People can now mark their possessions with artificial DNA, thus making it more likely for thieves and people who fence stolen goods to be caught red-handed. Each marker is as unique as a genetic fingerprint and can be easily visualized using UV light. The artificial DNA can also be used to prove ownership. Large-scale studies carried out at a broad range of different sites have shown that this new type of crime prevention seems to work well. In the following interview, Donald van der Laan, CEO of Forensische Markierungstechnologie GmbH based in the Baden-Württemberg city of Schriesheim, tells us about the sophisticated features of the forensic DNA coding kit SelectaDNA and other interesting projects as well as giving us details of initial successful convictions.
Mr. van der Laan, you and your partner Simon Nabs are pioneers in the field of DNA coding. You are an independent sales partner of the English company SelectaMARK and are the first in Europe to sell artificial DNA for the coding of valuables. What led you to establish the distribution of DNA coding in Europe and what know-how have each of you brought to the company?
My partner trained at a police academy in England where he saw that the use of forensic coding was on the increase and that Great Britain seemed to be a good market. We then talked with the Dutch police to find out whether forensic coding would work in the Netherlands. The Dutch police saw huge potential for the use of forensic coding, which motivated us to start up distribution of the product in 2008. We soon started our first pilot project in Limburg, which led to another project in Bremen in 2009. My partner Simon has kept in touch with the police in the Netherlands and Belgium and I bring my knowledge of the commercialization and marketing of products to the company.
Have you also had positive feedback from the German police? What do they think about artificial DNA?
They see it as a novelty in the effective prevention of and fight against crime. The use of the term DNA is an added benefit: it gets attention in the press and from the general public, and it scares criminals off! Our product does not make it more difficult to steal things, but the risk of being caught in the act is much greater.
What does the Selecta Forensic Property Marking solution contain and how does it differ from the SelectaDNA Spray?
The SelectaDNA kit used for forensic property marking consists of four components: a transparent varnish makes the components adhere firmly to an object; a tracer that lights up blue when illuminated with a UV lamp. These traces are easily detectable by the police and provide initial evidence as to whether an object has been stolen or not. The liquid also contains two different codes that enable the unambiguous identification of the object’s owner, including microdots – small plastic discs – with a number printed on them. This code differs from package to package and can be read under a microscope.
In theory, it is possible to remove these dots, if it were not for the fourth component of the kit that makes it impossible to do so: synthesized DNA with a similar chemical composition to natural DNA, but produced in the laboratory. It is invisible, difficult to remove and makes it possible to definitively identify an object by DNA analysis. Any forensic laboratory with which we have a partnering agreement can carry out this standard method. The DNA Spray contains a unique DNA code and UV tracer and is used by retail outlets, schools, jewellers and others to protect their stock and assets against theft. Of course, the solution that we use to spray people with does not contain microdots.
All these products are part of your overall strategy. Can you briefly explain your strategy?
Our product works through a theft deterrence factor. Our DNA evidence frightens criminals away as they are scared of DNA technology. Theft deterrence works through a combination of DNA property marking and warning signs declaring “Thieves beware – you steal, you’re marked”, police support, success in catching offenders and media reports. Well-known companies like McDonalds – we have equipped numerous fast-food chains in the Netherlands and Australia with our DNA Forensic Property Marking system – further contribute to our worldwide publicity.
You have been selling your DNA Forensic Property Marking products in the Netherlands since 2008, and the first project in Germany has been running in cooperation with the police in the city of Bremen since 2009. Has this project had positive results?
Our product is used by cities and in areas with a high crime rate. Our partners, in other words the police and our municipal contacts, have reported a decrease of between 35 and 70 per cent in the number of burglaries and assaults. In fact, criminals tend to avoid the entire area and not just the houses that have warning signs. Using our deterrence strategy clearly has the effect of reducing crime.
Our pilot project in Bremen will probably come to an end in March. However, it is already apparent that the strategy has led to a decrease in thefts from schools; fewer marked objects such as laptops and video-projectors have been stolen. The students seemed to have turned their attention to sweets instead. We have also equipped two residential areas of around 2000 flats with our products and residents have set up special incentives to combat crime. The results of the pilot study appear to be highly positive.
You have also successfully marked railway tracks belonging to the Dutch rail company ProRail BV and have also started marking some Deutsche Bahn AG tracks in North Rhine-Westphalia? Can you tell us more about this?
