De La Rue could reveal the cost of lies. And there's way too much of it going on. In the week since an experimental nuclear-powered rocket exploded in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, Russian authorities have carried out a masterclass in misdirection eerily echoing their evasion following Chernobyl. Officials deleted an initial admission that radiation levels had spiked following the blast, publicly insisting that “no dangerous substances were released into the atmosphere” while advising locals to close the windows and drink iodine. An evacuation of the town nearest the accident was announced—then abruptly cancelled.

Some drew a broader lesson from the Arkhangelsk incident. Arguing that the explosion itself “is less important than the government’s failure to tell the whole truth about it”, Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky suggested that the accident’s most pronounced effect will be a loss of trust in “a government that keeps its cards so close to the chest—not for the first time”.

The incident should also spark a more wide-ranging conclusion in policymakers the world over: countries cannot afford to place their most sensitive infrastructure and programmes in hands tainted by a history of dishonesty and scandal.

De La Rue: the not-secure security provider?

Given its global reach and the high-profile nature of its products, one particular firm’s series of alleged improprieties and misguided partnerships has not received the attention it deserves: De La Rue, a centuries-old British company which is the world’s largest passport manufacturer and has produced a staggering one-third of all banknotes currently in circulation.

De La Rue vaunts the trust governments from London to Fiji have placed in it, arguing that “beneath the pretty designs [currency] is a piece of national infrastructure. Economies rest on banknotes”. As the world becomes increasingly cashless, De La Rue’s business model is gradually shifting towards providing other sensitive services, such as authentication stamps.

Earlier this year, De La Rue picked up the contract to implement the UK’s system tracking and tracing tobacco products —a welcome reprieve after the company was significantly underbid to produce Britain’s new blue passports, according to The Guardian.

A steady stream of troubling headlines, however, has raised questions over whether De La Rue is worthy of such responsibilities.

As the Independent recently declared, "one scandal leads to another for [the] disgraced banknote printer". The firm’s shares have been in freefall since De La Rue was forced to admit in July that it’s the subject of an investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO). The bureau —which only looks into the gravest cases involving fraud “of widespread public interest”— is exploring apparent corruption in South Sudan, whose banknotes the British company designs and manufactures.

The SFO probe has dredged up uncomfortable memories of De La Rue’s previous legal troubles. Its offices were raided in 2007 as part of an SFO corruption probe, though the investigation closed without action being taken against De La Rue.

Another inquiry, in 2010, unearthed evidence that De La Rue employees had falsified banknote quality certificates.

Problematic partnerships

Three run-ins with the SFO should already raise serious questions over whether De La Rue should be entrusted with implementing a system for tracking and tracing tobacco across the UK —an essential scheme for both public health and tax collection reasons.

To make matters worse, however, De La Rue has outsourced its tracking and tracing duties to an even less trustworthy provider, Atos. If De La Rue’s past business practices have prompted fears that its employees are less than truthful, Atos's have suggested that it's in cahoots with the king of lies itself: the tobacco industry.

For decades —fully conscious that its products were both addictive and deadly— the tobacco industry tried everything from increasing the amount of nicotine in its cigarettes to hook more smokers to commissioning “research” designed to muddy the clear scientific consensus that tobacco was carcinogenic. In the 1950s, according to internal industry documents released through litigation, industry scientists privately hoped to devise a method of removing the carcinogenic compounds from cigarette smoke. Since fixing the problem would have required them to admit that their products were harmful, however, the tobacco companies shut this research down —since then, according to the World Health Organisation, hundreds of millions of people have died from tobacco-related causes.

A veneer of independence?

Acutely aware of this long history of deception, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has demanded that any systems to track and trace tobacco products must be completely independent from the industry. This requirement is particularly critical given that tobacco companies have previously facilitated the smuggling of their own products —since easier access to cheap smokes gets more people hooked.

The industry has struck back with one of its “greatest scams yet” —the four major tobacco companies developed their own “solution”, dubbed Codentify, to track and trace their products. They then plotted to use ostensibly-impartial front groups to promote Codentify to governments around the world, despite the WHO’s warnings that Codentify is not fit for purpose.

One of the “independent” companies which is known to have promoted Codentify abroad is Atos. Given that researchers from the University of Bath have found that the French IT giant was even involved in Codentify’s development and Atos's own website lists tobacco titan Philip Morris International as one of its clients, De La Rue’s decision to subcontract to Atos is either a spectacular lapse in judgment or willful ignorance.

Rippling effects

De La Rue’s previous missteps have not been without consequences. The falsified banknote certificates led, according to the Times of India, to India’s central bank receiving subpar banknotes. This, in turn, prompted an uptick in counterfeit currencies, ostensibly indistinguishable from the banknotes printed by De La Rue.

If indeed the British firm was involved in corruption in South Sudan, it would have contributed to a culture of graft which is widely considered to have destabilised the world’s youngest country and exposed its population to famine, war crimes and abject poverty.

Relying on Atos’s technical expertise to fulfil its track-and-trace duties, however, could have the greatest cost yet. By giving the tobacco industry a foothold in the very system designed to cut down on the public health scourge it has contributed to, De La Rue may have undermined one of the best tools available to eliminate the illicit tobacco trade sapping government coffers and contributing to more than 160,000 deaths a year.