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  • Part 2: Importance and value of physical security features

    von Prof. Dr.-Ing. Hans Demanowski 3. Dezember 2020

    As soon as we have evaluated all basic figures, as described in part one of this article, and as soon as we have a consolidated idea of the cost, we may spend for Brand Protection, we can start to think of technical means.

    In general, there are different categories of security measures. There are feature based security measures as well as data based and mixed technologies, containing both. One good example for the latter is the new security directive for pharmaceuticals in Russia, as well as in other parts of the world. In order to fight drug counterfeiting, certain pharmaceuticals must be secured by encrypted codes and, in addition, by physical security features, which can be directly checked. While the physical features provide authenticity of the product, the security code delivers plausibility in a certain frame context. The equivalent law(s) in the European Union has, by the way, a relevant security gap, as it leaves the final security check exclusively to the Pharmacist instead to the final Customer. This is driven by the improper assumption, that all Pharmacists must be honest people (which applies, no doubt, to the broad majority of them, but possibly not to every single exponent of the whole group), who would never sell counterfeit (or, for example, re-imported) drugs. This is a risky guess, which has nothing to do with security, especially in the time of internet Drugstores and growing competition. It would have been much safer to enable also the final Customer, too, to check the authenticity. Another gap is the limitation of the check to prescription drugs (EU) respectively higher priced drugs (Russia and others), because it does not stop the forgery of cheaper and over the counter (OTC) drugs.

    Taking a closer look to the physical security features, it can be distinguished between, at least, three general groups: The public features, with no need for any checking equipment, features which can be checked using simple inspection tools, such as UV lamps and magnifying glasses, and forensic features, which need sophisticated testing procedures and equipment, such as sensors or analytical labs.

    Public features are the best choice as soon as you wish the broad public to check the authenticity of products, and where ever the inspection shall be done without any equipment. This is a typical situation, because people do not use to carry testing equipment with them. Just try the self check: how many UV lamps, magnifiers or testing sticks do you carry, right now? Most probably none of them. Public features have the big advantage that they can be checked by human senses, without any equipment. These senses are sight (optical features of all kind), touch (tactile features), hearing (sounds), smell (olfaction) and taste. Taste must be excluded, in most cases, by hygienic reasons, sounds and smells are often difficult to identify.

    But there are some prominent examples even for features using sound or smell. Some kind of baby food create a typical sound (detention of caps), when opened, which delivers a good hint on integrity of the package (“first opening”), but, at the same time, a proof of originality of the product, by its characteristic sound. These caps are made using especially designed alloys – different caps would create another sound.
    Good examples for the use of smell are packages of a certain US Smartphone and Computer Company, exuding a typical smell when opened (which is, by the way, the same smell as prevails in the flag ship stores of this Company). The absence of the typical smell would confuse the Consumers and make them sceptical. Of course, the smell is meant, first of all, as marketing instrument, but with this interesting side effect of counterfeit protection. Another good example are some banknotes, including Russian Roubles, having also (especially when quite new) a typical smell, which wakes people off, when missing – they will then check more security features to be sure. Anyway, smell and sound are niche applications.

    The most important group of public features are optical features, and in the era of high performance copying machines, optically variable devices (OVD), which cannot be copied in their full variety of visual effects, contained (appearing under different viewing angels and light conditions, only, while the copier has only one light and only one viewing angle). Many of these features have been developed from the late 1980s, when colour copiers (and desktop colour printers) became cheap common commodities. Well known examples are holograms and optically variable (colour shifting) inks. Others are very old, such as watermarks and security threads in the paper. Before the use of such features, a due diligence of the suitability is necessary. This includes at least three aspects: the security effect, the cost and the durability (stability) of the feature.

    The security effect is determined by two major attributes: The possibility to forge (simulate) the respective feature and its recognition factor. If easy to forge and/or hard to identify, the security effect is low.

