Nigeria is test-bed for online vs. offline fakes detection

The advent of an RFID-based drug authentication system reported earlier this month could make Nigeria the proving ground for offline vs. online anti-counterfeiting techniques.

The offline, radio frequency identification system is the work of collaborators GlobalPCCA, a drug-making technology venture; RFID chip maker Verayo; and scanner maker SkyeTek. Drugmakers affix RFID tags to drug packaging and users scan the tags with pen reader, which provides red-light/green-light verification.

It's a technology alternative to the online service launched in Nigeria earlier this year by Merck and Sproxil, a tech provider for brand protection in emerging markets. In the online service, users send a text message containing the ID code revealed when they scratch the Sproxil label; the code is forwarded to a server for verification and users receive a yes/no verification by reply text.

Sproxil founder Ashifi Gogo, of course, advocates the online "bring your own device" concept. The world is only going to get more interconnected, Gogo says in an email. And as technology providers continue their development of product security systems, brand owners are keen on ways to leverage the greater interconnectivity.

Gogo says that consumers will ultimately come to expect more than yes/no authentication. "If a product is genuine, are [consumers] buying it at the best possible price in their neighborhood? If it's fake, can the system automatically inform law enforcement agencies?" He also sees online verification systems playing a role in recalls through consumer alerts.

Concerning offline verification, such as that provided in GlobalPCCA's RFID system, Gogo acknowledges benefits. A pen reader provides greater accuracy in detecting fakes than direct product verification techniques. "Devices like pen readers, magnifying glasses, microscopes or polarizing sheets can help take the guess-work out of human interpretation of holograms, specialty inks and polarization-sensitive security markings," he says.

And though offline authentication tools can be used in remote areas where cell phones may not work, their benefit may be lessened due to lower literacy levels that would hamper consumers' use them, he says. And yes/no pen readers themselves may provide an opening for counterfeiters, who may produce fakes of the readers.

GlobalPCCA's goal is a system that provides offline verification, requiring no use of the Internet or cellular networks, and that can work away from a stationary power source. Another GlobalPCCA goal is synergy of the authentication technology with African drugmakers. The organization supports a project that helps Nigerian hospitals and clinics produce their own drugs. Given volume cost reductions in chips, the RFID system would provide a means for certifying the raw materials used by local healthcare facilities in compounding and drug production.