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Defense & Security

Counterfeiters dye over security measures

Eye on Technology - optical materials

From oemagazine September 2001
31 September 2001, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200109.0001


The passport in visible light, (b) the same passport illuminated to show one set of anti-counterfeiting marks, and (c) the same passport illuminated to show a second set of anti-counterfeiting marks.

Pharmaceuticals, stock certificates, music/video, auto parts, and even golf balls are just some of the areas in which counterfeiting and diversion eat away at company profit margins and credibility. According to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) in Washington, D.C., in the United States alone there is more than $200 billion dollars in revenue lost each year due to counterfeiting and diversion, and an estimated 5% of all worldwide commerce involves counterfeit and/or diverted products.

Diversion is the process of moving products made for one market into another at a profit. This profit goes to the diverter and not the manufacturer. Pharmaceuticals are a good example: Drugs shipped to Mexico are sold far more cheaply than in the United States, so buying pharmaceuticals in Mexico and diverting them to the U.S. market results in a tidy profit for the perpetrators.

Photo-luminescent dyes are emerging as an important tool in this struggle. Novel dye materials with unique properties are read by special scanners and allow authorities to detect, track, and study the counterfeit trade. The dyes can be placed on products as hidden or disguised marks, or they can be transparent.

The enabling technology has emerged from photo-luminescent research, in which customized batches of dye with unique fluorescent properties have been developed. "These chelated dyes are proprietary materials with novel ligands," according to Dave Phillips, CEO of PhotoSecure (Boston, MA). "This allows us to change the luminescent properties to best fit the application."

A strobed UV lamp in the scanner illuminates the dye in roughly 20-nm wavelength bands, with each band corresponding to a specific dye between 250 nm and 380 nm. Emissions range from ultraviolet to infrared wavelengths and are measured at predetermined delays for comparison with stored intensity and decay characteristics. Typical decay times can be from microseconds to tens of microseconds, and light intensity is measured through optical filters by a CCD area scanner connected to a microprocessor. Libraries of dye signatures can be loaded on the computer for scanner programming, and scanners can be easily reconfigured for different spectral filtering.

These new dyes are more light stable than conventional dyes, so they have an advantage in document security because of their resistance to fading and three-year shelf life. Data such as bar codes or product batch-and-date information can be encoded, and information from the scanners can be reported online or as part of a larger database. The relatively slow decay times allow scanners to be manufactured for a few hundred dollars, unlike the nanosecond delay times of common fluorescent materials, which require cost-prohibitive sensors.

The photo-luminescent materials can be made into inks and thin films as well as dye, and they can be applied at production speeds to a variety of materials. These materials include paper, cardboard, foils, films, fabrics, and plastics. Several techniques for applying the dye are available as well, such as lithography, flexography, and silkscreen. Ink-jet printers can even be used for small volumes.

"People have been counterfeiting the security holograms on products, so we now are using our technology within these holograms for increased brand and diversion protection," says Phillips. Indeed, the counterfeiters have good scientists and engineers working on countermeasures for each new security advance. Companies like PhotoSecure stay ahead by constantly changing and improving their proprietary materials and by producing small production runs in controlled conditions.

PhotoSecure was spun out in 1998 from the Boston University Photonics Center, which nurtures new companies by providing capabilities, facilities, and money to technologists from around the world. The company recently closed a second round of financing, which will take it to profitability, according to Phillips. PhotoSecure is in negotiations with more than 20 companies, including some very large ones. "Titleist is having a problem with diversion of golf balls, so we are developing a solution for their product packaging and shipping needs," explains Phillips.

Product security may come soon, but those looking for help with their golf slice will have to make headway on their own.