Preventing crime, one microdot at a time

Microdotting is catching on fast as a crime-fighting and theft prevention tool, with South Africa leading the way in terms of innovation and adoption.

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Philip Opperman, Recoveri, says SA is leading the way in development and use of microdotting technology.
Philip Opperman, Recoveri, says SA is leading the way in development and use of microdotting technology.

Since 1 September 2012, unbeknown to most South Africans, all motor vehicles registered for the first time in SA have to be fitted with microdots that comply with the requirements of the National Road Traffic Act. Furthermore, all motor vehicles requiring SA Police Service vehicle clearance have to be fitted with microdots. Interestingly, SA is the only country to have this requirement in place.

Although most of us have no idea what microdots are, the technology has quickly become an important part of the country's crime-prevention strategy.

In a nutshell, microdots are 1mm x 1mm plastic discs that are virtually invisible to the naked eye, yet they contain information that, if need be, will prove ownership of a vehicle - or any microdotted asset - in the event of theft or loss.

Philip Opperman, CEO of Recoveri, a local company that develops microdot identification and trace solutions, says SA is leading the way in its development and use of the technology - particularly with regards to vehicle theft and tracking.

Market leader

"South Africa is the market leader in microdotting worldwide," says Opperman, who spent over five years developing his company's own microdotting techniques and technology. "It's a highly effective criminal and investigative tool, and something our local police are making increasing use of."

Indeed, if the numbers are to be believed, law enforcement officials are definitely onto a good thing. When Business Against Crime SA (BACSA) conducted a study on a number of fully microdotted vehicles, the results revealed that the recovery rate for these models was 91%, against a rate of only 52% of non-microdotted models within the same class, according to Microdot SA.

"BACSA encourages the use of technology to assist as a crime prevention and crime-fighting tool, and microdotting is one part of a set of asset-marking technologies that we support," says Kevin Kara-Vala of BACSA.

"Due to the sheer volume of microdots on a vehicle or vehicle part, it becomes a deterrent for criminals to deal in these parts," Kara-Vala adds. "Law enforcement agencies only need to detect one microdot to positively identify a vehicle, while the criminals need to remove every single microdot to avoid detection. It therefore becomes a costly exercise (time and materials) for the criminals."

Microdot SA states that vehicle crime reduction organisations in several countries 'have assessed the available options and solutions to the vehicle identity problem'. It reported that microdot technology has emerged as being 'the leader in securing the identity of the vehicle'.

Identification Tool

Given the notoriously high rate of vehicle theft and violent hijackings in South Africa, the microdotting of vehicles is gaining the most commercial attention. Microdotting enables the marking of many motor vehicle components and parts, which means that the police can easily identify parts from stolen vehicles even if the vehicle has been dismantled beyond recognition for the thriving illegal spare parts market. The only way for a criminal to realistically remove all 15 000 microdots would be to 'dip the entire vehicle' into a bath of acid, according to Recoveri's Opperman

Microdotting is being used to safeguard and track all kinds of assets. Due to the simplicity of the technology and its application, anything can be microdotted -laptops, TVs, sound systems, coveted kitchen appliances (in rural areas, these items are often stolen from households) and even cattle. In fact, Recoveri's Opperman is exploring microdots as a way to combat the poaching of endangered species such as rhino.

Widespread use

"Any technology that reduces the incidence of crime should be used as widely as possible," says Kara-Vala. "There's always the need to balance the cost versus the benefit ... Most microdot suppliers have CSI initiatives where they make microdotting kits available to communities to protect their assets."

Here's how it works, taking Recoveri's system as a typical example. The microdot or micro tag technology is applied to an asset, and the unique number on the micro tag is registered to the owner in the Recoveri database (which, as Opperman points out, is where a tremendous amount of valuable IP, and Recoveri's real offering, lies).

Should the microdotted item be stolen or go missing, the number will be circulated worldwide via the Recoveri Hot Dot register, making the asset immediately identifiable as 'stolen'.

"Technology is not something you can just develop overnight," cautions Opperman. "It takes years of work, and continual research and development to get it right."

First published in the September 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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