By Simon Firth, March 2006
The two bottles of medicine appear identical. One contains
a beneficial anti-AIDS drug. The other's a fake. It isn't
until you closely examine the bottles that you notice their
labels have slightly different typefaces and are printed
in subtly different colors.
The counterfeiting of drugs – and dozens of other
products – has become an enormous problem. Many parts
of the world are awash in counterfeit electronics, luxury
goods, seeds, cigarettes and even aircraft parts, costing
businesses and governments an estimated $600 billion annually – $250
billion in the U.S. alone.
Figures like these inspired HP Labs researchers to look
for ways to use HP printing technologies to counter the
counterfeiters. Now some of their innovations are being
considered for inclusion in new HP products and services
aimed at giving customers the chance to fight back against
Counterfeiters are typically quite clever and have plenty
of resources at their disposal. They run their operations
like businesses, with customers and delivery schedules,
says HP Labs' Henry Sang, who is leading the research effort.
As soon counterfeiters see what you are doing to combat
their efforts, they adapt their products.
"If you have a static deterrent, you’re a sitting
duck," he adds. To outwit counterfeiters, you need
constantly changing strategies and deterrents that are
ever harder to copy.
One popular technique is to have a particular set of numbers,
bars or other kind of code printed in several places on
the packages you are trying to protect.
“I might have a serial number printed in black,” explains
Sang, “and make it so that if I put it under a fluorescent
light, the same number lights up from invisible ink. That
makes it really easy to do an on-the-spot comparison. And
I can call on the phone to further verify that that’s
a unique number.”
Ideally, not only would each batch of a particular medicine
have its own unique code, but each case and packet would
too – or even each individual pill.
Until recently, to do that would have been prohibitively
expensive. Now that has changed with the advent of variable
data printing, like that provided by HP's Indigo presses.
Most product packaging is printed on analog offset presses,
which can’t vary what they print for individual objects.
With variable data printing, each document in a digital
print run can be customized, making it possible to change
the code you print on every single item – pills,
packages, boxes and even the labels for palettes of boxes.
“With variable printing,” says Sang, “you
just compute your set of unique codes ahead of time and
you make it non-obvious how you get there.” For counterfeiters
now to correctly identify such a sequence of numbers and
apply them to each item they counterfeit, he says, “gets
But providing this unique identification – secret
symbols, hidden messages or special patterns printed on
each package – can be incredibly complex. First,
each package is assigned one or more secret codes, and
a ‘recipe’ of algorithms is developed to convert
the codes into what gets printed.
“Some of these things take a lot of computer cycles,” says
Sang. “It’s a complex publishing job and we
need to figure out how to handle it and make it work optimally.”
Among other things, researchers are addressing
the challenge of sending constantly changing codes from
the server fast enough so these industrial printers can
work at their usual speed.
Since counterfeiters are quick to copy new package designs,
researchers fighting them must keep inventing new deterrents.
Such deterrents might be new kinds of inks, new color
bar codes with information hidden in them, or new ways
to combine two images or sets of numbers so that they will,
for example, overlap when you hold them up to the light.
In deciding what strategies to adopt, manufacturers need
to think about who will be inspecting products to authenticate
them, adds researcher Steve Simske.
At the consumer level, he says “you need features
that somebody can see right away. For that we have things
like color-shifting inks.” These hard-to-reproduce
inks change color depending on how you view them – the
number ‘20’ on the new US $20 bill, for example,
looks green when viewed straight on and magenta when seen
at an angle. It even sparkles when magnified.
Manufacturers may want hidden codes that are visible only
when viewed with specialized equipment. HP solutions provide
covert codes written in infrared or ultraviolet inks that
are invisible unless seen under an IR or UV lamp, when
they will fluoresce. By comparing the covert and overt
codes, investigators can determine whether a product is
A third level of security is only verifiable in a laboratory.
Researchers developed technology than can potentially
generate 10¹ºº different font families,
each with imperceptible differences, to be used for printing
codes. "These are as difficult to replicate as, for
example, the chemistry of the ink," Simske says.
“With the Indigo press,” he adds, “we
can also provide an anti-tamper seal. You can actually
peel those off and uncover information that’s under
there and then you can use an authentication service to
check that what you have is genuine.”
Technologies like these are being integrated into HP's
security printing solutions, some of which are being shown
to customers by representatives of HP's Imaging and Printing
business at HP's Center of Excellence for Product Tracking
and Authentication in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Some of the Labs' anti-counterfeiting effort involves applying
existing security technologies in new ways. The team
works closely with researchers within HP’s business
units and with outside partners, as well as with hardware
groups such as the HP iPAQ unit, to make sure that HP equipment
can be used to scan and authenticate genuine goods.
Researchers are also designing software systems for examining these scans; the software would separate the security data from
the rest of the scan and send it to an authenticating service.
And the Labs group is thinking about how developments
in technology might offer new ways to stymie counterfeiters.
“On the authentication side,” says Simske, “we’re
looking at smart packaging, where the package itself is
partly printed with electro-conductive ink, which can contain
a wealth of information.” Such inks can be charged
in different ways and thus invisibly contain unique information
that can only decoded when passed through a proprietary
“We’re stretching variable data printing to
new limits,” adds Simske, “and so in that area
we’re looking to help drive the next architecture
for the digital front end.”
In the future, notes Sang, consumers
will have new ways to make sure the products that they
are buying are the real thing.”
“Maybe five years from now you'll be able to use
your cell phone to do this," he suggests. "The
question for Labs is 'what do you need to do to make that
Simon Firth is a writer and television producer living in Silicon