Schneier on Security
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April 21, 2010
Personal Code Ink
Remember SmartWater: liquid imbued with a uniquely identifiable DNA-style code? Well, Mont Blanc is selling a pen with uniquely identifiable ink.
Posted on April 21, 2010 at 6:07 AM
• 36 Comments
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Sounds like a nice step in accountability - but on the other hand, didn't we recently learn that DNA samples can be reproduced? So, what stops me from fabricating someone else's inc, once I've got hold of a sample?
@vwm: why so complicated?:
what stops me from using someone else's pen, once I've got hold of it?
(remembering that pens tend to switch owners quite a lot ...)
It seems to me that sooner or later you'll have to order refills, which means that sooner or later someone will call the company, authenticate as you, and be able to leave your inky fingerprint anywhere they want.
No need to risk getting some bad infection cutting yourself to sign contracts with the devil anymore.
Identifiable pen ink relies on the assumption that the only person using it is in fact the owner. Same problem as access cards. The ink, not the person, is the credential.
Say DayOwl can I borrow your pen for a sec? Mine isn't working.
Arkh: now there's an interesting idea: ink that incorporates the owner's blood/DNA into it. Just enough to be detected, not enough to be creepy.
@vt: any of my DNA in an inkpen in creepy!
Yes, as Arkh wittily points out, this is a very, very old idea in Western culture.
There is also an interesting belief in Voodoo, which may possibly have ancient roots, that to harm a person, you must acquire some part of the person (usually hair or nail clippings). Of course these contain DNA and could be used nowadays to generate DNA 'evidence' which could then be planted in a crime scene. Courts generally regard DNA recovered from certain crime scenes as conclusive proof of the source's guilt.
This doesn't seem like a security/verification system to me, Bruce.
This seems more like making sure your fabulously expensive platinum-plated phallus-analogue is spitting out your own unique DNA analogue.
As a burglar and cheque forger myself I find the concept of this pen and SmartWater terrifying. I think I'll avoid any house with a sign marked "Protected by Fancy Pens" and "Protected by SmartWater" and just rob the other guy now, and forge cheques with other peoples' pens.
> Just enough to be detected, not enough to be creepy.
I don't see any reason not to be creepy. Anyway, lighter pens, as you don't have to carry ink, just tap into the user's bloodstream.
Of course, with suitable decon, anti-coagulants and then something to cauterize the wound, etc. It's a sophisticated device.
"ink that incorporates the owner's blood/DNA into it."
No Mr. Potter, I have a very special quill for you to use. You wont need any ink.
i imagine a guy smlling of sulfur and with a slight walking impairment making you an irresistable offer. Odd thing: He wants you to sign the contract with this special pen you got...
The problem this solves is a very different one: how do you keep charging handcrafted prices in an age of mass production? The obscenely-expensive-watch people are building things that actually have a bunch of machining and assembly going into them, but I suspect that any pen built entirely by hand techniques would be visibly inferior in finish and line quality to the product that is mostly machine-made. So by promising individualized ink, presto. (I suspect from the description of botanical ingredients, btw, that they have a bunch of distinctive plant molecules that don't affect ink quality too much, and that can be detected. A couple dozen such would give them a 24-bit address space, which is way more than the number of these pens they're going to sell.
Why spend the money on SmartWater when you can just paint your possessions with your own urine instead?
You could print up signs stating that valuables on the premisis are protected by PeeWater.
If the fear of having things with the true owners DNA on them doesn't scare burglars away, maybe the gross-factor will.
Yeah, ok: greendots wins.
"No need to risk getting some bad infection cutting yourself to sign contracts with the devil anymore.
Didn't Ms Joley carry around a phile of her "loved ones" blood?
"Why spend the money on SmartWater when you can just paint your possessions with your own urine instead?"
Well you old dog it might be a new trick for humans but wee tends to be a bit corrosive at the best of times. Mind you it has an upside if anybody steals your stuff you should be able to sniff it out.
As for "grossing out" have a search on the Internet for black/white magic and "Jupiter sygils" and which bodily fluids are supposedly most potent...
What happens when you run out of ink? You call up the company and they make some more of your "signature" batch? (Insert discussion about corrupting the ink manufacturing employees here.)
The "Obscenely Expensive Watch" folks make most of the basic movements by machine, so the "mid-range" (expensive, but not obscenely :-) and the "If you have to ask, you can't afford it" models are often mechanically identical. What distinguishes the upscale one is stuff like polishing and engraving, which has little to no effect on performance as a timepiece, but does make the more expensive watch more of a "work of art". This does not come at the expense of "quality" in any way.
Disclaimer: I'm not a watchmaker, nor do I own any particularly expensive watches. I had to ask, and couldn't afford them.
Lovely. That means that some day there is going to be a panel of jurists hearing a murder trial where the prosecutor is going to proclaim the infalibility of a confession written using one of these pens, and the jury, being comprised of fat stupid Republicans, will believe it without question or thought.
The company need never re-create your batch. They can just issue you a new one. Then it's up to you to register and maintain your list of unique ink codes. No need to limit a person to a single ink, you just need to limit a particular ink to a single person.
