Invisible ink could curb counterfeiting

Published in The Argus Leader/Sioux Falls Business Journal on Dec. 12, 2012.

Invisible code technology developed in South Dakota could prevent the counterfeit and forgery of a variety of products from medical devices to golf balls.

Professors Stanley May from the University of South Dakota and William Cross and Jon Kellar of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology have developed an invisible ink using nanoparticles. The ink is unable to be seen until revealed with a near infrared laser.

In their article published in the British journal Nanotechnology, the professors used the ink and printing technology to create invisible quick response, or QR codes. The barcode-like squares can be read by smartphones and often are used for consumer marketing.

But rather than marketing, the new technology has a wide range of security applications that could help curb counterfeiting of products and brands.

“The spectrum (of use) is document security to actual product security and protection of intellectual property,” Kellar said, and the technology is flexible enough to meet these various uses.

“We can adapt them chemically to be compatible with almost any surface. We can print them on paper, glass, metal — almost anything,” May said.

According to May, items being counterfeited may not necessarily be what the average person expects.

“It’s just hair-raising, really. The things that are counterfeited and just sort of substituted into the supply chain is just pretty amazing,” May said. “It’s not just money and notes or Rolex watches and stuff, but down to things like cereal and things like that. You may not believe this, but golf balls are a big thing.”

The international Organization for Economic Cooperation estimates that forgery and counterfeiting costs the world $250 billion per year.

As recently as Cyber Monday, on Nov. 29, the U.S. Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down 82 websites selling counterfeit goods.

“The sale of counterfeit U.S. brands on the Internet steals the creative work of others, costs our economy jobs and revenue and can threaten the health and safety of American consumers,” ICE Director John Morton said in a release on November’s website crackdown.

Even medical products and technology used by the U.S. Department of Defense are subject to forgery.

The special ink can be used to print any type of code, so if applied commercially, simple QR codes scannable by smartphones likely wouldn’t be used.

“If you’re going to really secure something, you’d develop your own code that is encrypted,” Kellar said. “It all depends on the critical nature of what you’re trying to protect. As it becomes more critical, you will put more technology into protecting it.”

Their continued research is focused on advancing and adapting this technology for more secure specific needs.

“We’re talking to a number of people now about what their application is and how this might be adapted to what their interests are,” May said.

“We’re trying to work on things from the printing aspects — how you read what you print — all the way up to database security and things like that. We’re trying to cover a large range of security technologies,” Cross said.

Their research has garnered the professors international attention. Media like the BBC, Reuters NBC News, Reuters and many more picked up the story.

They attribute the researches public appeal to the pairing of familiar technology alongside clandestine technology.

“The fact that we used a smartphone to read the covert code, I think that piqued the public interest,” Kellar said. “Then there’s the whole ‘CSI: Miami’ factor. People are intrigued by covert technologies and things like that.”

Regardless of the reasons, the professor appreciated the attention.

“It’s always nice to have people interested in what you’re doing,” May said.

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