Holograms in the fight for authentication

Holograms in the fight for authentication

Dr Paul Dunn, chair of the International Hologram Manufacturers Association, considers the development in authentication and anti-counterfeiting holograms as the technology marks its 75th anniversary.

The hologram was invented in 1947 by the Hungarian/British engineer and physicist Dennis Gabor. Since then, it has emerged against a background of growing piracy, counterfeiting and diversion as one of the most successful overt anti-counterfeiting technologies available today, so critical in the fight to preserve brand integrity, consumer safety and corporate reputations.

Today, holograms are used as a highly effective anti-counterfeiting feature on more than half the world’s banknotes and fiscal stamps. They are also used for passport and ID document protection and over the years, have seen their role expand to protect the world’s largest software brands, automotive parts, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and industrial goods against counterfeiters and organised crime.

Advances in production techniques and nano-technology based visual effects, make it difficult to accurately copy an authentic hologram. This has ensured its success – the hologram acts as an alarm bell, alerting authorities and law enforcement to the possibility that all is not what it seems and the product could be a counterfeit. In other words, the role of a hologram is not to prevent counterfeits – that would be impossible – but to act as an effective detection device, making it easier for the trained eye to distinguish the real thing from a fake. And, thereby, an effective deterrence.

A growing security tool

Continued threats, increased illicit trade and counterfeiting will continue to drive hologram growth, particularly for authentication purposes. Indeed, growth in security devices such as holograms appears “strong and potentially lucrative”, according to Smithers’ The Future of Anti-Counterfeiting, Brand Protection and Security Packaging to 2026 and other reports predict increasing incidences of global counterfeiting alongside heightened awareness of tracing technologies.

The inexorable rise in counterfeiting is a result of several factors: the globalisation of manufacture, industry and trade; extended supply chains; the growth of brands; inadequate enforcement; weak criminal penalties; the rise of the Internet as a conduit for counterfeit goods; and the advent of modern reprographic equipment that makes the reproduction of such brands – and in particular their packaging – so easy and lucrative.

Multiple applications

However, despite the challenges, holography is responding and today we see its myriad deployment across the security industry. For example, governments and passport agencies continue to be impacted to the tune of billions of dollars each year in lost revenue by counterfeit documents and ID fraud. Recently, the problem has been exacerbated by the impact of covid, which has accelerated digital transformation in every industry, accompanied by a dramatic increase in fraud.

Providing innovative and sophisticated solutions for security documents requires not only a design that will make a document attractive; it also means enhancing the intrinsic security of that document. Secure document conception can be achieved for ID cards and passports by integrating security features with exclusive designs that highlight attack attempts and facilitate controls, for example, checking that an ID document matches the bearer.

Holograms protect and authenticate, alerting issuers and those checking the documents to counterfeiting attempts. Indeed, in the wake of the covid pandemic, countries around the world continue to examine ways to make their documents more secure. This has paved the way for a new generation of high security holograms that push the envelope when it comes to ID document security and protection, providing highly effective tools to help law enforcement better fight the criminals.

Holography has helped to bring smartphone digital interaction in the brand protection and authentication space closer, as the technology discovers new outlets and innovative applications. In turn, this is driving continued expansion as increasing numbers of organisations accept the advantages holograms offer and invest in digital-based interactive solutions for their products to protect against global brand piracy and counterfeiters.

Smart applications

In particular, we are seeing opportunities appearing for brand protection and anti-counterfeiting through hologram validation using computer vision on smartphones. The use of smartphones with integrated cameras has been transformative and image and video content captured on these devices dominates so much of contemporary life through social media, entertainment, recognition and validation. So called ‘computer vision’ has become both ubiquitous and familiar; a powerful tool for the validation and recognition of holograms when linked with the connectivity of smartphones to central data repositories against which the hologram and other information can be matched.