We are marking nonferrous heavy metals to combat trackside metal theft. Nonferrous heavy metals are popular stolen goods as they command a high resale price. Unfortunately, real DNA cannot be used for outdoor application. However, we have developed something that we call high-tech DNA, which is far more robust, with a different chemical and molecular structure from DNA. We have replaced the four DNA bases with ceramic building blocks, and identification is done through the number imprinted on the microdots, and if necessary using spectrometric methods. Property marking of this kind does not come off the object to which it has been attached and is not transferred to the thief.
Does the DNA spray really help identify thieves? Haven’t they usually left the scene of crime when the police arrive?
We know from statistics that burglaries are frequently carried out by repeat offenders. In the Netherlands, around 70% of criminals are known by the police and they often live in the same city where the offense is perpetrated. When there is a burglary, the police usually have a suspect in mind. The police are then allowed to light check the suspect to find out whether he or she has traces of the DNA/UV solution. If this turns out to be the case, the police will then send the traces away for forensic analysis to prove that the offender has broken into particular premises. And practice has also shown that warning signs have a preventive effect.
How long does the DNA spray remain on the criminal? Have you carried out experiments to find out?
The DNA spray is typically fitted at the entrances to premises. A burst of DNA solution is emitted on activation and typically ends up on the eyes, ears and face of the intruder. The DNA is more difficult to remove from the face than from the hands or clothing. In addition, the solution is invisible, so the criminal does not know where he or she needs to wash. We have cases where the offenders were caught five days after having committed a crime and still showed traces of our product. Investigations are normally started immediately after a crime has been committed, making the traces easy to detect and analyse.
Are SelectaDNA products toxic for users or thieves?
The University of Würzburg has prepared a toxicological report which shows that the products are not toxic. This was also crucial for the police who would not have used toxic products. In addition to the university’s report, the police have already carried out toxicological analyses themselves.
Have your products already led to the conviction of offenders?
Yes. In Bremen, for example, the police have equipped trap cars with SelectaDNA sprays and have caught criminals who bore traces of the product. We also know that a casino in the Saarland which uses the products was able to catch an offender: the police had some suspects, ran light checks and were able to discern the blue light which the tracer gives off upon UV irradiation. The criminals immediately admitted that they had committed the crime. And in Bremen, laptop thieves were convicted as a result of our property marking system.
How safe is the DNA sequence used in SelectaDNA? Could it be mistaken with other DNA and thus lead to failures?
The DNA code of each individual packaging unit is unique; we use short non-coding fragments that are not found in nature. We compared our DNA code to the information stored in the NCBI database, which is the largest DNA database in the world, and have not found any match. Had we been able to find any match, our products would definitely not have been approved for forensic investigations.
DNA is a highly sensitive issue, isn’t it? What does the general public think about your products? Are there any differences between England, Germany and the Netherlands?
When we started to market the SelectaDNA products, we were worried that there would be some resistance from the general public, but in fact it turned out that the general public in all three countries were not afraid of the products. I think that media reports and our own reports about the effects of the products have led to acceptance by the general public.
You are offering your clients a “money-back guarantee”. Does this mean that you refund a client who, despite having purchased your product, becomes the victim of burglary? How often has this happened?
We’ve only had a single case in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
What are your plans for the future?
The market is still very much open, we are growing rapidly and our products are broadly accepted. We would like to carry out several new projects, for example in Brandenburg, in the cities of Frankfurt an der Oder, Schwedt and Eisenhüttenstadt. The criminal rate at Germany’s eastern border is unfortunately quite high.
Thank you for talking with us Mr. van der Laan. I would like to wish you success also in the future and hope that your product will continue to make a contribution to the prevention of theft in the future.
* Born in 1950 in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Commercial education. Donald van der Laan began his career in 1968 in the microlithography product management division of GAF Corporation. He was managing director of European operations of the Perkin Elmer Semiconductor Equipment Group for 14 years (from 1978) and of Silicon Valley Group Inc. from 1990 to 1992 and Managing Director at PerkinElmer and Applied Biosystems until 1999. He then spent three years as the Vice President of Applied Materials, an international semiconductor and photovoltaics specialist. He has been general manager of the Rhine Group since 2000 and CEO of Schriesheim-based Forensische Markierungstechnologie GmbH since 2009.