A Single Breath Authenticates Covert Features in New Anti-Counterfeiting Technology

by Scott R. Sabreen, president, The Sabreen Group, Inc.

Counterfeiting threatens the world economy and public health through the production of inferior products that circumvent consumer protection regulatory channels. Among the biggest challenges in fighting counterfeit goods is the need to stay ahead of counterfeiters using new and more sophisticated technologies. The newest generation in anti-counterfeiting utilizes invisible codes that are indelibly inscribed submicron on the product or packaging. Authentication by warm vapor mist is quick for the consumer – a single breath of air reveals hidden images, with no smartphone cameras or special instruments required (Figure 1). This simple phenomenon makes it easy for consumers to avoid being tricked by fake products. The application process does not use any consumables, inks, printers, lasers, labels or holograms.

According to Straits Research, “The global anti-counterfeit packaging market size was valued at USD 118 billion in 2021 and is estimated to reach an expected value of USD 342 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 12.5% during the forecast period (2022-2030).”1 According to Forbes and the Counterfeit Report in 2018, counterfeiting is the largest criminal enterprise in the world, more than drugs and human trafficking. As examples, the FAA estimates that 520,000 counterfeit or unapproved parts are being installed in aircraft each year, and 40% of all online prescription drugs were found to be counterfeit.2 The growth in counterfeit products can be attributed, in large portion, to the fact that counterfeiters employ sophisticated technology in manufacturing and packaging their fake products.

Despite this epidemic problem, there currently are no global standardized anti-counterfeit identification criteria, and efforts to thwart counterfeits have focused primarily on making packaging difficult to imitate. No single anti-counterfeit technology can effectively protect all products and circumstances. A layered approach that combines multiple security features (overt and covert) works the best.

Authentication by vapor mist –
the next generation in anti-counterfeiting technology

Figure 2. Permanent, invisible micro-etched codes temporarily appear when vapor is applied by mist, then rapidly disappear as moisture evaporates. Courtesy of The Sabreen Group.

Counterfeiters can’t replicate what they cannot detect. A new covert optical security anti-counterfeiting and brand protection technology, SNOWLEOPARD™, utilizes invisible security codes that are indelibly inscribed submicron directly onto product and packaging materials.3 Substrates include plastics, thin-polymer films, glass and composites and can be any color, transparent, translucent or opaque. Code types can be fixed or variable alphanumerics, sequential serialization, graphics and logos. The creation of codes is part of the intricate science which prevents counterfeit. Authentication by way of invisible codes briefly appears when vapor is applied by warm mist, then quickly disappears in seconds as moisture evaporates (Figure 2). Ultrafast appearance/disappearance of the code is an additional deterrent to replication. Invisible codes can be located anywhere on the product, in any size or orientation. This flexibility makes it almost impossible for criminals to locate if they are looking for repeating patterns. Authentication in the field is fast – no smartphone cameras, instruments, lights or tools are needed. Authentication in most applications simply is performed on the product via “exhaled vapor breath” to reveal the invisible code. Equally easy to use are small, inexpensive steam humidifiers.

The application process is non-contact and there are no consumables, inks, labels, printers or lasers, unlike other vapor mist technologies which use expensive preprinted polymer films. Module-based automation systems accommodate any production volume and almost any size of part, three-dimensional, cylindrical, thin-film web rolls, including temperature-sensitive ESD electronics. The application is ideal for plastics manufacturers – particularly those that perform value-added decorating and finishing. Vapor mist anti-counterfeiting can be a standalone technology solution or part of a multi-layered approach.

How secure are common security technologies?

Traditional “physical” security features include hologram stickers, color-shifting inks, chemical taggants, security graphics, micro marking and printing. Newer e-commerce digital solutions include QR codes, RFID and NFC chips, which are connected to cloud-based platforms. While no single anti-counterfeiting technology can protect all products and circumstances, there are important security and safety considerations. Remember, that criminal organizations employ the same physical and digital manufacturing methods as the original producer to outsmart consumers and brand owners. To be effective, all methods must be safe for use.

Let’s examine how industry experts and law enforcement assess security risks of two widely utilized technologies: holograms and QR codes.

Optical variable devices (OVDs) including the category of holograms are overt images that exhibit various optical effects depending on the amount of light striking the OVD and the angle in which the OVD is viewed. The construction typically is composed of a transparent film (as the image carrier), plus a reflective backing layer, which typically is a very thin layer of aluminum or copper, to produce a feature characteristic hue. Additional features may be added by the process of partial de-metallization whereby some of the reflective layer is chemically removed to give an intricate outline to the image.