For example, the consumer can validate the integrity of a holographic tax stamp on a wine bottle while a unique identifier links it to an information system (track and trace) which will confirm the authenticity or not of the product. The use of a mobile app in the consumer’s smartphone ‘interrogates’ the hologram and searches for all the embedded security elements by examining the interaction via reflected light.

Targeting lost revenue

Excise duty on cigarettes and other tobacco products is a critical source of government revenue while providing a way of controlling and limiting consumption. However, illicit smuggling and counterfeiting cost treasuries billions of dollars a year in lost revenue. And the cost is not just a financial one affecting governments. Tobacco manufacturers can see brands tarnished, revenues tumble and market capitalisation dented through fake copies of their products.

It is against this global backdrop that holograms are widely deployed as an invaluable weapon in the war on smuggling and counterfeiting. Currently, more than 150 billion tax stamps, in the form of securely affixed labels, are issued annually by hundreds of provincial and national revenue agencies around the world, indicating that governments and law enforcement continue to see their value as central features in effective revenue gathering strategies. Around a half of these carry a hologram.

Seizing opportunities

Another interesting area of opportunity for holograms is the role they play in protecting cannabis products in the fight against counterfeiting. With reports continuing to swirl of counterfeit cannabis products and the mis-selling of synthetic cannabinoids, which can present a significant health risk to the general public, the need to protect and authenticate genuine products and packaging remains paramount.

In this sector, holography’s evolving role has also been accompanied by the increased use of the security device in combination with other authentication technologies. Track and trace solutions identify the origins and supply route of a product and verify its authenticity, thus fighting back against counterfeit cannabis. In addition, optical security technology has advanced to such a point that when it’s integrated with track and trace it can provide manufacturers with the tools to be fully compliant with legislation, incorporating beneficial features that can help users generate unique sequential, encrypted or random serial numbers, or identify and mark products overtly or covertly either via special self-adhesive labels or directly onto product packaging using a variety of print technologies.

Advances in technology

In the wider context of tackling healthcare counterfeiting product packaging can help to tackle the problem. And packaging featuring security devices can ensure quality and check the distribution and smuggling of illicit products, while items not displaying security devices like holograms can be quickly seized and destroyed. Today, we are seeing advances in application, film coating and manufacturing technology which is rolling back the boundaries for the use of a new generation of advanced holograms, facilitating fresh levels of visual effect, brand enhancement, regulatory compliance and anti-counterfeiting.

Counterfeit components are also a big problem for diesel engine OEMs and aftermarket parts suppliers in the Middle East. The exact cost of global counterfeiting is unknown but a recent seizure of aftermarket parts in Dubai by the Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection (CCCP) division of the Dubai government’s Department of Economic Development contained more than 64,000 fake automotive parts worth $817,000, largely made up of duplicates of major Japanese brands. The majority of parts seized included nearly 30,000 air and oil filters as well as fan belts, brake systems and valves; they were subsequently destroyed. The damage caused to brand reputation, loss of sales and market capitalisation by fake components is incalculable, not to mention the risks to public health and safety.

Sign of quality

Holograms used for these applications protect brands’ customers from worrying safety, quality and reliability issues surrounding sub-standard counterfeit products. Innovation in this form can help also to remove the financial risks associated with the counterfeiters’ use of sub-standard materials and tolerances leading to shortened equipment life, higher running costs and potential threat to life through fire or catastrophic equipment failure.

It’s clear that the Middle East heralds exciting development opportunities for holograms with the continued use of the technology across a plethora of industries and sectors. Moreover, the use of well-designed and properly deployed authentication solutions, as advocated by the ISO 12931 standard, enables those with brand protection responsibilities to verify the authenticity of a legitimate product, differentiating it from counterfeits. Even those that carry a fake authentication feature can be distinguished from the genuine item if the latter carries a carefully thought-out authentication solution. The advantages holography offers will only continue as ever more advanced digital and mobile-based technologies gain more and more traction.

The IHMA (www.ihma.org) is made up of more than 80 of the world’s leading hologram companies.