That's how cell phones with SIM cards work. You can change SIM cards, and the network is just told to associate the new SIM ID with the same old customer.
@ ink that incorporates the owner's blood/DNA into it
I thought that was already done? I remember reading about a cartoonist who was using it to sign original of his artwork.
I don't suppose anyone thought of the practicalities of testing it (how long a a sequence would remain stable in the ink solvent and paper acid) but it was a cool publicity stunt.
Fredric, please don't pick fights with Republicans on this blog -- or with overweight people, for that matter. It did nothing to improve your point, anyway.
Besides the commentator, you should see to your Strunk & White. "... being comprised of... ," indeed.
But we CAN still pick fights with stupid? Sweet.
Since the Treasury just released the new 100$ note I was thinking this might be a place to use the tech.
Ah! Now we know what they will have flowing inside the Humanoid robots when they are put into production?
I'm a pen nerd. Every time I think Krone has hit the limit of bad taste and really stupid appeals to exclusivity (they've gone WAY beyond the Lincoln Pen with DNA replicated from an authenticated strand of Abraham Lincoln's hair embedded in the cap "jewel," and yes, I WISH that was a joke but it isn't), they either top themselves or get topped by Mont Blanc, who despite the fancy marketing are basically the Packard Bells of pens.
Yes, the Mont Blanc plastic, excuse me, "precious resin" doesn't show scratches, that's because it's so hard it's brittle. You don't want to drop them. You want a good pen? Try a Cross Century -- they've been making them for more than fifty years for a reason. You want a really nice liquid ink pen (not a regular ballpoint) -- the Cross Century SelecTip is the metal option, but a Pilot G-2 gel ink pen works well, and the gel ink pens drive ink-bleaching check forgers nuts. You want a fountain pen? There's a host of highly regarded, widely available, relatively inexpensive options (Lamy Safari, whole bunch of Pelikans, some Parker and Waterman models, even the Pilot Varsity if you want a disposable fp).
You may want an embedded tag if all you do is signatures, but when I use a pen, I'm usually producing content (I'm a letter writer).
Didn't the Abwehr develop a blood-based invisible ink during WWII?
If you've made it this far, please note that while I bash some brands and mention others, these are a) my personal opinion, not necessarily the view of others on this web site, b) I don't play a suspect document examiner in community theater, much less TV or real life and c) brands and models I mention favorably might not be your own personal choice or best option.
Isn't that one of those "solutions searching for a problem" thingy :-)
@Robert in San Diego: I love my Mont Blanc pens and wouldn't trade them for all the Cross pens in the universe.
The plastic (or precious resin) is a bit tetchy, though. I once cleaned out the inside of the cap with a squirt of pure lab-grade ethanol and was horrified to see it proceed to fall apart within thirty seconds. Whatever it's made of apparently disintegrates upon contact with ethanol.
@ Steve, also in San Diego,
"Whatever it's made of apparently disintegrates upon contact with ethanol."
To reword the old saying about dignity,
"Many things are preserved in alcohol but Mont Blanc is not one of them"
One question springs to mind though, most inks used in traditional pens are "water soluble" not organic solvent soluble, so why...
"The plastic (or precious resin) is a bit tetchy"
It might be a bit of "sour grapes & milk" (casein plastic) on their part ( http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem00/... ).
In the mid part of the last century casein plastic was used for making pens, buttons, knife handles and items of jewelry (Queen Mary the current UK Monarchs mother was especially fond of casein plastic items in the year between the two world wars). Often referred to as "artificial horn" it was used to make tortoiseshell effect plastic which could easily be dyed and hold an almost iridescent luster. Pens made of casein plastic are keenly sought by collectors and can fetch very high prices at auction.
There are already secret embedded codes in printed documents, but they can be defeated. (See http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/15/... for one example.)
This technology could be used in ink cartridges to track the provenance of the documents more directly and with fewer options for simple circumvention.
It's not entirely clear how the Personal Code Ink works. Apparently Mont Blanc uses "botanical ingredients" to create a unique mixture for each customer, but how does one go about identifying which ink is which? GC-MS analysis? That's a pretty pricey way of establishing one's identity, ink-wise. Doesn't seem like an idea that's likely to catch on...except maybe with folks who have more dollars than sense.
Oh...and to Fredric L. Rice: You have effectively demonstrated your prejudices, but apparently you have not yet recognized the folly of politics in general. You might consider P.J. O'Rourke's perspective as a guide:
"Then there's politics. Just imagine politics with its dumbbell element subtracted. There would be no Republican candidates. There would be no Democratic voters. The whole system would collapse."
Re: using blood/personal DNA, it has the same fundamental drawback as virtually all biometric security - namely, that once compromised, it is impossible to revoke and reissue.
Blood, DNA, organs, fingerprints, etc. can all be stolen; some can easily be forged/replicated (I've seen studies that foil high-end fingerprint lock technology using nothing fancier than a 10-yr old photocopier.)
Once that happens, your precious biometric ID is completely worthless.
We have used Smart Water here in the UK to mark personal and household property for quite a few years. I understand it works by leaving coded microdots on things; the codes being registered with the Police. Want to borrow my pen? Sure! Any thing you mark with it is now likely to be legally judged as MINE!
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