    Some scientific evaluations of banknote security features have shown surprizing results. Banknotes have a high face value, a widely recognized risk of counterfeiting, are well known and bear a lot of good security features. They have been found, therefore, representative for the evaluation of security features in general, including such for other purposes, as Brand Protection, too.

    During a study by Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin, a representative group of people has been asked which (Euro) banknote security features they know (the survey referred to the first series of Euro banknotes). Only two public features, the watermark (ca. 80%) and the hologram (ca. 55%), have been familiar to more than 50% of all participants (all other features were reported much below 40%, sometimes below 15%). Between 29% and 31% (depending on the kind of question) of all interviewees had never (!) checked a banknote, about 37% check seldom, 16% “sometimes”, 15% “when in doubt” and only 3% always, while nearly 60% agreed that “our banknotes are insecure”, which is a (very typical!) intrinsic contradiction.

    These (and other) evaluation results have direct impact on the security effect of protective features, because features which are unknown to the broad public are not suitable to be checked by average people. They need, at least, broad marketing campaigns to advertise them, which increases the cost. A good – and at the same time bad – example for such marketing could be found on the last series of Dutch Guilder banknotes. Good: there was a checking instruction for four important security features directly printed on the banknotes, side by side with the features, bad: the print was a microtext, which requires a magnifier to read and thus was probably ignored by the most.

    Watermarks, which are common to a majority, are not suitable for many applications in packaging, as they can be only created in (thin) paper-based materials and as they need transmitted light for the check, which is not realistic for most of packages with opaque contents.

    How about the other widely known feature, the holograms? They are difficult to identify, as they contain a lot of complicated picture information, which is changing depending on the viewing angle and light conditions. Insofar, holograms are not really distinct and thus not the best choice for product security. During his active duty in banknote industry, the Author used to ask everybody he met in the European Central Bank to tell the three picture levels in the 50 Euro holograms (first series), but nearly no one was able to say, unless these people were creating, handling and administrating the banknote production and distribution. The less, average people can say, which information must be contained in the genuine hologram. But if they cannot clearly identify the feature, it cannot be secure. Normal people use to concentrate on the diffractive effect of holograms – but this is a common effect of all holograms, including such being sold for decorative purposes in paper shops. At the same time, the diffraction of holograms absorbs a lot of attention to a feature, which is difficult to check, instead of checking other, more reliable features. Taking into account that holograms – at least on banknotes – are the most expensive single security feature, the point balance of holograms looks pretty poor, the more, as holograms are quite damageable under hard mechanical and chemical conditions (such as in logistic chains) which makes identification even harder, when, for example, crumpled. In summary, holograms might be a good example for lobbying by the respective salesmen, but less for good counterfeit protection.

    Better effects can be expected by optically variable inks, which are more stable and deliver more distinct checking results (e.g. a clear colour switch between two colours), but they need to be promoted and are expensive, too. Much less expensive are so called latent images, which can be created by embossing of fine lines with certain patterns. While they are invisible when looked at from top, they disclose hidden pictures when viewed under flat angels or under flat illumination. The big advantage is the option to integrate them just into a punching machine for card board boxes with no necessity for an extra workstep, but they need broad advertising, because they are nearly unknown to the public, which increases the cost.

    In general, the recognition factor of optical features is widely overestimated. As soon as you have to identify a single copy without possibility to compare it to a genuine one, it becomes really difficult to decide. Broad experiments in Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin have provided evidence, that even rough alterations of an original are not found by average people. For the research work, an original box was altered in the way that the main picture on its front was enlarged in steps of 25%. Test persons, who had seen the original box, had to decide if it is still the same on the next and the following days. Even after enlarging the picture to 200%, almost one third of the people did not see any difference! Similar effects occurred when some letters in the product´s name had been altered. Another experiment, using the widely known “nutella” hazelnut-nougat cream, led to the same findings. Even when the hazelnut on the label had been changed for a walnut, people did not see any difference. Don´t expect too much from sophisticated optical features, whereas people do not see even most eye-catching deviations!