OVDs have been used as a distinguishing feature on packaging for decades with the assumption that consumers will have confidence in the product legitimacy when seeing the sticker feature. The use of OVDs and their effectiveness has come under scrutiny by some industry experts. In a 2019 published article by Securing Industry, the author states, “The increasing trend among brand owners, and even some governments, is to walk away from holograms as a security product.”4 Key reasons cited include the ease of duplication; cost to educate the public to properly verify and scrutinize specific optical effects; and a hologram is a passive entity, not a true authentication process. Cheap replicas of expensive holograms readily are produced by criminals. The vast majority of consumers cannot distinguish between an original and an unauthorized fake. Criminals merely need to produce passable look-alikes. Experts believe that the effectiveness of holograms can be improved when combined with more advanced methods of verification.

QR codes

QR (Quick Response) codes are square barcodes that a smartphone can scan and read to provide quick access to a website, download apps and direct payments to intended recipients. The wide acceptance of this protocol is easy for the consumer and ideal for cybercriminals to outsmart the system. Universal access offer bad actors easy methods of copying for purposes of fraud. Cybercriminals use several types of QR code exploits, phishing (quishing) to steal credentials and QRLjacking to install malware. Hackers simply make their own QR code and delicately place it on top of legitimate codes, with most users unable to spot any maleficence.

In January 2022, the FBI and cybersecurity experts warned about QR code privacy and security concerns.5 Privacy also is a concern, and many consumers do not want third-party tracking of their personal data. The security of QR codes can be enhanced by using multifactor authentication such as verification codes and additional security features. Not all QR codes used for anti-counterfeiting are equally effective; some have better security features than others. The more robust QR code platforms are more expensive to set up on a per-code cost basis.

Despite criticism, OVDs and QR codes have a strong presence and continue to provide authentication protections. Different anti-counterfeiting technologies aim to meet specific and complex product protection needs.


Counterfeiting threatens the global economy and public health through the production of inferior products that circumvent consumer protection regulatory channels. A new covert technology utilizes invisible codes that are indelibly inscribed submicron on the product, with authentication by vapor breath. Experts agree the most robust anti-counterfeiting authentication solutions combine multiple overt and covert methods. This strategy is ideally suited for plastics manufacturers that perform value-added decorating and finishing operations.

This article presents anti-counterfeiting methods. Comments and conclusions must be viewed as general to each group of technologies, and, inevitably, there will be exceptions with, and omission of, some more special applications. Some of these technologies are trademark brands and/or protected by international patents and may be available only from licensed suppliers.

Scott R. Sabreen is founder and president of The Sabreen Group, Inc., an engineering company specializing in secondary plastics manufacturing processes – product security, laser marking, surface pretreatments, bonding, decorating and finishing. Sabreen has been pioneering technologies and solving manufacturing problems for over 30 years. He can be contacted at 972.820.6777 or by visiting www.Sabreen.com. For information regarding SNOWLEOPARD™, contact The Sabreen Group.


  1. Research, Straits. “Anti-Counterfeit Packaging Market Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Forecast 2030.” Straits Research, 2 Aug. 2022, https://straitsresearch.com/report/anti-counterfeit-packaging-market.
  2. Shepard, Wade. “Meet the Man Fighting America’s Trade War against Chinese Counterfeits (It’s Not Trump).” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 May 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2018/03/29/meet-the-man-fighting-americas-trade-war-against-chinese-counterfeits/?sh=5bd91d621c0d.
  3. Sabreen, Scott. “Breakthrough Anti-Counterfeit Technology for Plastics Products.” Plastics Decorating, 13 February 2019, https://plasticsdecorating.com/articles/2019/breakthrough-anti-counterfeit-technology-for-plastics-products/.
  4. “The Case against Holograms: How a Once-Lofty Security Technology Has Fallen.” SecuringIndustry.com, 27 Feb. 2019, https://www.securingindustry.com/pharmaceuticals/the-case-against-holograms/s40/a9353/#.Y1rp2HbMKUk.
  5. “Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3): Cybercriminals Tampering with QR Codes to Steal Victim Funds.” Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) | Cybercriminals Tampering with QR Codes to Steal Victim Funds, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 18 Jan. 2022, https://www.ic3.gov/Media/Y2022/PSA220118.