January 19, 2012

Military's New Plan To Weed Out Counterfeits: Plant DNA

By: Katie Drummond

Source: Wired News

The U.S. military’s struggling to prevent counterfeit goods from infiltrating their supply chains. Now, they’re considering a novel approach to give legit wares a mark of distinction: embed them with strands of plant DNA.

Working with a sub-contract from the Defense Logistics Agency, researchers at Applied DNA Sciences Inc. have figured out how to create unique DNA “signatures” out of plant genomes. A DNA-marked coating can then be applied to just about anything, from circuit boards to microchips to routers.

Once embedded, the DNA can be detected in one of two ways: A handheld scanner that can instantly spot the DNA strand, or a forensic analysis that requires a swab of the mark. So as a product moves through the supply chain, it’d be checked for authenticity every step of the way.

It’s one thing to mimic holograms or sand off a computer chip’s label. It’s another to come up with bogus DNA that’s a perfect copy of the original, or try to tamper with the complex sequences of base pairs that comprise a single DNA strand. Company director Dr. Jim Hayward claims that the error rate for false positives using his DNA technology is 1 in 1 trillion.

That’s exactly the kind of infallibility the Pentagon needs. Phony parts are already causing major financial headaches in military circles: A single instance of counterfeiting cost the Missile Defense Agency $4 million last year. And bogus wares have already been found in dozens of military systems and aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s C-130J transport plane and a Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

“A $100 microchip might keep a $100 million dollar helicopter on the ground,” Hayward, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, tells Danger Room. “It’s mind-boggling, and it’s hard to quantify that problem.” 

Not to mention that phony parts could easily be a fatal hazard in active combat situations. Last year, top brass warned Congress that counterfeits threatened to impose “a cost that could be measured in lives lost.”

Lawmakers seem to have listened. This year’s Defense Authorization Act includes an amendment that requires the Pentagon to enact more aggressive procedures and strategies for counterfeit detection.

The provision also puts the financial onus of bogus goods squarely on companies themselves: Contractors are now liable for any counterfeits uncovered in their products. It’s an aggressive stance, and one that prohibits contractors “from charging the Department of Defense for the costs of rework or corrective work…regardless of where the counterfeit entered the supply chain.”

Hayward and co. are already implementing their DNA tech overseas, to safeguard cash transfers across much of Europe. It’s even been used as evidence in 85 counterfeiting arrests made by the Scotland Yard.

“DNA is beyond what the bad guys can copy,” Hayward says. “You can counterfeit your way through visual inspection, through X-Rays. DNA is easily the strongest platform for authentication in the world.”

The company have finished the first part of their military-funded research, by proving the feasibility of the method. Now, they’re working on full-scale implementation of the approach, and, alongside the University of Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, just submitted a joint proposal to Iarpa — the Pentagon’s far-out intelligence agency — for more research dollars.

Of course, even if DNA tags become the anti-counterfeiting tactic of the future, it’ll be years before the markers — and their accompanying handheld scanners — are fully incorporated into major supply chains. Giving fraudsters plenty of time to perfect their strategy for making bogus botanical DNA.