Brussels, 09 Aug 2005
A British team of scientists at Imperial College London and Durham University has announced in the journal Nature the discovery of a surprisingly simple and effective new way to combat most forms of document and branded-product fraud.
The scientists explain that almost all paper documents, plastic cards and forms of product packaging contain a unique physical identity code created by microscopic random imperfections on their surface. This 'fingerprint' is intrinsic, and the imperfections are so minute, say the scientists, that they are virtually impossible to replicate. According to lead author Russell Cowburn, professor of nanotechnology at Imperial College London, reading these unique patterns is easy with a portable laser scanner. The system is also cheap: the field scanners could be manufactured for less than 1,000 euro.
'The beauty of this system is that there is no need to modify the item being protected in any way with tags, chips or inks,' Professor Cowburn said.
The detection process of the variations on the surface is based on the optical phenomenon known as laser speckle. Light coming from a focused laser is coherent, or in phase, but when it strikes a microscopically rough surface like a piece of paper, the light is scattered, producing a pattern of light and dark 'speckles' The scanner's photodetectors can digitise and record this pattern. The technique is already routinely used to measure surface roughness in metal and paper, and for visualising blood in vivo.
According to the scientists, laser speckle would allow one to record the identity of a document or piece of packaging quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. To do so, a laser reader could be mounted at the end of a production line. As a product, such as an identification card or piece of packaging, goes by, the scanner would record the fingerprint and send it to a computer database. The recording process can take as little as one thousandth of a second.
There are two main ways in which the technology might be used. One possibility is using the scanner on one area of the document, generating a code that could be kept in a central computer file somewhere. When someone attempts to use the document, it would be scanned again and compared to the database to authenticate it. Alternately, the document could be scanned and the fingerprint, in numerical form, could be encrypted and then printed on the birth certificate as a bar code. Whenever the document is presented, it would be scanned and compared with the bar code.
There could be a wide range of commercial applications for the technology: from securing official documents like birth certificates, passports, identification cards, as well as music or software CDs and DVDs and banknotes, to preventing fraud by checking the packaging of pharmaceuticals, cigarettes, and other items.
Professor Cowburn and his colleagues are now working with the spin-off company Ingenia Technology to take the idea to market.
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Remarks: Reference publication: Forgery: 'Fingerprinting' documents and packaging. James D. R. Buchanan, Russell P. Cowburn, Ana-Vanessa Jausovec, Dorothée Petit, Peter Seem, Gang Xiong, Del Atkinson, Kate Fenton, Dan A. Allwood and Matthew T. Bryan. Nature 436, 475 (28 July 2005)