DataDots: Cool idea, bad implementation

I don’t know much they paid for the spot, but DataDots had their moment of fame on CSI:Miami a couple of weeks ago. At the time I ignored it, since I figured that once again CSI:Miami was fudging some facts to ease the plot. Then the DataDot video made the rounds on Digg, or was it slashdot, and after I watched the video I realized the weaknesses in this system are real.

In case you missed both of those, the quick run-down is this: DataDots are small plastic beads with serial numbers embedded in them. You can even get them with custom messages. The DataDots get sold in batches, and all the DataDots in one batch have the same serial number. The DataDots come suspended in a water soluble adhesive, and you just paint a few onto your expensive toys such as laptops, electronics, bicycle, etc. You can use their website to register your batch serial numbers along with the items onto which you glued your DataDots.

The idea is that if your items are stolen you can then go to the website and register them as stolen. When the police recover stolen items, they will look for the DataDots and cross reference any they find against the company registry. How do the police locate the DataDots? The water soluble glue that is used to apply them fluoresces in UV light. So, if you applied the DataDots in a sufficiently visible location, and the police wave a blacklight (UV source) around your item, the smear of glue should look sufficiently different from a ‘DNA contribution’ that they will think to look at it with a pocket 50x microscope. If the department lacks these two tools, they can be purchased for about $15/each on the DataDots website or at many hobby stores.

Do you see the flaw here?

Within a few months every pawn shop will know about DataDots, as well as any educated thief. The tools to detect the DataDots are common, and are even available on their website. The glue is water soluble, so it should be easy enough to remove it without damaging the stolen item. All in all, the DataDots are useless unless your stuff gets stolen by a complete moron, and just because someone is a crook doesn’t make them an idiot; or vice verse. (Politicians excepted.)

I’ll take my grandfather’s electric pencil over these things any day.


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