The U.S. military, which relies on an increasingly global supply chain, has a counterfeiting problem.
Long the subject of concern within the defense industry, the problem has at times been brushed aside because the complexity of new systems makes them temporarily secure. But with defense budgets getting tighter and equipment expected to last longer, counterfeits are getting the attention of Congress as older systems make much easier targets for counterfeiters.
The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act included language that would penalize companies for failing to prevent counterfeiting, and emphasized the need for more action in general. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report outlining the findings of two years of investigation, concluding that the supply chain is dangerously vulnerable.
“The failure of a single electronic part can leave a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine vulnerable at the worst possible time,” the report said. “Unfortunately, a flood of counterfeit electronic parts has made it a lot harder to prevent that from happening.”
Technology companies are stepping forward with new solutions to defend against counterfeits, at times using the power of a plant against technology impersonation.
Applied DNA Sciences, a Stony Brook, N.Y.-based company, has been working with the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency since late 2011 on a project to test the use of DNA markers on parts.
The company modifies plant DNA — it wouldn’t say what kind of plant — and provides the markers suspended in military grade ink to companies. The ink is then applied to products and can be tested at any point down the road to verify the authenticity of a product.
The authentication system is called SigNature, a play on both the natural derivation of the ink and the authenticity verification it provides.
Janice Meraglia, vice president for military and government programs at the company, said that as a result of the modification to the DNA, the mark is impossible to reproduce.
“They can know what we’re doing, but it’s still an uncopyable mark,” she said. “In addition to taking DNA from a botanical source, we do things to that source, so even if you know the original botanical source, you can’t go out and say, ‘They used a daisy, so I’m going to get a daisy and rub it on a microchip.‘“
The ink with the DNA markers works with standard factory equipment, meaning there is typically no major overhead investment. In one instance, the ink was switched into a production process with only two factory workers knowing the switch had been made.
Meraglia said the company aims to keep the cost of applying a marker to about 1 cent per item.
The mark that’s left can be tested using the same forensic science common in police laboratories. The subsequent DNA evidence has been accepted as a law enforcement tool in the U.K., where the company has been marking cash that is carried to and from banks.
But because DNA testing takes time, the company also has been experimenting with immediate authenticating techniques, such as using ink that glows under certain conditions. While these methods are not as exact, they can provide quick feedback, and when used in tandem with DNA testing of samples, they provide a high degree of confidence in the authenticity of an item, Meraglia said.
The approach emphasizes tracking items as opposed to testing whether an item performs as it should, the standard counterfeit detection technique employed today.
“We don’t detect counterfeits, we prove authentication,” she said. “DNA assures authenticity.”
Both Old and New Parts
What separates the SigNature system from many others is its ability to be applied to any product, even existing inventory. While Applied DNA Sciences has worked with computer chip makers to mark new products, the company also is working with SMT Corp., Sandy Hook, Conn., to track parts that have otherwise been authenticated through performance tests.
Given the military’s reliance on parts that may be decades old, Meraglia said this is a critical part of the solution to the counterfeiting problem.
“Trying to build security that will last 20 to 30 years for a defense program is very, very challenging,” said Benjamin Jun, vice president and chief technology officer at Cryptography Research.
The complexity of the supply chain and lack of investment has made it very difficult for the U.S. Department of Defense to combat counterfeiting, Jun said.
“It’s easier to identify the cows that make up a hamburger patty than understand where the chips on an F-15 aircraft might come from,” he said.
In addition, Jun said that not enough attention has been paid to baking security into products from the beginning.
“There’s a reactive approach, which is primarily what’s being discussed right now,” he said.
Cryptography Research, based in San Francisco, is working to install small cores on new silicon processors, one of the most commonly counterfeited components that exist in all electronic systems. The company’s solution, CryptoFirewall, creates a call and response system, where input is provided and the system uses cryptography to supply a unique response.
The core also can be used to store a manifest of the chip’s movements as it gets scanned in by each company in a supply chain.
Forward-thinking solutions to designing new parts, solutions typically not considered critical for new technologies, will prevent a large number of counterfeits, Jun said.
“When you’re sourcing the cutting-edge chips, you don’t worry so much about supply chain security, because there’s only one guy out there who can make the thing,” he said. “It’s kind of like buying the prescription drug when it’s first available. There are no generics sourced for some time.”
But the implementation of any of these technologies will require a unified push, Meraglia said.
“The [prime contractors] want the DNA out there so that they can engage in authentication,” she said. “The manufacturers are saying that as soon as the primes say that they want to be compliant and they’re willing to pay me to do that, we’ll do that. They feel like if they all do it at once, it evens the playing field.”