Counterfeiting gets harder with ‘unclonable’ tag

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark claim to have created an ‘unclonable’ tag that can never be replicated, even by the manufacturer. They report their results in ACS (American Chemical Society) journal Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Each year, counterfeit goods cost billions of dollars in economic losses. While manufacturers have tried to incorporate unique tags or bar codes on their products to help verify a product's authenticity, the counterfeiters often quickly work out how to copy these.

Riikka Arppe-Tabbara, Mohammad Tabbara and Thomas Just Sørensen set out to develop an authentication system using physical unclonable functions (PUFs) -- tags based on random processes that are impossible to replicate. As they explain in their report, an example of a PUF would be throwing a handful of sand on a surface. Each throw generates a random pattern that cannot be copied.

To develop their anti-counterfeiting system, the team laser-printed QR codes on paper and then sprayed the PUF pattern on the surface. The PUF inks contained microparticles, which formed random patterns that showed up as white spots on a black background when magnified. The tags were created using commercial printing and coating technologies with several combinations of carrier materials and taggant materials.

To validate their system, they generated 10,000 tags and imaged them with a smart phone camera to establish a registry. Then, they re-imaged the tags with different smart phone readers and tried to match them to the registry. The system correctly identified 76 percent of the PUF tags. None of the tags were identified incorrectly, but some codes that were dirty or out-of-focus required an additional scan. The researchers estimate that the system can generate 2.5 × 10120 unique codes.

The authors received funding from the Villum Fonden and the University of Copenhagen Proof-of-Concept Programme.

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