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How DNA Marking Helps DLA Fight Counterfeiting
DNA markers are formed by dissolving plant DNA in a solution and forming an ink to identify different authentic electronic components and devices. Photo courtesy of Applied DNA Sciences.
By Jeffrey Paulownia
Counterfeit electronics in the supply chain has become a major concern for the United States Department of Defense (DoD), in particular for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) charged with procuring electronic components, devices, and materials for US military applications. An investigation during 2011 through 2012 by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) found that international sources were supplying counterfeit electronic parts made to appear as new devices and components for use in DoD systems. Counterfeit electronic devices typically lack the testing and qualification that military-grade components receive, so there is no assurance that they can or will provide the short-term or long-term performance levels of authentic parts. Since they are not manufactured to the same quality standards as the authentic parts, counterfeit electronic components can yield considerably higher profit margins than the authentic versions. To combat counterfeiting in military and government purchases, US President Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and its Section 818, to require government contractors to put a system in place to identify and report counterfeit parts identified in their supply chains.
The DLA has explored different ways to authenticate electronic components and devices, including the use of plant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) for identification purposes, working closely with Applied DNA Sciences (www.adnas.com) of Stony Brook, NY to mark electronic parts. By adding DNA to the ink that is used to print codes on electronic devices or their packages, Applied DNA Sciences can place a unique “marker” on electronic products and their packages that can’t be easily duplicated. DNA sequences are made of four different molecules: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. They can only be connected in pairs, called base pairs that are written as GC or AT. The base pairs line up to make the familiar double helix of DNA.
Dissolving Strands of Bio DNA
Applied DNA Sciences creates DNA sequences that are formed by dissolving strands of botanical DNA (see figure) in a solution and then adding the proper chemicals so that the sequences will duplicate themselves. The sequences are not random, and can be used as identifiers to link authentic electronic products with specific (legitimate) suppliers. The technology can be applied to existing products, already equipped with some form of authentication approach, as well as with new products. Applied DNA Sciences harvests botanical DNA and then shuffles and encrypts the DNA into a secure sequence which is kept secret and only used when needed to authenticate a specific electronic part. The company is run by Chairman and CEO James Hayward, a molecular biologist, who has applied the use of DNA for product identification.
Because defense electronics systems are often based on older devices and components, which many suppliers will obsolete after a short number of years if commercial sales do not support those products, procuring obsolete parts can be a concern for defense system architects and contractors. Fortunately, certain suppliers, such as Lansdale Semiconductor (www.lansdale.com), continue to support and manufacture electronic components and devices long after the original supplier has discontinued those parts (see May 2013
for Lansdale’s stand on counterfeit electronics).
What Cost Bogus Parts?
In practical terms, the cost of DNA for marking electronic devices must be measured against the costs of bogus components infiltrating military electronic systems. In addition to the questionable reliability from using counterfeit electronic devices and components, there are also safety and security issues, especially in critical systems such as flight-control, radar, and weapons systems. Counterfeit electronic components that do not meet the rigorous military specifications could fail prematurely, putting the users of those systems at great risk. Because the U.S. defense electronics supply chain has become a global marketplace, combating counterfeit components and devices has grown more difficult with time and the complexity of the supply chain. Microprocessors in particular are subject to counterfeiting, and a good number of these components have been identified in recent years in military electronic systems and in
commercial aviation applications.
Although DNA marking will not help spot a counterfeit, it is effective in identifying authentic parts. The technology has been used by different police laboratories, for example, as an accepted law-enforcement tool, and in the United Kingdom as part of the forensic science to mark paper currency. Still, DNA marking and testing takes a great deal of time, so Applied DNA Sciences has been exploring quicker and easier ways to apply the technology for identification, including a form of an ink that will glow under laser illumination. This approach would be combined with the DNA testing of samples to ensure authenticity of electronic parts, and it would have a higher reliability than simply quick laser scanning of DNA markings.
Can’t Reverse Engineer
The SigNature® DNA marking system from Applied DNA Sciences is virtually impossible to reverse engineer or replicate, with billion-to-one odds against changing the DNA code used to identify a specific product. To ensure the security of these codes, they are encrypted and stored on a secure server, with only partial access by a handful of individuals. The firm claims that the technology is low in cost, is readily scalable for use in products even at the highest volumes, and can be embedded into other anti-counterfeiting devices, such as radio-frequency-identification (RFID) circuits.
Within the semiconductor industry, IC supplier Altera Corp. (www.alera.com) worked with Applied DNA Sciences to complete a six-month pilot program on the use of DNA coding for certain of its military-grade chips. The devices were marked at an Altera production facilty using the SigNature technology to combat counterfeiting. During evaluation for the DLA, the DNA markings on Altera production devices were tested and survived under semiconductor production conditions, including extremely high temperatures.
Pilot Program Success
The success of the pilot program earned the semiconductor supplier a phase 2, 18-month program working with Applied DNA Sciences and device distributor SMT Corp. (www.smtcorp.com), which has been a leader in fighting counterfeiting for several years. In addition, Applied DNA Sciences is working with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering CNSE) at the University of Albany (Albany, NY) to develop marking solutions for the anti-counterfeiting of nanoscale chips. Additional testing is currently evaluating different aspects of the DNA technology, including its practical use throughout the semiconductor industry and supply chain.
Ironically, when the US military invests in one technology, it can often lead to another, and the investments in DNA tagging have coincided with the US Army Research Laboratory’s Army Research Office (ARO) efforts to explore optical scanning technology to combat the counterfeiting of electronic parts. Working with the ARO, ChromoLogic LLC (Pasadena, CA, www.chromologic.com) and its subsidiary, Covisus (www.covisus.com), have developed the DTEK optical identification system. The DTEK system, which works under the control of the Covisius software, employs a biomimetic tag and reader system. It can optically analyze the surface of an electronic component and provide information about its surface for identification purposes. The optical scanning technology is capable of mapping the intrinsic surface of electronic components to distinguish between authentic and counterfeit devices and components on which the surfaces have been modified. Using the surface patterns of electronic devices, products can be scanned in as little as one second for accurate identification. Most counterfeit electronic products have been found to have surfaces that have been altered in some way. The DTEK technology has already been adopted by various government groups including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and shows great promise as an alternative to DNA marking technology as a hedge against counterfeit electronics.
Contact: Applied DNA Sciences, 25 Health Sciences Drive, Stony Brook, NY 11790
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