Smartrac Launches Circus PRO Label for Secure NFC Interactions

By Claire Swedberg

The new labels have been piloted by SneakerCon to provide encrypted authentication of high-value sneakers and to enable individuals to create both public and private access to data about a product, such as a collectible shoe.

Smartrac has released its new Circus PRO and Circus PRO Flex Near Field Communication (NFC) tags that enable a secure and private transaction between a tag and a reader, while enabling users to create a one-to-one interaction with a brand or other parties to track a tagged item's history. The new PRO version of the Circus tag, Smartrac explains, enables users to access data via an encrypted NFC connection by tapping their mobile phone against the tag. A private or public record of their data related to that tagged item is then created.

The two new 13.56 MHz NFC tags, which are compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, are the first among what Smartrac says will be a series of PRO versions of its NFC and RFID inlays and tags. The NFC PRO versions employ NXP's NTAG 424 DNA IC. With the IC, the inlays' transmissions can be encrypted and provide secure authentication so that no one can intercept a link and gain the same experience to which an authorized user would have access.

Smartrac's Hal Hikita

Smartrac is a Dutch RFID inlay manufacturer. The company has been providing NFC-based products since NFC technology was first released, initially available with Android-based devices to read tags for brand authentication, as well as for a variety of other use cases. The company says it now finds, with the release of iOS-based devices that enable NFC use without an app, that NFC-based solutions are on the verge of widescale deployment.

"Across the board, the market has been waiting for the pivot point of the NFC market, and I think we are on the verge of what I would consider a perfect storm that could provide that uplift," says Hal Hikita, Smartrac's senior VP of product market development. The basic premise, he explains, is that NFC provides two key benefits—customer experience and product authentication—and the Circus PRO is aimed at both applications. The tags ensure that any attempt to read them will be captured and confirmed, and the response encrypted, while also enabling brands or retailers to create a digital experience in which a user could set up a history of the product and its use, linked to the NFC tag's unique ID number.

The Circus Pro leverages the NTAG 424 DNA features for security and privacy protection with its AES-128 advanced encryption standard. It can also provide a Secure Unique NFC (SUN) message feature, by which specific data would be provided only to a unique user based on the reader ID, thereby ensuring data could not be intercepted surreptitiously.

"When it comes to secure authentication, there's value for the brand and for the consumer," says Amir Khoshnivati, Smartrac's product marketing manager. For consumers, he notes, the NFC tapping process helps them to confirm the authenticity of what they are buying, while it can also streamline the purchase process and enable further engagement. For the brand, the benefit is in continuing its interactions with that consumer even after a purchase, enabling the company to send targeted advertising, for instance, at a lower cost than that of traditional marketing efforts.

The new tags have been tested in sample versions for the past year. The first to pilot the technology was SneakerCon, in Cleveland, Ohio, in spring 2018. The three-day SneakerCon events bring sneaker fans to a forum where individuals can sell or buy high-end footwear. Since the event features collectible sneakers that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, the Circus PRO tags provided a way to authenticate and create a digital record of purchased shoes for collectors.

Smartrac's Amir Khoshnivati

When a pair of sneakers reached a specific price threshold (about $400 or $500, for instance), the shoes were taken to an expert onsite, who visually confirmed the sneakers' authenticity and value, and encoded a Circus PRO inlay using a mobile phone NFC reader. The expert then attached the tag to the shoe via a loop connection through the shoelace. The data was encrypted so that it could not be altered. The tag could provide authentication to others, such as buyers. The individual who purchased the shoes could not only confirm that the products were authentic, but also create a blockchain-based immutable public record of ownership and access additional information.

With the system in place, an individual can simply tap a tag with his or her own smartphone in order to view a pair of shoes' authenticity, as well as register the purchase in a digital record with the unique NFC tag ID. The customer could opt to share information about the shoes by providing a friend with a link to that data, and that individual could view generic data only. On the other hand, the owner of the shoe who created the record could access personal, detailed information about his or her ownership and the history of the shoes.

Because the transaction is encrypted, Khosniyati says, bad actors would be unable to access the data. The system worked so well, he adds, that the tags became a status symbol. For sneaker owners, he explains, the tag serves as a means "to communicate with others through the shoe." "It builds a one-to-one experience for me as the owner of that shoe," he states, with those whom a user opts to share data, such as another potential buyer, while also authenticating the purchase.

Counterfeiting and fraud are a worldwide economic and personal privacy threat. By 2022, counterfeit goods are expected to cost the global economy $4.2 trillion, according to a 2017 report from Frontier Economics. That means the demand for secure product authentication is at an all-time high, Hikita says.

The Circus PRO tags can be used on luxury goods, such as purses or liquors, as well as on household goods, appliances and medications, Hikita says, to help combat counterfeiting and fraud. In any vertical market, he adds, the tags enable users to access information about a tagged item via their smartphone or tablet. For instance, if an NFC tag has been applied to a patient's prescription bottle, he or she could tap the phone to view what the medication is and how it is to be used, then link the data to his or her other prescribed medicines in order to view information such as potential health risks if two dugs do not interact well. Such encryption ensures that no fraudulent efforts can be made to access information, and also ensures that drug makers are HIPAA-compliant (meaning they meet the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

In the case of a household appliance, a user could create a record of when that appliance was purchased and when it was serviced, and the system could enable the user to purchase spare parts or schedule maintenance. The tags could be used for both consumer-facing and industrial applications. For instance, parts used in an aircraft could provide passengers with such information as how to use an oxygen device, while the system could provide instructions to aircraft personnel regarding an item's maintenance or history.

For brands, Hikita says, "They can rest assured the customer knows a product is authentic." Those who opt in could then be provided with targeted advertising. For instance, if an individual turns on his or her phone's location services, a brand or retailer could offer loyalty coupons based on the user's location.

Smartrac has also released a Flex version of the Circus PRO to ensure that the tag is physically flexible enough to be used in challenging conditions. For instance, the company's NFC tags were used in the soccer balls that were made available during the FIFA World Cup 2018 (see RFID Technology Scores Ticketing, Brand Engagement at World Cup). The Circus PRO Flex comes with an additional glob top protective layer around the IC and antenna to ruggedize the tag.

Smartrac is now taking orders for the Circus PRO and Circus PRO Flex wet inlays. Next, the company is developing PRO versions of some of its other products, including its Bullseye and Midas tags. "This is just the beginning for the PRO series," Hikita states. "There is much more to come."