Copy-proof labels prevent forgery

Using the randomness of sprayed microparticles to prevent forgery
22 February 2019


QR code being read by phone in hands


Forgery-proof QR codes that can be read instantly by smart phones have been developed by scientists...

Like anyone buying a watch, handbag or any brand name product, you’ve probably worried if your purchase is authentic, but this same concern is surprisingly relevant to other products, such as whether the parts of the plane you are flying in are genuine.

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have developed a new technique that uses random patterns of micro-particles to make labels that are forgery-proof and guarantee authenticity.

A variety of goods could now be authenticated with a smartphone, ensuring safety and quality for end users, as the path from producer to consumer could finally become secure.

Thomas Just Sørensen produced this work, which would also ensure that even medicines bought from online outlets are no longer a risky imitation.

“It’s really easy to get counterfeit medicine into the supply stream. The consumer can buy any sort of medicine from online pharmacies” and Sørensen says that the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization estimate up to 50% of all drugs sold online are fake.

Government bodies in the USA and Europe have attempted to tackle this issue with QR codes, the black and white square patterns you might have seen that work a bit like barcodes, printed on medicine labels.

Unfortunately, Sørensen points out an issue with this. “QR codes and barcodes are reproducible, you can take a photo of them and print it off and then you can make counterfeit medicine. You need a unique identifier, sort of like a fingerprint for every packet of medicine in order to be absolutely certain that it is the genuine article.”

Developing this fingerprint is what his team have done, using a simple airbrush to apply a layer of particles onto the printed QR codes.

“Imagine that you take a handful of sand and throw it down on a surface, all the little particles will be in a unique pattern. If you take another handful of sand you will get a new unique pattern – you will never get two that are the same.”

The maths of this randomness is pretty mind blowing. Sørensen has calculated the number of unique combinations possible for their system, and it is 10^120, which is one, followed by 120 zeros! For comparison it is estimated there are only 10^80 particles in the entire universe! And all of this has been fitted into a one millimetre square in the corner of a QR code, invisible to the naked eye.

“What we’ve done over the last year is to a develop a pattern that you can read with your smartphone. We take a £1 lens you can easily get your hands on, clip it onto your smartphone and then you can read the pattern.”

In fact the cost of producing the unique patterns is less than the cost of printing and laminating the label, meaning that to his knowledge there is nothing else out there that can make such secure labels that can be read and validated as fast.

Such technological promise now requires development of a user-friendly smartphone app and IT infrastructure, with manufacturers already working out how to scale up production of the labels, which we could see in use and protecting our products in the very near future.




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