Counterfeiting is on the rise, and Europe is not spared by the flood of fake products. Since 2001, EU customs have seized growing numbers of counterfeited goods, reaching 178 million in 2008. Customs enforcement alone is not enough to curb this global trend, so researchers from EU institutes and businesses teamed up to find a solution to the problem. They have developed tools that should empower consumers, distributors, governments and vendors alike to distinguish genuine goods from illegal imitations. The SToP ('Stop tampering of products') project received EUR 2.78 million under the 'Information society technologies' Thematic area of EU's the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Consumers are generally aware of the international commerce of forged goods, such as fake 'designer' watches or high-end handbags that are too cheap to be true. Counterfeiting is also a rising issue for many other, and more sensitive products: toys, cigarettes, cosmetics, electrical equipment, or even spare parts for aeroplanes. Importantly, counterfeit medicines are also gaining ground on the EU markets; for instance, fake Viagra pills are popular, as well as drugs against cholesterol, osteoporosis or hypertension, often produced in India. It is therefore not only a problem of reputation damage and money loss for businesses, but also a potential threat to our health and safety.
The European SToP project brought together several companies affected by counterfeiting, such as aircraft manufacturer Airbus, pharmaceutical company Novartis, as well as luxury goods manufacturers and software developers. The project partners believe that the whole system needs a shift from mere after-the-fact criminal investigations to upstream, system-wide prevention.
'The main business of the security departments of most businesses has been working with police and local authorities to try to shut down internet sites and actual shops selling counterfeit products, yet that addresses only a very small part of the problem,' said SToP coordinator Dr Harald Vogt from the German software company SAP. 'What we demonstrated is an effective combination of technology and organisation, an overall system that can be implemented by businesses without extensive training or extra costs,' he added.
The SToP partners first carried out an extensive analysis of illicit supply and demand, and modelled the journey of an item from design to delivery. They developed relevant tools for businesses, and tested them in specific real-life industry settings. The solutions include radio-frequency identification (RFID) hardware, i.e. tailor-made smart tags and user-friendly readers, plus software to track and manage authentication data, and industry guidelines. This set of tools will help ensure the production, distribution and purchase of authentic goods at every stage of the supply chain.
The SToP researchers tested their technologies on one of the toughest products they could find: a high-end designer wristwatch. Building an RFID chip invisibly into a watch, then passing radio-frequency signals through the watch's metal case was a significant challenge, but 'it turned out to be quite manageable', Dr Vogt recalled. The cost also remained reasonable enough to envisage widespread application.
SToP has already led to real-life applications. In particular, project partner SAP set up a new business (Original1, headquartered in Germany) that will use SToP-inspired technology to deliver anti-counterfeiting services worldwide.