ATMs that spray attackers with pepper-spray

Some South African ATMs have pepper-spray squirters that are intended to debilitate anyone who tries to tamper with them or install a card-skimmer. The idea is that spray incapacitates you while the cops come out. Unfortunately, they've also been known to incapacitate the poor bastards who install them by randomly firing capsaicin at them.
The extreme measure is the latest in South Africa's escalating war against armed robbers who target banks and cash delivery vans. The number of cash machines blown up with explosives has risen from 54 in 2006 to 387 in 2007 and nearly 500 last year.

The technology uses cameras to detect people tampering with the card slots. Another machine then ejects pepper spray to stun the culprit while police response teams race to the scene.

But the mechanism backfired in one incident last week when pepper spray was inadvertently inhaled by three technicians who required treatment from paramedics.

Pepper-spray defence means South Africa robbers face loss of balance at cash machines (via Schneier)


  1. Why not just rig the ATM’s to electrocute anyone tampering with them? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? (Thanks MrJM)

  2. I’d like to see this feature installed on all gas pumps, airline ticket dispensers, and even soda and candy machines. In fact, you should have to rest your chin on a little chin-seat, and look up and directly into the pepper-spray nozzle while performing the transaction, complete with ‘waiting period’. If the machine thinks you’re tampering with it, you win with a blast of the pepper-spray. Perhaps even a good kick in the balls with a mechanical boot for good measure.

    I like the idea of electrocuting the vendees. I can imagine a vending machine that dispenses lethal electrical shocks. How much fun would that be? Or iron dust through an explosive charge — right into your properly positioned face, guaranteeing the most optimal face-full of hot burning metal particles. Meanbot bukkake.

    Shit, I can’t find the person presenting at dorkbotpgh, who had a vending machine which dispensed anthrax and other fun biological agents. It looked kinda fun, and I think the observation is that people used the vending machine, and watched the dispensing process, not paying attention to what was being dispensed. People will buy anything, even their own demise.

  3. How about a retinal scanner, available to install for any purpose, that sprays any unauthorized person?

  4. We really need to take it up a notch.

    Pepper spray for entering the wrong PIN three times and video of the event automatically posted on Youtube.

  5. William Gibson described this in All Tomorrows Parties. He described that what the machine didn’t tell you was that if you really tried to ‘tamper’ with it, say took a crowbar to it, it would spray you with water and electrocute you.

  6. Laugh all you want, but the situation in South Africa is very desperate. Having lived there for almost 30 years, I tried to cope with the rising crime and violence but finally gave up. I really cannot see anything helping short of zero tolerance hanging of anyone convicted of anything more than a parking violation. It’s not just crime, it’s a total culture of criminality.

  7. Cool, get your hazmat suite, bring your cauldron of chili and fiddle with the slot and have some kick ass Texas Chili seasoning.

  8. As long as they have braille on the keypads and whatnot, and proper audio instructions, then we’re in business.

  9. I suspect would be criminals would just wear protective masks / clothing and I’m not sure why the technicians weren’t – though I bet they just might be in the future

  10. I see an opportunity to sell sophisticated crime-masks. Latex, detailed enough to fool at a distance, filters underneath…

  11. “It’s not just crime, it’s a total culture of criminality.”

    Yeah, can’t imagine why that would be. It is… a mystery!

  12. Booby traps are stupid. They get innocent people much more often than they get the ones who are actually tampering with something.

    Funny, innumeracy seems to be basic to a lot of current anticrime/antiterrorism policy, whatever continent you’re on. Hooda thunkit.

  13. Do you think it’s about suppressing economic activity by making people afraid to use ATMs? Seriously, I’m puzzled what it is that you think THEY think they’re doing. I think they’re making a lame-ass attempt to protect the ATM.

    When it comes to The War on Terra I completely agree: it’s designed to instill a culture of fear as a means of social control. But I don’t quite see that applying to this specific case.

  14. “I really cannot see anything helping short of zero tolerance hanging…” Sir, that kind of subversive talk is a hanging offense! Please proceed to your local Euthanasia Center and turn yourself in, keeping in mind that refusing to comply is also a hanging offense!

  15. Digilante@8: “It’s not just crime, it’s a total culture of criminality.”

    Sounds like Goldman-Sachs.

