The array of neon colors, glittering on a flimsy strip of foil, is almost blinding. The colours illuminate a vertical row of five 5s, each in a unique set of pastels – green on purple, green on orange, coral on purple, and so on. Tilt the foil 45 degrees, however, and three of the 5s become the symbol for the euro, in different colours than before. Tilt again, and the strip is solid silver, with no colours or neon, with the 5s and euro symbols barely visible.
The glittery foil strip is attached to a 5-euro note, but it isn’t merely a beautiful decoration or trompe l’oeil gimmick. It’s an anti-counterfeiting feature called a kinegram – a souped-up cousin to the hologram. Canada and the U.S. rely on this little piece of fancy foil to protect their borders, government officials, and a wide variety of official documents.
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and OVD Kinegram, the small, Swiss-based company that makes the complex foils, the Canadian government uses these features on visas, permanent resident cards (required by those with permanent resident status to re-enter the country), so-called “generic documents” (officially called IMM 1442 and used for various temporary purposes), and Certificate of Indian Status Identity Cards.
When U.S. citizens use passport cards instead of regular passports to cross by land or sea into Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, they are flashing kinegrams.
The U.S. government also puts these security foils on the “trusted traveler” cards (NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST) that Canadian and American citizens who go undergo pre-clearance can use when travelling between the two countries; special border crossing cards for Mexican citizens; employee identification cards for Congress and several federal agencies; and congressional police IDs.
The states of Georgia, Massachusetts, and North Carolina have the foils on their drivers’ licenses. And some of the passes to President Barack Obama’s inauguration were protected by these ingenious gizmos.
Outside North America, OVD Kinegram claims its foils can be found on 17 national currencies besides the euro and on various government ID cards, passports, visas, drivers’ licenses, car registrations, alien documents, and residence permits in more than five dozen countries, from Albania to Yemen – including such major clients as Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the 24-nation Schengen border zone in Europe.
It may seem surprising enough that one small, privately-held company would do all this work. What’s even more amazing is that – in the post-September 11 world of terrorism concerns, and with tremendous pressure on U.S. politicians to “Buy American” when it comes to homeland security – Washington DC, Ottawa, and state governments have been willing to entrust so much official protection to a foreign company. OVD Kinegram merely had to set up two plants in North Carolina to perform a minor part of the manufacturing process.
The company says this is because the complex, proprietary technology – layered with a range of security devices – is “virtually impossible to counterfeit,” yet easy for security guards to authenticate.
“Law enforcement officers examine hundreds of government-issued IDs or travel documents each day,” points out John Peters, OVD Kinegram’s head of marketing and sales for government and ID products. “They have typically less than 10 seconds to make an accurate judgment on the authenticity of each document. It is clear that the security features need to be easy to verify.” At the same time, he says, “it’s just as important that the optical effects are unique and extremely difficult to copy.”
A spokesperson for CIC agrees that the kinegram “is highly resistant to forgery and counterfeiting.” She adds, “It produces optical movement effects with crisp and brilliant images and unique security features.”
OVD Kinegram is a subsidiary of a German firm, Leonhard Kurz & Company, which began life in the 1890s making decorative gold leaf. Kurz manufactures the security film for financial products – mainly credit cards and banknotes – in a plant in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, while OVD Kinegram produces the foil for government documents in the picturesque, 750-year-old Swiss town of Zug. Since the manufacturing process is the same, each plant can backstop the other. The company also makes protective seals for nongovernmental, nonfinancial products such as watches, medicines, CDs, and alcoholic beverages.
As a private business, Kurz won’t reveal its sales in dollars or volume. Officials will say only that there are 16 subsidiaries – including a U.S. manufacturer of polymer film, Hastings Company of Philadelphia, Penn., which Kurz acquired in 1972, plus the special company that was established to run the North Carolina operations – and 10 manufacturing facilities.
The first North American products were U.S. passports in 1993 and the Canadian generic document in 1994.
The product starts with what’s called a hot-stamping foil. Company officials say this is built up in ultra-thin layers, somewhat the same way a semiconductor is created: first a removable polyester layer, then a protective coating, then an embossing layer with optical security inlays (more on that in a minute), then a metallic layer, and finally an adhesive coating. The foil is attached to the passport, banknote or other end-product by heat and pressure – the part of the processing that’s done in the U.S. for the American government clients. If someone were to try to pry off the foil, the company says the tampering would be obvious.
Such foil is hardly revolutionary. Indeed, hot-stamp foils are often used as decorations on greeting cards, book covers, and cell phones, among other consumer products, and are combined with ordinary holographic images in packaging materials to protect sensitive goods like auto parts, pharmaceuticals, DVDs and computer software from counterfeiting and tampering.
It’s the second part, the OVD portion of the company name, that provides the real protection. OVD stands for “optically variable device” – that is, the optical inlays in the embossing layer of the hot-stamp foil, which Kurz began making nearly three decades ago. (Kinegram is the brand name for these devices.)
In essence, OVDs involve a variety of high-resolution, vector-graphic designs and special effects, usually engraved on the foil with lasers. For instance, one feature can make the image seem to move or even switch shapes entirely. On the North Carolina drivers’ license, there’s a biplane – symbolizing the first flight by the Wright Brothers, which took place on the North Carolina coast – that appears to fly across the card. Another feature, the “180° diffractive watermark,” reverses the light-dark contrast when the card is tilted. Then there’s the “surface relief effect,” which makes the image seem to protrude off the flat surface of the document. Other protective elements might include microtext, readable only with a magnifying glass; nanotext, readable only with a microscope; and demetalization, which removes individual parts of the kinegram surface.
Peters, the marketing chief, claims that standard holograms can’t encompass the same advanced technology. “The kinegram distinguishes itself due to its high brilliance – the image literally jumps out at you,” he says. The company also asserts that its complex technology is impossible to photocopy, imitate with holograms, or strip off.
Customers can use the kinegrams for different parts of their documents. For instance, according to the company, the devices are used to protect the photos on the U.S. passport and trusted traveler cards, while the Massachusetts drivers’ license has a demetalized kinegram patch and the North Carolina license takes yet a third approach, putting a transparent kinegram overlay on its cards.
Even so, all that high-tech brilliance would do little g