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Glitter bombs and fart spray: An ex-Apple designer’s idea to curb car break-ins in San Francisco

Mark Rober, a popular YouTuber and science educator whose videos have gone viral, has tried to address the rampant problem of ‘bipping’ in the California city

A car thief taking a backpack from the back seat of a vehicle.
A car thief taking a backpack from the back seat of a vehicle.

Bipping, a term for car break-ins that is associated with San Francisco, has become a significant problem for residents of the city. In 2002 authorities received over 22,000 reports of thefts from vehicles. In a bid to slow down this crime wave, a former Apple product designer has come up with an original method that also involves a dose of humorous retribution.

San Francisco authorities say there are organized gangs that work in shifts, covering different areas of town to carry out the burglaries with a view to selling goods on the second-hand market. These thieves typically ditch passports, plane tickets and any other items that they find useless. The targets are often tourists and other visitors to the California enclave.

The news outlet SF Gate noted that some lawmakers are trying to do away with a law that requires people to prove that their cars were locked at the time of the break-in. Most people are unable to do so even if they in fact locked their car.

This has created a loophole allowing auto thieves to act freely and almost with complete impunity. So residents are fighting back with methods to help identify the criminals.

A glitter bomb developed by Mark Rober.
A glitter bomb developed by Mark Rober.

Mark Rober is a former NASA engineer and Apple product designer who currently works at CrunchLabs, an educational technology company he founded in 2022. He and his team have developed an original method to track auto thieves in San Francisco. Their mechanism records audio and video and provides GPS locations to find the criminals.

The next step was to spice up the system with glitter bombs made with compressed gas, a bike inflator and a motor. The booby trap is concealed inside a backpack that is visibly located inside the vehicle, and once stolen, it ejects biodegradable glitter and fart spray.

Over the last five years, Rober’s glitter bomb videos have gone viral, garnering millions of views.

Do they work? That is the question. As the videos show, most thieves ditch the backpack as soon as they realize there is a booby trap inside. This means that valuable objects can be recovered. Others hold on to their loot long enough to be sprayed with glitter and fart spray, both of which are hard to remove from skin and clothing.

This also makes it easier to identify the thieves. Rober says he has successfully marked 29 thieves. But it is still unclear whether his glitter bombs are an effective way to intercept and prosecute criminals. In the meantime, they seem to be working as a deterrent.

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