Most of us know the Secret Service as the black-suited organization employed to protect the President. But in reality, the service was created toward the end of the Civil War, before Lincoln was assassinated, to crack down on counterfeit currency. Because up to a third of all money at the time was counterfeit.
Fast-forward 150 years: We now have currency that’s carefully engineered to thwart counterfeiters. But thanks to the ubiquity of picture-perfect copiers and printers, coupled with the patience of Peruvian criminals who will actually needle-weave metal security threads right into paper, the Secret Service reports that they expect counterfeiting to increase. And counterfeiting is no longer a problem for money alone. Prescription drugs are also counterfeited–with potentially deadly side effects.
In turn, a lab out of MIT is developing the next wave of anti-counterfeiting technology. They’re using nanocrystals–invisible crystals that measure one billionth a meter–dyed using rare earth elements that glow under UV light. They can stick these crystals to currency, to medical blister packs, and even to art. So in the future, when you want to check the authenticity of an object, all you have to do is pull out your iPhone and a small lens adapter to scan for the otherwise invisible security tags.
What’s cool is that the folks at that MIT lab haven’t presented some one-size-fits-all nanocrystal for use on all authentic things. The crystals can be uniquely patterned–striped in various colors–to distinguish, say, a real $1 bill from a real $5 bill, or a real $1 bill printed in 2015 from a real $1 bill printed in 2016.
Remarkably, there are 1,000 possible combinations for each nanocystal stripe formation (think of it as a letter), and many nanocyrstals can be mixed together on one object (think of these letters as forming words). That means that the combinations of unique thumbprints you can make through striped nanocrystals grows exponentially–it quickly reaches the trillions. We assume that a corresponding app might read these patterns for you and authenticate objects in the cloud.
There’s just one problem: MIT’s technology may be the latest in anti-counterfeiting tech, but it’s fundamentally not that different than most of the anti-counterfeiting technology we use today, at least as far as currency goes. From the old red and blue fibers in America’s cash to the Euro’s holograms, all of these technologies rely on visual cues to distinguish real from fake.
What MIT has done is shrink the process to another scale. It’s not a new paradigm, it’s just a vastly smaller one. And so, as has happened countless times over the last 150 years of visual anti-counterfeiting methodology, the criminals will figure out a way to beat the system. Or they’ll just pass along their fake $50 bills to poorly informed shopkeepers.