In addition to the usual perils it faces, the U.S. military is now grappling with a high-tech threat of a different sort: counterfeit electronic components in its equipment.
As Michele Nash-Hoff reported in The Huffington Post in November, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) reported that an investigation had found and examined about 1,800 cases of suspected counterfeit parts in 2009-2010 alone, totaling about one million individual components.
During the SASC hearings spotlighting the threat, Senate leaders didn’t mince words:
“There’s a flood of counterfeit parts entering the defense supply chain. It is endangering our troops and costing us a fortune,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich).
“We can’t tolerate the risk of a ballistic missile interceptor failing to hit its target, a helicopter pilot unable to fire his missiles, or any other mission failure because of a counterfeit part,” remarked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). And Brian Toohey, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, called the issue “a ticking time bomb,” adding, “the catastrophic failure risk inherently found in counterfeit semiconductors places our citizens and military personnel in unreasonable peril.”
It is now the law that defense suppliers and the government must deploy anti-counterfeiting systems.”
With the problem set out so starkly, Congress didn’t take long to respond to the threat. On December 31, when President Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, a bipartisan amendment to the Act required that the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and government contractors “detect and avoid counterfeit parts in the military supply chain.”
The amendment is the toughest legal measure against counterfeiting of electronic parts to be implemented in recent memory. It is now the law that defense suppliers and the government must deploy anti-counterfeiting systems.
The Secretary of Homeland Security is now required to establish a program of enhanced inspection of electronic parts imported from any country (such as China) that is determined by the Secretary of Defense to be a significant source of counterfeit parts in the DoD supply chain. It authorizes information sharing with original equipment manufacturers, to the extent needed to determine whether an item is counterfeit.
Contractors that supply electronic parts, or systems that contain electronic parts, are now required to establish policies and procedures to eliminate counterfeit electronic parts from the defense supply chain.
Furthermore, the DoD is required to adopt policies and procedures for detecting and avoiding counterfeit parts in its own direct purchases, and for assessing and acting upon reports of counterfeit parts from DoD officials and contractors. The new law also authorizes the debarment of contractors who fail to detect and avoid counterfeit parts, or don’t exercise adequate due diligence. The law may offer tremendous savings for American taxpayers and military forces, which lose access to essential equipment when counterfeit chips invade government systems.
One cutting-edge technology-known as DNA marking-may play a key role in enforcing the law. Indeed the Defense Logistics Agency of the Defense Department has targeted DNA marking for exploration in its Directors Guidance for 2012. The DLA is presently sponsoring a pilot to test the technology.
In DNA marking, microchips–or any other component used by the military–is marked with uncopyable DNA codes, which can then be used to authenticate the originality of chips or products anywhere along the supply chain.
The technology is capable of “enhancing inspection” and forensically verifying the originality of the component in question. DNA from plants is used to create taggants to mark the product in a unique way; for example, the DNA can be added to ink that is used to print lot code.
At any node in the supply chain, a chip may be tested for the presence of the DNA marker, which can then be submitted for forensic tests to determine originality.
Botanical DNA is first harvested; the harvested DNA is then segmented and its segments are shuffled, reassembled and encrypted to form a unique, secure DNA sequence. The exact sequence is secured at a laboratory, where it is kept secret and only referred to when it becomes necessary to authenticate a specific component that had been tagged with that sequence.
Applied DNA Sciences, headquartered on Long Island, NY, sells its patent-protected DNA security solutions to protect products, brands and intellectual property from counterfeiting and diversion. One of its products is a botanical mark used to authenticate products in a unique manner that essentially cannot be copied, and provide a forensic chain of evidence that can be used to prosecute perpetrators. The company is engaged in piloting anti-counterfeiting technology currently funded by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), using a system that the company previously proved able to screen and block those counterfeit parts from entering the military supply system.
One academic institution announced plans last week to join Applied DNA in forging a path forward for DNA marking of microchips: The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University of Albany. CNSE houses more than 2,600 scientists, engineers and students, who benefit from more than $12 billion invested and collaborations with more than 300 of the world’s leading semiconductor companies.
Joint research and development at CNSE’s Albany NanoTech Complex, is expected to accelerate the development of DNA marking technologies. This includes the integration of new methods for DNA deposition on nanoelectronics wafers and computer chips both prior to, and including, final packaging-to ensure the integrity and security of processed chips. When realized, these advances might enable comprehensive supply chain protection well into the foreseeable future.
With DNA marking technology responding to all of the desired features and programs of the newly enacted anti-counterfeiting legislation, the nation has a new tool in the fight against counterfeit parts that could compromise the safety and security of our armed forces.
Sebastian Thaler is a freelance science and technology writer based in New York City.