A reader writes:
How do the little rectangular anti-theft tags work?
I get how the big anti-theft stickers work. They've got an obvious square spiral antenna that I presume collects enough microwatts from an incoming signal to run a little transmitter that sends another signal out.
But the little tags don't have any circuitry inside. I cut one open, and there are just some tabs of springy metal in there - two pieces next to each other, and a smaller piece separated from the other two by a clear plastic membrane.
The metal sticks to a magnet, but that's the end of my ability to figure out what it does.
Is there invisible nanotechnology in these things, or something? Hey, maybe they're a placebo!
If they're a placebo, the alarm systems in shops seem to really believe that it works.
What you're looking at there (here's a more elegant cutaway picture on Wikipedia) is called a magneto-acoustic, or acousto-magnetic, tag. Which is one of those things that doesn't really sound as if it ought to work, but does.
The first two of the three tabs inside are, I think, a couple of pieces of amorphous metal - which is quite an exotic material to be stuck to commonplace consumer items just to stop people stealing them. Amorphous metal is, in a way, the opposite of nanotechnology; it's metallic glass, special because it lacks the microscopic crystal structure of normal metals.
The third tab is a piece of less exotic, medium-coercivity metal. When that third piece is magnetised, the two other strips, which are sitting loose in their little plastic coffin, become quite easily moved by external magnetic fields. (They're amorphous metal because that's already unusually easy for external fields to move.)
The security gateways as you leave the store emit a pulsed magnetic field up in the tens of kilohertz, at the resonant frequency of the amorphous-metal strips. When next to their mildly-magnetised buddy, this quite tiny field causes the amorphous-metal tags to buzz, and to continue to buzz for a very brief moment after each pulse of the external field. This very brief "ringing" period causes a tiny change in the magnetic field of the third strip, which an antenna in the security gateway, very implausibly, detects. And off go the sirens.
The thingy at the checkout that deactivates the tags is a degaussing coil. It more-or-less demagnetises the third strip, which both reduces the magnetic sensitivity of the other two strips, and removes the field which the other two strips modulate. So now the sirens don't go off.
I am entirely unable to think about any security system without immediately trying to figure out ways to defeat it. (I try to avoid airports nowadays. They make me feel like Jackie Chan in a deckchair factory.)
One obvious but impractical way to defeat magneto-acoustic tags would be to degauss them yourself; I don't know how strong the degausser needs to be to achieve this, though. You might be able to pinch stuff if you just smuggled a CRT-screen degaussing wand into the shop, and found somewhere to plug it in.
Swiping your own rare-earth magnet across the tag would, if anything, probably make it work better (by more strongly magnetising the third strip), but I wonder if leaving a magnet or three stuck to the tag, in a Halbach array if you're fancy, might silence it. Just chopping it bodily off with a potato peeler would probably do the job too, of course, but where's the fun in that?
(If you can magnetise tags yourself with a ten-cent eBay magnet, then you could pry them off things you've bought, reactivate them, and attach them inconspicuously to things which other people may innocently carry into shops. You could, is all I'm saying.)
The square-antenna type of tag, by the way, is also pretty simple. It doesn't actually have anything fairly describable as a transmitter in it, but is rather a tuned circuit that resonates somewhere in the low megahertz. This makes it detectable, if a nearby transmitter/receiver combo rapidly sweeps its output through the relevant frequency range and looks to see if something is managing to suck up some energy at the appropriate frequency.
This kind of tag is deactivated by, essentially, blowing out the capacitor essential to their resonance with a higher-powered signal. I think a shoplifter could probably defeat these tags by just dragging a knife across them a couple of times, though, breaking the circuit. I haven't actually tried this, though, because it'd mean missing out on all of the fun of a good old-fashioned armed robbery.
Perhaps someone who's worked in retail since fancy security tags came into vogue will enlighten us in the comments.
I would also like to hear from anybody who's successfully used the "just lob the item high over the security gate and into the hands of your partner in crime" technique.