    Tactile features have a higher value as one would expect, because they are unconsciously checked, in many cases. Review your own behaviour in a super marked cashpoint waiting line. Most probably you take a very short look on the banknote (just to identify the face value by colour), without checking any security features. But you are moving and feeling the banknote between your fingers all the time, while waiting, and you would mention, if the tactility is somehow different from your experience. For example, a colour copy is much smoother than a real banknote – you would immediately feel this unusual touch (and then, probably, try to check more security features to be sure). The big security value of tactile features consists of the check without intention, it is an automatic test! But there are only rare chances to use similar effects in packaging, alas. You can emboss characteristic surface structures to boxes, you can use flock coating to achieve unusual tactility – wherever you see a chance to create unique surfaces, you should do.

    The second general group of physical security features (features for simple checking tools) has the big disadvantage, that people normally will not carry the needed equipment with them. This applies even to some state authorities like Customs, who declare to be unable to carry all kind of equipment with them all the time. Don`t even hope for average people! No tools means no check. Save the money! There are only few cases, where such features make sense, for example, when you don`t trust your final Customers and Dealers and therefore send out own inspectors (at high cost!) for hidden checks at points of sale. They can be equipped with the necessary tools and use them. For the most of other purposes, such features are totally useless, which is especially sad, as there are really beautiful features on the market, using fascinating physical or chemical effects. But: no check in the field – no security, don`t waste money for tests which will never be used. For this reason, no more technical details of this group of features will be explained in this article.

    High end features, the third group, are very difficult to counterfeit (but can, in some cases, really easy be manipulated!), they are foreseen for forensic purposes and, as a rule, you need a good lab with expensive equipment. This can be special tints in the print, such as infrared transparent inks, up-conversion inks, which are excited in certain wavelengths of light or by very short waves, magnetic features, such as hard and soft magnetic particles in printing inks or other parts of the package, hidden structures of the used materials themselves (for example random fibre structures in paper and cardboard), biological markers and so on.

    Such features can be integrated into the packages and might be checked, when the authenticity of a product is in doubt, for example after a Customers claim. The Brand Owner can also buy random products from the market and analyse, to find out if certain Dealers or sales channels are reliable or not.

    High level security features come, as a rule, with high cost – for the feature itself, for application, for checking equipment and for the needed infrastructure, as, for example, own Inspectors who are sent to market places.

    As soon as it is impossible to count the total quantity of features all over the process (for example of liquids which cannot be counted by pieces), starting with creation of the features, their application, use and disposal, they are potentially unsecure. If you are not sure about the total quantity of features and their use, it is possible, that the bad guys have access and produce counterfeits, using genuine security features from original sources. This applies to all kinds and levels of security features. Therefore, you need to count and document the disposition of security features all the time, and you must not throw surplus or damaged features away – they have to be duly destructed, before sending them to waste. Also storage and transport conditions must be secure, to avoid that features could be stolen and misused.
    Features which cannot be counted (e.g. liquids) are especially sensitive. This applies even to high level features. One example: Biological codes (producing detectable antibodies, when exposed to especially designed chemicals) have been used to mark branded fuels by adding them to the original. But the bad guys just deluted the original gasoline by adding cheap open market fuel. The biological markers were still found after all, just in a lower concentration, but enough to prove that the fuel was “genuine”. This was a typical illustration for the wrong use of a good feature.

    Last but not least, it is necessary to consider all kind of law, before using security technologies. Most UV luminescent inks contain, for example, endowed zinc sulphides, which can be in contradiction to food security law, depending on the place and manner of application. Many chemical (and biological) indicators, e.g. in card board for boxes or in printing inks, could be excluded by similar reasons.

    Once again, it becomes obvious, that the creation of security is a complex task with many – partially contradicting – aspects, which must be taken into account.

    The third and last part of this article will consider data based concepts and new channels of distribution and their special security demands.

    by Prof. Dr. Hans Demanowski