‘Unhackable’ Danish anti-counterfeiting system is built on sand

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Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have developed a new marking system using patterns of sand, which they claim could potentially put an end to counterfeit goods.


In 2013, 1,500 high-fashion counterfeit leather handbags with a potential street value of $14m were seized in Los Angeles (Credit: Jaime Ruiz/US Customs and Border Protection)

The optical authentication system uses sand doped with three rare earth lanthanides, each of which glows under a different wavelength of light. Separate buckets of sand are doped with europium, terbium and dysprosium, with the three buckets then mixed together in a single vessel.

A piece of ‘tape’ is dipped in the vessel to create a unique pattern with thousands of grains of sand, but which measures just a few millimetres wide. This fingerprint can then be embedded in leather or glass or milled into metal.

When a manufacturer attaches the marking to an item, the imprint is photographed at different wavelengths. The resulting patterns of illuminated europium, terbium and dysprosium are then combined in a single image which is digitally stored in the manufacturer’s database. Using a proprietary reader and software, the digital key can then be used to authenticate the physical key. According to the researchers, the encoding capacity of the system is 6 × 10104, making it virtually impossible to successfully counterfeit. The work is described in Science Advances.

"The system, which deploys three rare earths among other things, is based on randomness, which makes it unable to be hacked or tampered with,” said Thomas Just Sørensen of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry.

“The probability of two products having the same 'fingerprints' - the same digital key - is so minuscule, that in practice, it can only be described as non-existent. It corresponds to a one out of an enormous number composed of a 6 followed by 104 zeros."

According to the researchers, the system will be relatively low-cost, with each marking costing around one Danish krone (£0.12). The concept has already been patented, and the team is currently fine-tuning the scanning technology. It's expected that the system will be commercially available within the next year.