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Fighting fakes

HP Labs helps counter the proliferation of counterfeit goods

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HP's Indigo presses

HP's Indigo press

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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.

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 fakes.

Identity strategies

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.”

Customized numbering 

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 really hard.”

Unique identifiers  

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.

New tactics  

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 authentic.

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.

Future smart packaging

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 reader.

“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 work?' "


Simon Firth is a writer and television producer living in Silicon Valley.

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