New Security Systems Mark Robbers With Synthetic DNA

Police in Rotterdam have begun installing new, high-tech security systems in stores across the Dutch city, in an effort to help local businesses combat theft in particularly crime-plagued neighborhoods. Unlike most security systems, though, Rotterdam's new device doesn't feature any high-pitched alarms or flashing lights. All it does is spray synthetic DNA. [via]

As the New York Times explains, the synthetic spray that the system emits is visible only under ultraviolet light, but contains special DNA markers that are unique to each location. When a criminal robs an equipped store, for example, the system will automatically mists everyone in the area with the synthetic spritz. Once police apprehend a suspect, then, they can check him for traces of the spray, and automatically pin him to a precise location. The city is also promoting a new DNA crayon, which people can use to mark valuable products like computers or cameras, and identify them as stolen.

While Rotterdam police admit that they haven't yet used the system to make an arrest, they insist that its primary purpose is to dissuade criminals -- not catch them. Many stores with the system have already posted signs displaying ominous warnings, like "You Steal, You're Marked." Officials say that a large part of the intimidation factor is simply the fact that DNA, to most people, remains a threateningly mysterious phenomenon. "No one really knows what it is," says Donald van der Laan, owner of the Rhine Group, which distributes the spray. "No one really knows how it works."

Because the system is employee-operated, however, some stores have already experienced a few awkward false alarms. As it turns out, the alarm is activated whenever store employees pull a $10 bill from a special bill clip behind the counter. Innocent bystanders, meanwhile, have also been inadvertently sprayed, but thus far, no one has been wrongly accused of a crime.

It may take some time to get used to, but Rotterdam's new cow-branding approach to crime deterrence is certainly intriguing. Its potential for triggering false alarms could waste the city's time and resources, but if it reduces Rotterdam's crime rate, police may not mind responding to cries of 'wolf' every now and then.

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