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Greater Manchester Police SmartWater warning sign

SmartWater is a traceable liquid and forensic asset marking system (taggant) that is applied to items of value to identify thieves and deter theft. The liquid leaves a long lasting and unique identifier, whose presence is invisible except under an ultraviolet black light.


SmartWater was started in the early 1990s by Phil Cleary,[1] Phil Cleary was a British police officer who served approx 9 years working at G3 Wolverhampton before leaving the force in his 30s to start his own security company. His brother Mike Cleary created smart water. Digital Water Marks Thieves[2] a Chartered Chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.[3] Mike was responsible for the development of the technology, whereas Phil created the deterrence and business strategies.[citation needed]

In 1996, the Clearys won the Prince of Wales Award for Innovation for the 'product with most commercial potential'.[4] In 2000, SmartWater was awarded Millennium Product status, with the brothers receiving the award from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.[5]

Phil Cleary was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts in recognition of his entrepreneurialism and contribution to crime reduction.[citation needed] The term "traceable liquid" has come to be used to describe SmartWater and similar forensic coding substances.[6]


SmartWater consists of a liquid containing a code, which presence can be seen under ultraviolet light.[7] It is intended to be applied to valuable items, so that if they are stolen and later recovered by police, their original owner can be determined after laboratory testing of a sample.[7] Another application is a sprinkler system that sprays a burglar with the (invisible) fluid, which cannot be washed off and lasts for months, to generate evidence that connects a suspect to a specific location.[8][9][10]

SmartWater comes in three variants, "Index Solutions", "Indsol Tracer" and "SmartWater Instant", which use different techniques to embed such a code. According to Phil Cleary, this allows "millions of chemical signatures" and is an identifier superior to genetic fingerprinting DNA.[11]

The "Index Solutions" variant is a water based solution containing low level additives, which are blended using a binary sequence to ensure uniqueness. The Index Solution is contained within a spray system that is activated by an intruder detection unit, similar to a burglar alarm, and marks the intruder with a spray, which the police locate using a black (UV) light.[9][12]

The "Indsol Tracer" variant is a polymer emulsion[13] that blends different chemical agents according to a binary code allowing 10 billion different possibilities, as stated by the company.[11]

The "SmartWater Instant" variant consists mainly of a copolymer of vinyl acetate in isopropyl alcohol.[14] This fluid contains millions of tiny fragments; a unique number called "SIN" ("SmartWater identification number", registered in a national police database together with the owner's details) is encoded into each of those particles.[11]

Use and effectiveness[edit]

In February 2005, security expert Bruce Schneier pointed out that abuse of SmartWater was possible, because an owner of a personalised solution can easily administer it to other people's valuable items.[15]

However, in 2008, he accepted that SmartWater worked as a deterrent, citing the 2008 publication of a research paper led by Professor Martin Gill,[16] who interviewed criminals and asked whether the presence of SmartWater would deter them from burglary, with 74% saying it would.[17] The SmartWater company developed a crime reduction programme, called 'The SmartWater Strategy'.

During the first six months of a pilot scheme in 2009, involving 100 households in a part of Kent, United Kingdom, police recorded a 94% reduction in burglary.[18] Fitting cash machines with a SmartWater spray to mark thieves and their clothing when breaking into or tampering with the machine was found in a 2016 pilot scheme to reduce theft by 90%.[19]

SmartWater has been used to convict criminals[20] and the company says that it has secured hundreds of convictions in the United Kingdom and the United States, with a 100% conviction rate.[21]

The Metropolitan Police of Greater London, in conjunction with the SmartWater company, had as of 2017 fitted suitable detectors in all custody areas, and supplied them to patrol staff; prisoners are routinely scanned. They said "criminals contemplating attacks on Co-op ATMs [which are fitted with SmartWater sprays] should take note".[19]

Another area that has used the 'SmartWater Strategy' is Nottingham in England, where 56,000 homes had their property marked with SmartWater and covert operations using SmartWater were instigated by the police. There has been a reported 40% reduction in burglary since the start of the initiative.[22][23]

In 2012, SmartWater presented their strategy to officers of the Metropolitan Police, who decided to test SmartWater's concept under controlled conditions. Consequently, a 'proof of concept' trial was initiated in 2013. SmartWater operated in the London Borough of Brent and, following six months of formal assessment, announced an 85% reduction in household burglary.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ How I made it: Phil Cleary, Founder Of SmartWater Rachel Bridge: The Times, October 11, 2009]
  2. ^ Archived 2010-08-05 at the Wayback Machine Wired News, 15 February 2005
  3. ^ Evans, Jon (14 November 2012). "Chemistry goes into the field to battle metal theft". Chemistry World. Retrieved 2017-03-02.
  4. ^ SBT. "Evidence of genius". Shropshire Business Today.
  5. ^ "In Touch - Inserts".
  6. ^ "Roll-out of traceable liquid technology to combat burglary in London". Mayot of London - London Assembly. 20 March 2015. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  7. ^ a b Water used to out-smart thieves BBC News, 2 July 2005
  8. ^ 'Guilty burglars detected by glow' - BBC News, 2005-09-04
  9. ^ a b Winter Park Police Use Spray to Nab Intruders; by Ashleigh Coran []; WKMG-6; Click Orlando website; accessed 9 January 2014.
  11. ^ a b c Robert Andrews: Digital Water Marks Thieves Archived 2010-08-05 at the Wayback Machine Wired News, 15 February 2005
  12. ^ "SmartWater Spray system". CSI New York. 2008.
  13. ^ IndSol Tracer Solutions - Material Safety Data Sheet SmartWater Technology Ltd, 9 February 2005
  14. ^ SmartWater Instant - Material Safety Data Sheet SmartWater Technology Ltd, 9 February 2005
  15. ^ Schneier on Security: Smart Water February 10, 2005
  16. ^ Perpetuity Research Professor Martin Gill profile
  17. ^ Schneier on Security: SmartWater January 21, 2008
  18. ^ SmartWater reduces burglay by 94% BBC News May 2009
  19. ^ a b Jones, Rupert (3 August 2017). "Co-op ATM thieves to be sprayed with long-lasting traceable gel". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  20. ^ Ali Lwanga convicted due to SmartWater evidence BBC News 2008
  21. ^ Guilty as Sprayed - SmartWater brochure, accessed August 2017
  22. ^ Nottingham City: SmartWater covert operation (Windows Media). BBC1 News.
  23. ^ Burglaries reduced in Nottingham Archived 2010-08-04 at the Wayback Machine Nottingham City Homes
  24. ^ Harrison, Stephanie. "Burglaries in Brent plummet by 85 per cent thanks to SmartWater technology". London 24.

External links[edit]