into a community. It does not need large numbers of personnel or expensive resources, and is therefore also an option for poorer communities. It will continue to be effective for years, and only needs the occasional small update.
The strength of the system is two-fold: Firstly, in terms of the sheer numbers of microdots used - for example, in the case of a vehicle, up to 10 000 microdots are involved. Criminals have almost everything in their favour, but one thing they don't have is time. To deal with 10 000 microdots can take an awful amount of time. Secondly, there is the element of uncertainty. A criminal will never have a guarantee that s/he has removed all the microdots. The advantage is that the authorities only have to find a single dot.
No matter what we get involved in, we want to know where we are heading. If there are too many unknown factors, we would rather avoid it. Criminals are no different.
Can the microdot system be successfully implemented in a community?
Together with Datadot Technologies South Africa, a Southern Cape-based company, Bothasig Police Station in the Western Cape launched a project which has since been accepted as a best practice in the station's precinct. Residences where Datadot has been implemented were not targeted by criminals for the best part of six months. Purposefully, the project was started in the most problematic sectors of the station area.
Figure 1 indicates how the project was constructed. Each phase in the project can be explained in more detail as follows:
- Share the vision
- Get people excited about the fact that a substantial and permanent reduction of crime in their community is within their reach
- Stress the importance of standing up against crime together, as a community
- Identify key role-players, including volunteers that are willing to assist with the implementation.
- Set up a communication network within the project area
- Communicate and explain the concept widely and clearly to people on both sides of the law (criminals can be informed in detail, because there are no quick fixes for microdotting)
- Communicate the cost per household
- Invite home owners within the project area to indicate their interest in becoming part of the project and have their valuables marked.
- Make first contact with the home owner
- Give a quick run-down of the project
- Do a demo fitment of one or two items, to make sure that the home owner understands the DIY procedure (if the neighbourhood watch/community safety initiative members, reservists and volunteers are involved, this phase is easier).
This is the minor administrative function of collecting completed documentation and faxing it off to ensure that the relevant details are uploaded onto the Datadot database. One person, functioning as part of the coordinating team, can easily manage this task.
- Have a second contact session with the home owner
- Gather feedback about results and the progress of the project, as well as checking on the impact on crime statistics
- Conduct quality control on items already marked
- Enquire whether further items were indeed marked
- Ensure that the warning board is displayed in a suitable position
- Render assistance/advice as may be required.
- Incident Response
(This is mainly an SAPS function)
- Determine the SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) beforehand in consultation with and to the satisfaction of all role-players/ home owners
- Ensure immediate response by the SAPS according to SOP once an incident takes place at a Datadot home
- Give feedback about the outcome of the response to the home owner
- Adjust the SOP if necessary.
Central coordinating team
Any project needs a project leader with a few pairs of hands to give assistance. Communities need somebody who has a passion and a need to serve as project manager. A chairperson of the neighbourhood watch may be a good candidate, while the SAPS sector manager can act as an assistant. A project to substantially reduce crime within a community will not happen by itself - it will have to be driven! This is the function of the coordinating team.
Some of the unexpected benefits to be gained from such a project may include that:
- The community and their local police will move much closer together
- Trust in the SAPS that has been damaged can be restored
- Local police will have a renewed sense of drive and energy to tackle the task at hand with vigour and enthusiasm
- The community which has learned not to function as a community can rediscover the art of functioning together as a community and reap the benefits, such as a drop in crime levels.
What are microdots?
Microdots are tiny polyester particles that are inscribed with unique information. Each microdot is no larger than 1 mm in diameter. If an owner chooses to apply microdots to his/her vehicle, 10 000 of these microdots can be applied throughout the vehicle using a special adhesive. The information etched onto the microdots relates exclusively to the identity of a specific vehicle. The water-based adhesive used contains UV additives, providing easy identification of sprayed areas. The microdots are sprayed onto a minimum of 80 sites within the vehicle, making it difficult for would-be thieves to alter the vehicle's identity. The sheer number of dots, both in overt (30%) and covert (70%) locations, effectively provides the vehicle with its own DNA. The dots are only legible under a low-powered microscope or by using a special UV light, making it difficult to determine exactly where they have been placed.
Similarly, microdots are applied to office and household equipment to provide them with their own DNA. Once they have been recovered by the police after a robbery or burglary, the police will be able to positively link the equipment with its legal owner.
Any household, office or electronic item can be microdotted including cellphones, DVD players, personal computers, digital cameras, quad bikes, jet ski's, laptops and other personal valuables, and linked to DataDot's exclusive micro asset tracking database. Client details are linked to each individual PIN, and each unique PIN is registered on the Micro Asset Tracking SA national database. Even jewellery and watches can be marked with metal dots, as these items have become favourites among criminals.
Kempen, A. 2009. "Small dots ... big help to fight crime." SERVAMUS Community-based Safety and Security Magazine. October.
(See related articles about microdotting and DataDot in SERVAMUS: April 2008 and August 2009.)Back to News