  16. I knew that it was bad over there, I’m just glad that I didn’t get hit myself when I was getting a few hundred Rand out my last visit.

  17. gee, I wonder if they ever though of vestibules with bulletproof glass that lock the outer door if the machine is tampered with? Or take a page from Snatch and put “Push” signs on “Pull” doors.

  18. As usual BB comments blame the ATM. If YOU were being physically tampered with you might pepper spray the assailant too.
    If you think this is going too far I suggest you try hanging out on a street corner in South Africa all day with your pockets stuffed with money.
    So quick to blame the ATM yet they are the first place you stop when you need cash.

  19. I, for one, am shocked…SHOCKED…that there are places in this world that are so crime-ridden that this would even be considered.


    It sounds like the false positives on this one suck. I can’t find the countervailing statistic of how many crimes are prevented. Is it too new?

  20. How about a good old-fashioned trap door, and a long slide into an alligator pit. It would cut down on the noise of some guy running around screaming, or the smell of burnt flesh. Clack, whoosh, gone. Next!

  21. Wasn’t it South Africa who invented the thing in Robocop that electrocuted people who broke into your car?

  22. No one who has watched the boardroom scene from Robocop would ever design something like this.

  23. hey, who had the story of the full windshield sized stickers that said “don’t park here again” that took HOURS to scrape off – if you had the tools.

  24. If it’s just card skimming they were worried about, why not just have the mechanism shut the machine down and flash a helpful “Hi, I’ve been compromised, don’t use me” message on the screen? Eventually, if there’s no profit made from skimming, criminals will stop, yes?

  25. Oh, wait, better idea– machine sprays various thallium-based compounds when tampered with. Police rushing to the scene interrogate anyone nearby. Those appearing innocent get decontamination and Prussion blue as antidote. Those continuing to tamper with machines get ever-higher exposure…

  26. Xopher;
    “Do you think it’s about suppressing economic activity by making people afraid to use ATMs? Seriously, I’m puzzled what it is that you think THEY think they’re doing. I think they’re making a lame-ass attempt to protect the ATM.”

    Nawwww, I almost always go for the most abstract reading of what others say so when I read:

    “innumeracy seems to be basic to a lot of current anticrime/antiterrorism policy”

    I respond to the general ideas and not so much to the particulars. I can’t help it, it’s what I do. So to me, the whole point of authority is to BE authority, to be phallus. That’s why we call them dicks. Preventing crime is just a useful side effect.

  27. @Digilante: The crime is bad, but “a total culture of criminality” is a stupid use of hyperbole. Good riddance to you, I guess.

    @Takuan: Yep, the air filter problem would be a big one (respirator/goggle combinations don’t cost that much when your goal is whatever cash in the ATM survives the explosion). Let’s not even think about criminals willing to spray themselves with pepper spray to become resistant.

    @Cicada: I get the impression they’re more worried about people blowing the ATMs up than installing card skimmers, although apparently the pepper spray triggers from tampering near the card slot, which is claimed to be common to both activities.

    One of the problems we have in South Africa is that there are several thousand (at least) ex-guerilla fighers/terrorists from the late 80s/early 90s who never got integrated into the defence forces. These guys make great footsoldiers for organised crime, and tend to use pretty extreme methods to commit theft/robbery (involving the use of assault rifles and/or explosives). However, these kinds of crimes (e.g. cash in transit heists involving mass militant attacks on cash vans) are relatively rare, with only a few hundred happening anywhere in the country in any given year.

    And all that being said, this is just a pilot project by one of the banks (Absa). Hopefully they’ll realise what a stupid idea it is and scrap it shortly.

    Some South African news coverage here.

  28. years ago some bank vaults/safes were made with tear gas built in to surprise drillers/cutters, wonder what happened to them?

    Anyway, in a global economy racing to the drain it only makes sense to pay some poor schmuck minimum wage to sit beside every ATM with a cellphone and the local cop’s number. They don’t even have to be visible.

  29. Er…Riiiiiiight. Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us where some of these pepper-spraying ATMs are?

  30. Spray iron dust to get into their lungs, you joke? Just use asbestos. It’s probably in the wall behind the ATM anyway.

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