By Ben Mok – Head of Operations (North America)
When he became the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong accomplished the seemingly impossible. His achievement wasn’t a singular, superhuman effort though, but the product of all the knowledge, research, and endeavor built up by countless people over generations. In 2000, Armstrong characterized himself not as a hero but as one engineer among the tens of thousands who worked for NASA, and for whom space exploration was a commitment to science.
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
Neil Armstrong’s self-deprecation points to the fact that technological progress is achieved by the development of new ideas and technologies – by science. From the moon landing to the iPhone, and from the Internet to clean energy sources, progress depends on the integrity of these advances in human knowledge. The technologies which drive these changes must be protected from those who undermine them by stealing the ideas and then replicating them in unauthorized and unsafe ways. Fake electronics and electrical components endanger corporate stability and consumer safety, but they also threaten to kill the intangibles that progress itself delivers.
Counterfeit Electronics in 2019
Given the centrality of tech to every area of human life, the manufacture of fake electronic components is one of the most alarming areas of counterfeiting. Although electronics and electrical goods are well protected by patent registrations, it’s one of the sectors currently most at risk from the infiltration of counterfeit goods into the legitimate supply chain.
The recent Europol and EUIPO IP Crime Threat Assessment identified that in addition to the loss caused to consumer electronics companies (including the €4.2 billion lost on counterfeit mobile phones in 2015), of even wider consequence are the potentially dangerous semiconductor materials that power the microchips and processors of medical equipment, military hardware, and transport infrastructure. These materials are shipped in small, unopened parcels and are often too technically advanced to make their detection possible by untrained Customs agents.
Although many people would guess that the supply of counterfeit semiconductors only takes place through specialized black-market and dark web supply channels, the sale of fake microchips is not an entirely hidden trade. One 2017 case reported by a Reddit user showed how easy it can be to find counterfeit semiconductor materials on Amazon, for example.
Nor is the sale of fake electronics limited to home computers and mobile phones, with instances of much bigger problems having been discovered in even the most secure supply chains. A report from the US Senate Armed Services Committee found that counterfeit electronic components had made their way in huge numbers (in excess of 1 million components) into the supply chain for Air Force cargo planes, Special Operations helicopters, and Navy surveillance planes. The thought that fake parts have made their way from unauthorized Chinese factories into the guidance, weapons, and safety systems of these aircraft is shocking.
The presence of a trade in counterfeit electronic and electrical items then is common, accessible, and dangerous. For individuals who intentionally participate in this supply, the consequences are potentially more disastrous than many of the other industries that counterfeiting is usually associated with. After all…
Would you board a commercial plane knowing that the display or detection systems were counterfeit?
Would Neil Armstrong have boarded Apollo 11 knowing the same?
Reasons to Keep it Real
There are three main reasons why fake electronics and electricals need to be taken seriously.
First, there’s the obvious problem of consumer safety. Organizations such as the UK’s Electrical Safety First do an excellent job of raising awareness around the problems that counterfeit components create. Martyn Allen, Technical Director of Electrical Safety First, is clear that we’re at a point where technology and safety must complement each other.
“The Internet of Things has left the pages of Sci Fi and entered real life. As technology has become embedded in our Smart Homes, the number of connected appliances and electrical gadgets we own has dramatically increased. That’s why it is so important that people ensure they buy from reputable businesses – particularly when purchasing electrical products. Unlike a fake designer dress or bag, counterfeit or substandard electricals can cause fire, death and injury. In fact, electricity is the cause of over half of all fires in UK homes. Our technological revolution can provide a multitude of benefits for all but with a formerly linear supply chain becoming a multi-layered supply web spread around the globe, both consumers and businesses need to be protected from the impact of substandard and counterfeit goods.”
Secondly, stamping out counterfeit products helps to protect valuable future technologies that might alter the lives of global populations for the better. A good example here is the sale of fake photovoltaic cells in Africa. Counterfeit batteries have been used as substitutes within genuine PV technologies, meaning that the modules can malfunction and provide only a fraction of the energy they are designed to generate. Undermining a source of clean energy that may benefit the entire world represents a threat we should all take seriously.
Finally, without adequate protection and enforcement of the IP related to electronics and electricals, the intangible benefits of progress are damaged. By hurting those companies and individuals who are involved in contributing to science and technology, the black market siphons off valuable resources. It becomes necessary to spend more time and money on defending existing ideas rather than creating research and development models for the next big thing. By contributing to the number of fake products in existence, both sellers and buyers make it harder for those new ideas to emerge and for events as seismic as the moon landing to happen.
What Can be Done?
It’s clear that the situation has reached an alarming level and that the effects of fake products in this sector are numerous. While education of consumers is one way of tackling the issue, enforcement must also be considered a high priority. Effective and targeted online investigations and removals are a cost-effective, proactive solution for companies whose consumers and profits are overwhelmed by fakes. At Pointer, we couple expert legal analysts with unique, industry-leading software to find and act against infringers. Why not let us help you use technology to save it?