everyday science

keeping women safe with SmartWater, coded forensic liquid

The first person in the UK has been convicted and jailed for domestic abuse after being sprayed with SmartWater — a forensic liquid visible only under ultraviolet light. The technology has been around for only a few years and now, it’s been trialed by UK police forces in hope of keeping women safe.

The man from West Yorkshire was harassing his ex-partner and breaching his non-molestation order. When he turned up and tried to get into the house, he was automatically sprayed with the special coded liquid.

The victim of recent domestic abuse is one of over 200 women across England with SmartWater forensic packages in their homes. The packages (SmartTag) include a hand-held canister for spraying, a gel for door handles and gates, and an automatic trap that sprays the liquid if someone approaches the house.

The forensic liquid stays on the skin for up to six weeks and on clothing for much longer and categorically links the perpetrator to the specific batch of SmartWater that was sprayed.

Most victims using the technology have told the police they feel safer, and 94% reported they’ve had no contact from their attacker after they’d been given it.

For years, SmartWater has been used to protect property and deter thieves by being applied to high-value items. When dry the liquid is invisible to the naked eye, but it glows fluorescent yellow under UV lamps and torches which are used by police.

If the valuables are then stolen and later recovered, their original owner can be traced after a laboratory testing of a sample.

The technology has already been credited with halving catalytic converter thefts, but the application of the technology to help tackle domestic violence is new.

Rachael Oakley, the director of SmartWater’s intelligence unit, says that there is no element of doubt when it comes to using forensic markings, unlike other ‘discouragements’ like CCTV.

“SmartWater is made up of a combination of rare elements that would never be found naturally anywhere else in the world. Every bottle has a different amount of those particles within it and each batch is unique, meaning we can tell categorically which batch of liquid is found. Our database is the forensic link back to that person.”

According to the company’s website, SmartWater forensic technology uses an extremely robust form of ‘nanotechnology’ to encrypt data — in water.

With millions and potentially billions of datasets, no two SmartWater solutions are the same, with each having its own unique forensic code, meaning that marked items can be traced back to where they came from. It is practically invisible to the naked eye but glows bright green-yellow under UV ‘black’ light and scientists only need a speck to recover the embedded data.

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