This November, the Defense Logistics Agency will require companies selling microcircuits to the military to stamp their products with an unlikely seal of authenticity: plant DNA.
It’s an innovative initiative in the fight against counterfeit computer chips, which has been a major concern in the Senate, but it’s only one piece of the answer. DLA plans to put out a formal Request For Information sometime this month to ask industry to offer other, complementary authenticity-checking technologies, and Congress is watching closely.
“This and programs like it may be good long-term solutions to the problem, but additional steps are necessary to address the short-term problem,” said one congressional source, discussing the DNA marking technology with Breaking Defense. While markers of authenticity are well and good, the source explained, when Congress addressed counterfeit components in Section 818 of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, “the law went way beyond this; it requires them to change the way that they do business. The implementing regs to Section 818 are really the crux of what needs to be done, and they haven’t been issued yet.”
Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek, the director of the Defense Logistics Agency, has touted a four-part plan to combat counterfeiting: testing components already in hand, buying from original manufacturers or their authorized distributors wherever possible, using anomaly-checking software to spot suspect transactions, and, finally, requiring microcircuits to be tagged with DNA.
The brilliance of DNA tagging is that it’s inexpensive, widely applicable, and virtually unhackable, at least according to its inventors. “We stand by the strongest claim in the industry, which is our DNA cannot be copied,” said James Hayward, the molecular biologist and bio-physicist who heads Applied DNA Sciences. That’s company named in the Defense Logistics Agency mandate as the only authorized purveyor of the marking technology, at least for now.
Hayward’s firm starts with natural plant DNA. Then they engineer it — the process is a trade secret — to create unique strands of genetic code, which in various formulations can be mixed with ink used to mark products or directly infused into materials used to make them like sillicon, plastic, wire, or textiles. The technology is already widely used in bank notes in Europe, where it has helped convict more than 30 counterfeiters. Applied DNA is even experimenting with ways to “tag” diesel fuel. Once the DNA is embedded in the product, by whatever means, you detect it with a swab test, or you can shine a CSI-style black light (provided by Applied DNA) onto the tag: If it reflects a particular wavelength, it’s authentic. (Other, more time-consuming tests give greater detail).
The downside — that aforementioned “short-term problem” — is DNA tagging does nothing about all the components already out there that were not tagged at the moment of manufacture. Those chips are now often in the hands of secondary-market distributors, many of whom got them from still other distributors rather than from the original manufacturer, which may no longer exist. It is parts bought on this byzantine secondary market, not those directly from manufacturers and their authorized dealers, that are sometimes not what their packaging says they are. Sure, a distributor can tag its inventory, and that will help trace the parts back to that distributor later if there’s any question, but doing so says nothing about the original provenance of the parts.
It will take years for tagged components to become commonplace in the secondary market. In the meantime the military must keep buying untagged chips because so many of its systems are so old that the original manufacturer has stopped making components or gone out of business altogether, forcing DLA to scrounge for spart parts wherever it can.
“10 years from now if all parts are implanted with DNA or they’re all traceable back to the manufacturer with a unique identifier, that’s great and this problem may be significantly reduced in scope,” the congressional source explained, “but any part produced prior to today and any part that’s produced outside of this requirement may not be marked.”
The DLA mandate that takes effect in November applies to “manufacturers, franchised distributors and other distributors [on DLA's] Qualified Suppliers List,” according to an agency factsheet. But the Defense Department is no longer the dominant buyer in the microelectronics market, and companies mas-producing chips for iPhones or airbags may see no need to add a step to their manufacturing process — however easy Hayward says it is — just to keep selling to the military. “The Department of Defense can’t define the market for what gets done on commercial chips because they’re such a small customer,” said the congressional source, “so are commercial manufacturers going to do this for the defense market?”
That’s a business case Hayward and company must make far beyond the Department of Defense. Given rising concerns about counterfeit components and cybersecurity in the commercial world, not just the military, they have a real shot. Certainly the DLA seal of approval will help them sell their seals of authenticity to civilian markets.