The Layered Look: The Latest Trend in ID Card Security

June 20, 2006
While microprocessors raise the digital security of cards, printing and designs keep up with the high-tech push

Keeping ahead of ID counterfeiters is becoming more and more challenging, but organizations today have an arsenal of sophisticated visual, covert and forensic security tools at their disposal. Through the strategic application of more than one technology, they can apply layer upon layer of security, resulting in the most counterfeit-proof ID cards possible.

What's the problem?

False IDs are easier to make and duplicate than ever. A quick Google search on the Internet reveals dozens of sources eager to share templates for counterfeit documents, raising the quality and accessibility of fake ID cards to levels never before seen. In the past week, the Department of Homeland Security also fell victim to a fake ID used to gain admittance to its facility, as part of a unofficial security "test" by a retired police officer.

The consequences of counterfeit IDs are stunning. Ten million false IDs were confiscated in the United States alone in 2003, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Survey Report of September 2003. That same report cited $47.6 billion in U.S. losses to business and financial institutions caused by fraud and counterfeiting.

Unfortunately, the losses are not just financial. It is no secret that several of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center disaster used false ID cards to gain access to facilities and equipment. In addition, John Malvo, the Washington, D.C., sniper, was caught with fraudulent driver's licenses from three states, which enabled him to purchase materials and rent hotel rooms prior to his attack. And a phony ID card issued to the suicide bomber who blew up the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 enabled him to hire a boat and rent an apartment.

Start with the Basics

Most organizations today recognize the need for at least a couple of basic layers of security, often a magnetic stripe or bar code to encode, transfer and collect data.

Others opt to use smart cards, which contain internal microprocessors or memory chips that perform much like a miniature computer. Today's microprocessor chips can manipulate up to 32,000 bytes of information, while memory chips can hold up to 16,000 bits of data. Smart cards can be designed as either contact cards, which require physical insertion into a card reader, or as proximity cards, which release the card's serial number when held near a card reader. An antenna inside the smart card enables it to communicate.

Despite the technology options that smart cards offer to authenticate a card holder, there are times when eyeing up a card visually is equally important. Security guards stationed a front desk often optically ID the card holders; Event managers need to visually scan a crowd to quickly see who has proper credentials; Power outages or disasters can cause electronic authentication systems to fail. This is where visual security elements on a card can enhance security.

Add a Hologram

Today, there is a tremendous variety of choices when it comes to holographic security, from simple, inexpensive, peel-and-stick holographic seals to forensic nano text, viewable only under high-powered magnification. The more layers of security, the greater the protection.

Many organizations, bound by time and money, start with standard, pressure-sensitive holographic seals, a quick and inexpensive way to add a visual holographic feature to an ID card. These seals contain an adhesive that leaves a disruptive pattern on the card if someone tries to remove them.

For organizations with additional resources, holographic security foils provide the next layer of security. Here a holographic feature (or simply a 2D custom logo, text or graphics) can be hot-stamped onto silver or gold foil and applied to a card or permanently embedded onto a blank card. Choices range from standard 3D holograms to fancier, custom-designed holograms, resulting in a secure card without having to invest in lamination hardware.

Coupling holographic foils with holographic overlaminates provides the ultimate in cross-authenticating layering security. Holographic overlaminates are more expensive than seals and may require a minimum production run of 10,000 images or more. While this cost may be prohibitive for smaller organizations, overlaminates remain the holographic industry's gold standard. Overlaminates are created by applying a clear polyester patch to an already-printed ID card, improving the card's resistance to surface abrasion, dye-migration and tampering. By customizing the holographic image on the overlaminate, organizations can provide yet another layer of security.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

Deciding what type of security element to include in your custom design can be the most difficult part of the layering process. Some elements are visible to the naked eye; others require sophisticated devices to read them.

Overt Visual Security

Popular overt visual security elements are available today and are viewable with the naked eye. They include the following:

  • Morphing Images, either custom or standard, in which two images blend to create a third, giving the illusion of animation,
  • Fine Line Design, which incorporates complex patterns that appear to be moving when viewed at certain angles,
  • Pseudo Color, an element that shows metallic tones when the card is tilted one way and true colors when tilted another,
  • 2D/3D Ribbon, providing a complex background image of flowing ribbons that often interact with other images on the card, and
  • Flip Images, featuring left/right, top/bottom artwork that provides a sophisticated level of animation when the card is tilted.

Covert Visual Security

The next layer in security images can only be seen with a peripheral device to interpret and visualize the image. Such peripherals may include easy-to-source devices such as hand-held magnifying glasses or inexpensive (under $20) laser pens. Training those who are authenticating IDs is important to ensure they know how and where to look for these elements. Two of the most common covert elements are:

  • Hidden Text, sometimes called Laser Text, using invisible alphanumeric type, and
  • Micro Text, placed within a line or an element of artwork.

Forensic Visual Security

Perhaps the most unique is the forensic element of nano text, viewable only under high-powered magnification. Nano text typically involves a string of microscopic alphanumeric type placed within the lines of the artwork. Often one of the repeated words is spelled wrong to provide yet another level of covert detail. To view this type of security feature, lab-level peripherals are needed such as a high-powered microscope. Authentication at this level is on a highly sophisticated basis, with highly trained staff.

What's Next?

While holograms have been around for decades, gaining popularity in the 1960s with the rise of laser technology, they clearly are still providing important layers of ID card security. Yet other forms of even more sophisticated technologies are not far behind.

Biometrics, for example, is no longer a "security element of the future". In 2003, the research firm of Frost and Sullivan predicted that fingerprint and facial recognition biometrics applications would grow to $3.5 billion by 2009. The U.S. Department of Defense is already matching biometric data stored on its Common Access Card with a live image from a biometric sensor, testing the application for future use.

As new technology comes to the market, new laws are being enacted to punish those who seek to falsify ID cards. The Secure Authentication Feature and Enhancement Identification Defense (SAFE ID) Act became law in April 2003. It criminalizes possession or use of authentication features such as watermarks, holograms and other security features to make false IDs.

How secure are your organization's ID cards? Keeping one step ahead of criminal activity is an ongoing challenge, but organizations that embrace a layered approach to security have a much better chance of outsmarting the counterfeiters.

About the author: Alan Fontanella serves as director of product marketing, secure materials for Fargo Electronics Inc., where he stays current on what the manufacturing community is doing to prevent counterfeiting of ID cards and other documents.