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Security &



& Trust


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section heading icon     prevention

This page considers forgery prevention.

It covers -

A more detailed note on 'security paper' and other mechanisms to protect the integrity of documents is here.

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As preceding pages have suggested, there is no 'silver bullet' solution to the diverse range of forgeries and frauds, particularly a solution that stops all fraud.

Instead, it may be most accurate to talk of forgery 'inhibition' rather than 'prevention'. Public/private sector enforcement bodies should be viewed as engaging in a dynamic relationship, with criminals for example

  • adopting new technologies (eg 'cooking' ceramics with X-rays to muddy thermoluminescence testing)
  • defeating new security measures by incorporating legitimate authenticity labels or using illicitly obtained legitimate security paper (eg blank passports)
  • relying on lags in checking data
  • leveraging the incompatibility of databases.

section marker     tools

Some industries have been able to take a pro-active approach to reduction of opportunities for forgery and facilitation of its detection.

These include issuers of cheques, passports and other official documentation - much of which features

  • advanced security paper (eg modern versions of traditional threads and watermarks), with holograms and 'two dimensional barcodes' and/or is resistant to alteration
  • 'laser inks' that fluoresce under examination (eg for quick identification of legitimate documents rather than digital copies)
  • a range of biometric and other tools, given recognition that although one data set might be corrupted, matching of data against a number of identifiers is likely to be valid

In 2005 the federal government in Australia for example announced that a new marriage certificate would feature "special inks" and "a unique number on the reverse that enables each certificate to be traced". The US adopted optically variable ink (OVI) for its banknotes in 1996: turn a bill one way and the ink appears bronze-green, turned the other way the ink looks black.

Some arts/crafts organisations have sought to signal the identity of high-value objects (or merely leveraging the willingness of stakeholders to believe in high tech cargo-cults) by using 'data dots' or DNA-based labelling, usually accompanied by certification that the item is genuine. One example is the DNA 'authenticity label' for Australian Indigenous paintings and other art, discussed here.

Manufacturers have similarly deployed 'holographic' labels, data dots and other signifiers of authenticity. That identification may have an evidential value for enforcement by businesss and governments during anti-piracy campaigns but is not a sure-fire solution. A genuine label and certificate of authenticity may be transferred from one item to another.

A label might be forged: few consumers have the forensic skills required to determine that the hologram is fake. A label might instead be genuine but unauthorised; one problem in the computer software and recorded music industry for example is the '25 hour production run' where agents of the intellectual property owners run off a few thousand copies of a disk for themselves in addition to legitimate manufacturing.

section marker     deterrence

Those considerations mean that legal regimes traditionally have not relied on technological fixes but have instead sought to deter forgery and shift responsibility, with consumers and intermediaries for example having a role in policing. That approach is consistent with responses to identity crime highlighted here.

Deterrence centres on -

  • punishments for production of forgeries and for knowingly circulating those forgeries, initially an offence against the state but increasingly addressed as part of broader consumer protection and trade practices (including trademark and other intellectual property) arrangements
  • expectations that forgeries/frauds will be detected and that offenders will be identified
  • expectations that offenders will be prosecuted and convicted.

As the preceding pages indicated, the first forgery law (statute and case law) concerned coinage and property documents, particularly wills. The severity of punishments (eg loss of a hand, branding on the forehead or execution) reflected broader penal regimes and considerations such as debasement of coinage being both an insult to the emperor or divinity depicted on the coin and the threat to public order implicit in paying armies with currency that was not legitimate (or that merely was not trusted).

Some mediaeval penalties emphasised didactic values: millers and bakers who had used false weights for example or had adulterated products might be hanged with the lying scales around their neck or burned in their own ovens, counterfeiters were occasionally crushed by sacks of 'true' coins in a variation on traditional pein forte et dure or had molten metal poured down their throats.

The proliferation of anti-forgery statutes in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe reflected shifts to a paper-based economy (bills of exchange, property deeds, the rise of insurance and sharemarkets) along with anxieties about fraud and perceptions that it was effective to address offences through specific legislation rather than broad legislation.

It also reflected the ineffectiveness of much enforcement, with lawmakers in Britain, France, Spain and the more advanced German states recurrently complaining that counterfeiters appeared quicker than they could be hung and that education had resulted in the emergence of a poor but impudent scrivener class adept at altering or concocting documents. Official expressions of anxiety are similar to the 'fear & frenzy' apparent in 1990s responses to online stranger danger, cyberterrorism, filesharing and credit card fraud.


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version of December 2009
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics