Jan 14, 2023 - Economy

Using iPhones to detect fakes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Every object in the world has a unique fingerprint — and most modern cellphones have good enough cameras that they can read it. The implications, for almost any industry that deals with physical things, could be revolutionary.

Why it matters: Modern technology from Alitheon, a startup in Bellevue, Washington, provenance and authentication can be applied to specific mass-produced objects — be they sneakers, pharmaceuticals, car parts, art prints, t-shirts, or even bars of gold. And it can all be done just by taking photos.

The big picture: Fakes can be deadly, when it comes to pharmaceuticals or precision-tooled components. They can also cost companies billions of dollars in foregone revenue and reputational damage. But — until now — identifying fakes has been laborious, expensive, error-prone, and time-consuming.

  • In the case of some "gray market" goods, where an existing production line is used to create off-the-books unofficial versions of a product, identifying the real thing can actually be impossible.
  • Some companies try to add anti-counterfeiting devices, like holograms, to their products — but it turns out those are surprisingly easy to fake.

How it works: All objects are snowflakes, if you look at them carefully enough. Even two seemingly identical highly-polished gold bars have differences that can be picked up by the camera on an iPhone 13.

  • If you can do that, then telling the difference between two pairs of sneakers that came off the production line next to each other is downright trivial — as is matching any given pair of sneakers to the specific shoebox they were packed in, or matching a pill to its blister pack and its pill bottle, each of which can be uniquely identified.
  • The item in question is photographed coming off the production line, and its fingerprint is stored in a database. From then on, anybody can take a photograph of the object, and Alitheon's technology will be able to identify it.

Between the lines: Alitheon prides itself on never having a false positive: It will never mistake a copy for the real thing.

  • There can, of course, be false negatives — if a photo is out of focus, for instance, the fingerprint won't be identifiable, and the software won't be able to confirm that the object is genuine. Most of the time, however, such problems can be fixed just by taking another photograph.

The bottom line: Apps like Uber were built on the capabilities of the first smartphones, and the fact that we all now carry a geolocated computer everywhere we go. More recent smartphones have more impressive capabilities — and are allowing the emergence of companies like Alitheon, which could never have existed without them.

Go deeper: How Alitheon combats art fakes

Go deeper