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HP Helps U.S. Clamp Down on Counterfeiting

Imaging expertise used to deter digital fakes

September 2003

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We had to keep it inexpensive, and we had to make it unobtrusive.

Take a look at that dollar, Euro, yen, pound or peso in your wallet. Is it real or counterfeit? How can you be sure?

Counterfeiting used to be the domain of skilled criminals with expensive engraving and printing equipment. Not so today, thanks to advances in computer and printing technologies that have dramatically reduced the cost and difficulty of reproducing realistic-looking fakes.

Not surprisingly, that's unsettling to a company like HP. That's why researchers at HP Labs and experts from the company's printing and imaging business got together at the request of U.S. and international officials to help clamp down on counterfeiting.

"As the world's largest printing and imaging company, it was important to us to lead the industry in this area," says George Lynch, Director of Strategic Technology for HP's Imaging and Printing Business.

A growing problem

In 1995, less than two percent of counterfeit money in the U.S. was produced electronically, according the U.S. Secret Service. Last year, counterfeiters turned out $44 million in U.S. currency -- nearly 40 percent of it using digital equipment like color copies, scanners and ink jet printers.

The U.S. greenback, the world's most popular currency, is also the most counterfeited because it is so universally accepted.

"There's a lot at stake," says Neerja Raman, director of the Imaging Systems Lab at HP Labs. "If we want the world to continue to have faith in U.S. currency, we at HP have to have a zero-tolerance policy for counterfeiting."

Preventing fakes while protecting image quality

Lynch, Raman and many others at HP put their considerable imaging expertise to work, collaborating with officials and technical teams from various public- and private-sector organizations. (The names of these organizations must remain confidential).

The challenge: find a way to prevent the reproduction of U.S. banknotes on home equipment without affecting the quality or the print speed of everything else.

"We had to have a solution that was inexpensive, and it had to be unobtrusive," says HP Labs researcher Henry Sang. "Nobody's going to pay an extra $50 for a printer because it prevents counterfeiting, and they're not going to buy one that won't print green or that prints three times slower because it's trying to detect a counterfeit."

Challenges and constraints

Until the 1990s, when the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing added new security measures such as a watermark and a security thread, U.S. banknotes had changed little for decades. Federal officials told the HP team they wanted to keep it that way.

That precluded any major changes to the currency itself, including techniques used by some other currencies. The Euro, for example, contains fluorescent fibers and foil features, which cannot easily be reproduced by conventional copiers or printers.

To recommend how to best approach the problem, the R&D team first had to learn more about how currency was being counterfeited, then determine ways to prevent it. For example, it's possible to give a scanner the ability to detect when it's scanning a $20 bill. But it's also possible to find a high-quality, printable image of a $20 bill on the Internet, or to take a digital photograph of it, so just blocking the scanner won't totally eliminate counterfeiting.

Another challenge: Most people can't identify a counterfeit bill. Sang says federal officials showed him one-sided bills and even black and white bills that had been passed.

"Counterfeits don't have to be good enough to be undetectable by the government or by banks. They just have to be good enough to be passed from person to person," he says. "By the time you pass it to a store clerk and the store takes it to the bank and the bank is able to detect it, the criminal is long gone."

Detection and deterrence

So, what could be done? The team attacked four key issues: Can the bill be passed? Can we detect counterfeiting intrusions on low-cost machines? Can we prevent the printing of counterfeit bills? Can we we help authorities who have to prosecute the criminal who produced the bills?

Researchers came up with a host of recommendations, applying technical knowledge in image processing, color management and information embedding to devise several counterfeit deterrence methods.

Although they cannot disclose exactly what or whose technologies federal officials finally adopted -- at the risk of tipping off criminals -- team members made suggestions for a wide range of techniques for document and hardware design to thwart counterfeiters.

"We made recommendations for a range of tests and procedures," says Sang.


Measures HP suggested include:

  • Multi-level detection and deterrence - a detection scheme that uses an algorithm to separate suspicious documents from those free of suspicion. Additional, more complex algorithms determine if the suspicious document is a "secure" one that's likely to be currency, and then either provide a "selectively deteriorated" print or disable printing of that document completely.
  • Two-sided documents - This technique takes advantage of the front-to-back registration accuracy of HP printers by changing the position of objects an infinitesimal amount, too little to be seen by most people, but enough so that a machine can detect it.
  • Color detection - This is a key technology because humans are very good at detecting differences in color. This technique would detect the characteristic color of frequently counterfeited documents ("banknote green"). Were a user to attempt to print a banknote using the exact green in the correct density for a bill, the printer could modulate the color somewhat to produce distinct, visible bands of color. The change in the color wouldn't be visible in other images that use lots of green (photos of trees, for example), but would be evident in bills.
  • Printer identification - Researchers provided data on how officials could better measure properties of a counterfeit to identify what kind of printer and ink may have been used to produce it.
  • Government lab - The R&D team developed a proposal for a laboratory the federal government could establish to continue research into anti-counterfeiting technologies.

In May 2003 U.S. officials announced a radical new design for the $20 bill that includes several new, confidential counterfeit-deterrence features. These measures include adding light shades of blue, peach and green to the $20 bill as an anti-counterfeiting measure. (Note: The peach bills premiered in October 2003).

Printing and imaging expertise

HP was able to respond as quickly as it did to counterfeiting concerns in part because of HP Labs' deep expertise and continued research in imaging and printing. In addition, HP's imaging and printing business made the effort to integrate anti-counterfeiting measures into devices to demonstrate how these techniques worked.

"Hewlett-Packard and its employees have been clear leaders in our work with the printer industry," Paul O'Neill, then-Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department, said in a letter to HP executive. "HP employees involved in this work have been innovative and professional, and a credit to your company."

Other applications

Of course, HP isn't going into the currency-printing business, but the company has used its experience to pursue new research in secure printing and imaging.

A team in the Imaging System Lab has been working on ways to embed information in printed documents for authentication, security and other purposes, called "Graphical Barcodes." In one application, users might be able to print authenticable, customized postage stamps with a company logo, personal initial or other image that contains the same information that an ordinary bar code would.

Another application of the Graphical Barcode injects a "digital life" into printed documents. When a document is printed with a graphical barcode, the barcode contains all the information about this document including its digital source. So when the document is to be copied, instead of producing its photographic image, the original document is retrieved from the digital source and printed.

"Fax back" and authentication

This technology can also enable "fax back." A document containing an information-embedded image (a logo, for instance) is faxed to a recipient. The recipient can write on it for reply. Because of the embedded information, the recipient can fax it back without even dialing the phone number because the fax machine recognizes that it is a "fax back" document by the Graphical Barcode.

This technology can also be used for authenticating hardcopy documents like a diploma, a birth certificate and a land deed, etc. The information-embedding logo on the document contains all the critical information that cannot be tampered with or counterfeited.

"Almost any anti-counterfeiting technology can be defeated," says Sang. "The challenge for us is to make it that much harder to do it."

by Jamie Beckett

News and Events

» U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
» U.S. Secret Service Counterfeit Division
» How to spot a counterfeit
Neerja Raman
Neerja Raman, director of the Imaging Systems Lab at HP Labs
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