Why secure QR codes are the future of anti-counterfeiting

This article walks you through some of the pros and cons of different types of anti-counterfeiting technology; covert vs. overt and physical vs. digital, beginning with an assessment and introduction to secure QR codes.

Why secure QR codes are the future of anti-counterfeiting

How do you protect your customers, brand, and products from counterfeiting? What is important when you’re choosing anti-counterfeiting solutions? Which anti-counterfeiting solution among the many physical and digital anti-counterfeiting technologies available is the right one for your company? This article discusses:

  1. How secure QR codes work as an anti-counterfeiting technology
  2. Covert vs. overt technologies
  3. Physical vs. digital technologies
  4. Examples of how companies are using anti-counterfeiting tools

How secure QR codes work as an anti-counterfeiting technology

Secure QR codes are unlike standard QR codes because they include a copy detection feature. This copy detection feature is the basis for their usefulness as anti-counterfeiting tools. Standard QR codes were designed from the start to be very easy to print and replicate from a source digital file. This, in turn, makes them ideal tools as data carriers. This property is key to making QR codes useful for a wide range of applications, from marketing to logistics and any application where a user needs quick and easy access to online information. Secure QR codes take advantage of those properties but they go a big step forward to add a copy detection layer. Here are a few characteristics of secure QR codes that combine the benefits of QR codes with a copy detection feature for anti-counterfeiting purposes:

At the core of the secure QR code is the copy detection pattern. Secure QR codes include a copy detection pattern secure graphic inserted into the QR code. This QR code can be unique for every product or can be unique at the higher, SKU level. The basic, standard QR code function of leading a user to an informational URL is always an option with secure QR codes. The combination of these features results in the secure QR code: a data carrier with a unique identity. That unique identity is defined in two ways. First of all, secure QR codes are unique in the way they communicate authenticity. Second, the unique identity of a secure QR code can be in the way that it is associated with a unique number in a series. This is called serialization and it is used by non-secure QR codes as well.

The most common use case for serialization with secure QR codes is when a company wants to engage with their consumers in distinct regions using the same labels on products. Language differences or product information that differ across regions are more efficiently and easily managed alongside an authentication function. Secure QR codes offer instant, binary product authentication results but they have been designed to satisfy the requirements of several functions for companies that sell physical products.

It’s important to consider why the copy detection pattern used for an authentication function in secure QR codes is so important to the future of anti-counterfeiting. Perhaps the most important reason is that copy detection patterns for anti-counterfeiting are a very stable technology. With secure QR code copy detection patterns you’re getting high security achieved through already existing production processes. As far as scalability, because secure QR codes are a printing based technology, it is a solution that is straightforward to deploy at scale, compatible with the majority of conventional printing technologies, and is cost-effective compared to other technologies like NFC. You can also choose to use serialization or not to use serialization. Unless you really need the granularity of a unit-level serialization, you can just use them for authentication of products. Secure QR codes are easily connected to the existing tools companies use for marketing and supply chain such as traceability systems or existing e-commerce platforms. ERP system integration is also expected and straightforward.

Interactions with these codes create new data points and these add up to business intelligence. This can be used to identify suspicious activity or movement of goods, provide user demographics and user engagement, and know more about your consumers in a GDPR compliant or other privacy regulation compliant way.

Covert vs. Overt Technologies

Overt anti-counterfeiting is typified by a feature than anyone can observe without special tools, devices, or training. An overt anti-counterfeiting tool is difficult to reproduce and may include physical security features such as a tamper-proof seal. Some examples of overt anti-counterfeiting are holographic labels, color-shifting inks, and micro texts.

Covert anti-counterfeiting solutions contrast with overt anti-counterfeiting in that they are not immediately discernible or observable. They are only visible with specialized tools or techniques. Covert anti-counterfeiting tools are hidden to avoid obvious identification: this is part of the strategy. Some examples of covert anti-counterfeiting are special inks, UV ink that only shines under ultraviolet light, magnetic inks, DNA taggants, and patterns of dots that are distributed randomly across a graphical design. Those are known as sparse patterns. You will also see some copy detection patterns included in the covert anti-counterfeiting category. 

