The new Canadian $100 bill gets released Wednesday (March 17), and that day may mark the beginning of the end for our paper currency. People have lost confidence in our banknotes due to their propensity for being counterfeited, and if this new C-note doesn't remedy the situation, we may all start using $20, $50 and $100 coins.
The Bank of Canada is trying hard to make sure this doesn't happen. If it does, it means the Bank has failed in one of its primary responsibilities - to keep our money safe.
If you don't think counterfeiting is a massive social problem, try spending a $50 or $100 bill somewhere in Toronto. Most stores and restaurants won't take them because they've been burned too many times by jerks with inkjet printers at home. Counterfeit bills are worth far less than the paper they're printed on, because they come with a heaping dose of bitter aggravation.
"One of our key messages is that the security features are reliable and easy to use," says Mike Stockfish, the Bank of Canada's senior regional representative for Ontario. "We're looking at producing a banknote that's much more difficult to reproduce and that Canadians can easily and reliably authenticate."
The Bank has invested millions in embedding state-of-the-art technology into this new bill, and some of its new anti-counterfeiting features are impressive. They include a metallic holographic stripe, a watermarked portrait, a windowed colour-shifting thread and a see-through number. The note also incorporates some familiar security features such as raised ink, fine-line printing and improved fluorescence under ultraviolet light.
But none of this matters if people don't know what to look for, or if people are too lazy to check (which is more often the case). Even though the retail and hospitality sectors are starting to make ultraviolet scanners part of every standard cashier till, involving humans in the verification process means human error. So the Bank is educating people through various media (including the excellent www.maxdbc.net/bofc/). It's also taking the game to the next level.
David Dodge, governor of the Bank of Canada, along with 26 governors of central banks of other industrialized nations, has helped create the international Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group (CBCDG). This organization's primary mission is to spread the gospel of anti-counterfeiting technology. Its methods are mostly unknown, but a startling revelation by Adobe Systems in January led to widespread speculation about them.
Adobe Photoshop CS, the newest version of the world's most popular image manipulation software, includes technology provided by the CBCDG that prevents its users from importing images of new currency. When a user tries to scan in a new $20 U.S. bill, for example, the process aborts and a Web browser opens, directing the user to www.RulesForUse.org, a Web site with information about international counterfeiting laws. The subtlety of this morality lesson is missed by no one.
This issue flared up on a discussion board on Adobe.com in January, and then the Slashdot effect happened - the geek elite of the Internet noticed. Adobe reluctantly went public about the technology shortly thereafter. They admitted that it was provided by the CBCDG in what Kevin Connor, Adobe's director of product management for professional digital imaging, described as a "black box" in an interview with Wired. Even Adobe doesn't know precisely how it works, said Connor.
Stockfish can't comment about whether or not the new Canadian $100 bill (or the new $50 and $20, which are being issued later this year) will contain the sophisticated pattern this software is programmed to recognize.
"There are overt security features that [the Bank] talks publicly about for the purposes of the general population to authenticate banknotes," he says, "and then there are features we don't talk about publicly."
Unfortunately, the software can't discriminate between a user with malevolent intent and one who's working within the terms of legitimate fair use. It shuts everybody down, like a censor on a big power trip. And every computer between yours and the one hosting the Rules For Use Web site knows you've been naughty.
On a macroscopic scale, this software replaces a copyright symbol that lost most of its power in the last digital decade. With this development, there's copyright for the plebeians, and then there's copyright for the world's governments.
Enforcement of the latter will be a serious, subliminal effort that permeates all levels of consumer technology.