How Invisible QR Codes Combat Counterfeiting

Counterfeit currencyMention QR Codes (quick response codes) and the first thing that comes to mind is the square, squiggly graphic that contains encrypted information in unique pixel configurations to send a smartphone user to a specific website or other information portal.

While traditionally used in marketing, researchers have now found a way to use QR code technology to embed an invisible icon as a deterrent to counterfeiting bank notes and, potentially durable goods.

The invisible code, which can be printed onto paper, glass and a flexible plastic film, becomes visible only under infrared light.

A smartphone can read the code and know if the document or item (say, a Hermes handbag or Rolex watch) is authentic. The fact that the QR code is invisible is also beneficial because it does not affect the appearance of the item on which it is printed.

The formula for invisible QR codes was developed by Jeevan M. Meruga and associate researchers at the University of South Dakota and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and is intended as a means of authentication rather than as information.

Instead of making the QR codes with black ink printed on a white background, the researchers found a way to make the codes with invisible ink that's still visible to a smartphone camera.

The codes are created from tiny nanoparticles combined with blue and green fluorescent ink, printed onto a surface using an aerosol ink jet printer (even a desktop printer will work). The printed QR codes are invisible under ambient lighting conditions, but are readable using a near-IR laser, and were successfully scanned under the laser light using a smart phone.

The researchers first generated a typical QR code using an online QR code generator then converted the code into a file that’s suitable for printing. The process took them 90 minutes, but they estimated that the time factor can be reduced to 15 minutes if done commercially or for mass printing.

Because of its potential to thwart currency counterfeiters, the researchers printed the invisible QR codes on regular paper that was then folded and unfolded 50 times. The code remained readable even after this stress test.

This research demonstrates that QR codes can be used for security purposes and has strong potential to detect fake banknotes and other counterfeiting operations, costing the global economy an estimated $250 billion annually.

(The research was published in the journal Nanotechnology, Volume 23, Number 39 (September 12, 2012), by the Institute of Physics.)

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