Physical vs. Digital

Physical anti-counterfeiting tools are overt. Examples of these are commonly used on currency such as holograms, embossed text, watermarks. Digital anti-counterfeiting tools require a dedicated digital or electronic device that is used to check authenticity. RFID readers can serve this purpose if they are encrypted, but special inks are probably the more common type that are read through an electronic device such as a UV lamp that reveals special text. Magnetic ink and DNA taggants largely work the same way. There are some new technologies, such as DNA taggants and secure QR codes that have taken advantage of the ubiquity of mobile phones, although the difference between those two examples is that secure QR codes are several years into production and are even used by some of the world’s biggest companies.

Likely the greatest advantage and reason why companies use physical anti-counterfeiting tools is the price. The lack of special tools needed and ease of use are additional, expected advantages. That said, although physical anti-counterfeiting tools are very common, it’s surprising that with many of them, including holograms, an authenticity claim is far from certain. If you consider holograms as an example, an authenticity check with the naked eye expects that the viewer is familiar with what the hologram should look like if it is authentic. That assumption is a major problem. Holograms alone also don’t provide for easy access to data such as a URL that can be the basis for additional functionality. When compared to secure QR codes, the number of times a hologram is viewed, assessed, or interacted with is a mystery while secure QR codes provide another level of non-intrusive customer or user data.

Digital anti-counterfeiting tools offer the advantage of high security and reliability with a binary result, in other words is this item genuine or not. When digital anti-counterfeiting tools are combined with the universal familiarity with smartphones, numerous advantages are introduced. supply chaint traceability, consumer engagement, and regionally targeted messaging, including for compliance purposes, all become possible. This is why secure QR codes, with their digital anti-counterfeiting features, are so useful and important as an anti-counterfeiting tool. However, if tools like secure QR codes require additional steps, downloading a special app for example, then this additional barrier can nullify some of these advantages. Fortunately, secure QR codes work without a special app. Until an anti-counterfeiting tool can lower barriers to use, it may remain irrelevant. For this reason it’s very interesting to see what’s happening with DNA taggants but important to use what is most reliable at the moment.

DNA taggant technology is decades old, is secure due to the difficulty in replicating tags but until now consumer access to authentication tools have not materialized. Security holograms also suffer from this same problem, although perhaps not to the same degree. It’s still ironic that holograms are considered useful for authenticity purposes considering their weaknesses.

Examples of companies using anti-counterfeiting tools

Motul is a major producer of motor oils and lubricants. They produce oil for high-performance engine products and due to their pervasiveness in the industry have decided to provide their customers with a layer of reassurance with regard to protection from counterfeiters. Companies like Motul have invested large amounts in scientific research and product development so it is only natural that they also want to assure their customers that they are always getting the benefit of that investment while protecting their intellectual property. Motul has used secure QR codes as an anti-counterfeiting feature but have also used the same tool to enable consumer engagement all over the world.

One way that Motul has implemented secure QR codes is by applying a label on top of the product cap. These labels are used for product authentication using copy detection via the secure QR code but as mentioned, they are also ideal as a way to facilitate loyalty and engagement programs. This is an important point because while some regions may want anti-counterfeiting features on their products, other regions will want that function as well as a data carrier based beacon for engagement with consumers or even retailers.

Dupont has also applied a secure QR code on their water filter labels, in tandem with other overt anti-counterfeiting features. These include holograms, special prints, and other security features. Dupont also runs their own dedicated mobile app that uses the secure QR code for loyalty programs in addition to product authentication using copy detection.

Finally, yet another example of a company that uses secure QR codes for anti-counterfeiting is Duesberg gloves. Duesberg has applied a label that features secure QR codes on their natural glove products. Anyone that buys and handles Duesberg gloves can observe secure QR codes on the packaging and scan, authenticate, and access product use instructions and certification details. Each unique QR code on Duesberg gloves enables traceability and engagement with the Duesberg customers combined with the secure graphic that works for the authentication purposes as a fingerprint for the identity. While Duesberg is able to offer their clients reassurances of product authenticity, Duesberg customers are also receiving product information and other rewards for their effort in scanning the product packaging. This use case should prove to be interesting to other companies that are investigating how secure QR codes for anti-counterfeiting could benefit them.