U.S. startup Alitheon developed an authentication system named FeaturePrint that has the potential to become one of the most far-reaching innovations, identifying cargo shipments, or luggage of passengers with extreme accuracy. It is based on the knowledge that every item is unique, even gold bars or banknotes, thus always clearly distinguishable from one another and recognizable.
Gold bars are a commodity flown around the world under strictest security requirements on behalf of governments, financial institutions or traders. That’s standard procedure day after day. But
what hardly anyone knows: Gold bars are a preferred target of highly specialized counterfeiters.
The criminals proceed as follows: They drill a hole in the gold ingot, remove about 5 percent of the contents or maybe even more, and fill the cavity with tungsten. Then the hole is sealed again with a thin gold alloy and the deed is done. Since the specific gravity of tungsten is similar to that of gold, there are no differences when weight controlled. Hence, the theft remains undetected.
First tests show superb results
In future, gold bullion counterfeiters face tough times. And they are not the only ones. Also producers of unauthorized spare parts or imitated pharmaceutical items, among others, channeled illegally into the supply chain will easily be identified enabling controllers and authorities to hold them accountable for their doing.
This is made possible by Bellview, Seattle-based newcomer Alitheon. Founded only three years ago by Scot E. Land, the former managing director of Cascadia Capital, and cofounder John Ross, the innovators developed a new authentication program for all kinds of movable objects that’s currently undergoing a practical test by a major U.S. airline. “The results achieved within the first four weeks of the test run are superb,” states Heinrich Grossbongardt, Senior Director European Business Development. “Thanks to the positive experience in authenticating items in Seattle, the carrier already thinks of equipping it’s major U.S. hubs with FeaturePrint,” the manager says, without disclosing the name of the airline. He speaks of an error rate of one in a million for moving objects, once the system is fully operational. In static operation it is better than one in a trillion, so hardly measurable at all.
No two items are exactly alike
Having said this, the question is, what’s so unique about FeaturePrint, what differentiates this authentication scheme from other tools such as RFDI, barcodes or similar methods for securing product integrity?
Alitheon’s answer sounds trivial: every physical object is different, even serially manufactured and at first glance completely identical looking products, states the company.
To verify this singularity the AI and IT experts developed a software that is capable of identifying single items based on their inherently optical features. “Not even a simple sheet of paper resembles another sheet, because the fibers are never identically arranged,” illustrates Mr Grossbongard. “Our technology can distinguish any solid object from even visually identical items based on the object itself,” he says. As each person has unique fingerprints, every physical object has unique surface characteristics that differentiates it from all other items.
Five percent tells it all
All what’s needed to register and authenticate a box, package, bag or even large items such as containers is a smart phone or an industrial camera. After a piece is registered, its characteristics (“FeaturePrints”) are uploaded and stored encrypted in a cloud. The same accounts for authenticating the luggage of air travelers.
If a FeaturePrinted piece is transited at a given airport, the consignment is photographed anew to confirm its identity. Only five percent of an image filed in the cloud is needed for data matching and updating the features, assures Mr Grossbongardt.
This also applies to the arrival of the shipments at their final destination.
In a presentation, Alitheon mentions a number of products that fit their authentication scheme particularly well, such as mechanical and electronic hardware, pharmaceuticals, luxury goods, art, collectables or sensitive documents.
But their portfolio spans much wider, including ID proxies like passports, government issued ID, insurance cards, drivers’ licenses to name but a few.
Track and trace is also an issue, spanning from bags to parcels.
Authentication at high speed
Further to this, Alitheon points out that FeaturePrint is purely based on optical processes. It is therefore immune to interference from electromagnetic waves (WiFi) or magnetic fields.
As to the costs they say that they are fairly low as the scheme works exclusively with components off-the-shelf. And that FeaturePrints can be created or items authenticated in less than one second.
This specific velocity aspect might appeal to package delivery companies. “Each second, up to 40 parcels placed on a conveyor belt can be authenticated,” state Mr Grossbongardt. And he mentions another figure worth to be thought about: “German car manufacturers bemoan the loss of eight to ten billion euros per year, caused by
counterfeit spare parts installed in vehicles by garages and car repair shops.” Illegally and without the mechanic’s knowing most of the time.
Therefore, what’s badly needed, concludes Herr Grossbongardt, is the “consistent authentication of components fitted into vehicles, aircraft and vessels.” It surely would up the spare part maker’s revenues.