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Mark IV microdot camera

A microdot is text or an image substantially reduced in size onto a small disc to prevent detection by unintended recipients. Microdots are normally circular and around one millimetre in diameter but can be made into different shapes and sizes and made from various materials such as polyester or metal. The name comes from the fact that the microdots have often been about the size and shape of a typographical dot, such as a period or the tittle of a lowercase i or j. Microdots are, fundamentally, a steganographic approach to message protection.


In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Paris was under siege and messages were sent by carrier pigeon. Parisian photographer René Dagron used a photographic shrinking technique to permit each pigeon to carry a high volume of messages, as pigeons have a restricted payload capacity.[1]

Improvement in technology since then has made even more miniaturization possible.[2]

A technique comparable to modern microdots for steganographic purposes was first used in Germany between World War I and World War II. It was also later used by many countries to pass messages through insecure postal channels. Later microdot techniques used film with aniline dye, rather than silver halide layers, as this was even harder for counter-espionage agents to find. Some sources mention Walter Zapp from Germany as the inventor of the technique, and a World War II spy kit for microdot production was sometimes called a Zapp outfit.

As with many subjects in the history of espionage and subversion, there is a controversy, as other sources regard Emanuel Goldberg as the inventor of the modern technique.[3]

In Germany after the Berlin Wall was erected, special cameras were used to generate microdots which were then attached to letters and sent through the regular mail. These microdots often went unnoticed by inspectors, and information could be read by the intended recipient using a microscope.

British mail censors sometimes referred to microdots as "duff" since they were distributed here and there throughout letters rather like raisins in the British steamed suet pudding called "plum duff".[citation needed]

Modern usage[edit]

Microdot identification[edit]

External images
a microdot
in detail 1[4]
in detail 2[4]

Microdot identification is a process where tiny identification tags are etched or coded with a given number, or for use on vehicles, a vehicle VIN, asset identification number or a unique serial number.[5][6][7][8][9] Unique personal identification numbers (PIN), asset identification number or customized customer data entries are also available. The microdots are brushed or sprayed onto the key parts of an asset to provide complete parts marking. The technology was developed in the United States in the 1990s before being commercialized by various manufacturers and distributors around the world.

In South Africa it is a legal requirement to have microdot fitted to all new vehicles sold since September 2012 and to all vehicles that require police clearance.[10]

Most printers print in addition to the documents requested on the pages tiny yellow dots containing printer serial number and time stamp.

Popular culture[edit]

  • In the 2006 motion picture Mission: Impossible III a microdot was hidden on the back of a postage stamp and contained a magnetically stored video file.
  • In Superman #655 (Vol. 1, Sep. 2006), Clark Kent uses various microdots implanted throughout a suspense novel to read not only the novel but also numerous other works on various topics. The microdots were used here to further explore Superman's newly enhanced mental capabilities.
  • In the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice, Tiger tells James Bond that his men found a microdot on a captured SPECTRE photograph, which he enlarges for Bond.
  • In the 1966 movie Arabesque a microdot was hidden in the eye of a goose on a parchment of hieroglyphs.
  • One of Philip K. Dick's characters in A Scanner Darkly tells a drug-induced story wherein a worker at the local microdot factory had tracked the company's entire inventory out into the parking lot on the sole of his shoe.
  • In the Nancy Drew PC game, Phantom of Venice, a clue is hidden using a microdot on an exclamation point.
  • The 2003 film Paycheck uses a very realistic rendering of a microdot as a key plot element. The handling of microdot technology in the film is worth noting as the viewer is shown both how well a microdot can be made to blend into a complementary environment as well as how much information such a dot can carry.
  • In the White Collar episode "As You Were" a microdot was used to send a covert message to Special Agent Clinton Jones.
  • In the Covert Affairs episode "Sad Professor" a microdot was used by one of the characters to store intelligence related to an operation that a language professor used who previously worked for the CIA.
  • In The Venture Bros. episode "Powerless In the Face of Death"; while in prison, the character Tiny Joseph comments that "they don't usually write microdots by hand."
  • In C.I.D. Episodes 201 and 202, "Missile Plans", a microdot was sold by an Intelligence Bureau officer to terrorists. The microdot had information about missile technology of India.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald famously wrote "micro dots" in his address book underneath the address for a printing company he worked for in 1962 and 1963.[11]
  • In the 1965 television series Get Smart (Season 1, Episode 21 - "Dear Diary" original air-date Feb 12, 1966) Agent 86 and Agent 99 are shown the first "microdot" in the Spy City Museum. The comedic value is in the microdot being the size of a small plate.
  • In the 1968 television series It Takes a Thief (Season 1, Episode 8, "A Spot Of Trouble"), Agent Mundy is called in when sensitive plans for a weapon are stolen and later learned have been converted to a microdot.


  • White, William. The Microdot: History and Application. Williamstown, NJ: Phillips Publications, 1992.

External links[edit]