Military Embedded Systems

DNA protects electrical components against counterfeiting


June 16, 2011

James A. Hayward, Ph.D., Sc.D.

Applied DNA Science

DNA is a form of forensic evidence trusted by law enforcement and recognized by international courts around the world. The following discussion provides an introduction to the utility of botanical DNA taggants to safeguard electronic components in supply chains and to protect against counterfeiting and diversion. A detailed treatment of the science behind botanical DNA technology, along with its application to semiconductors and microchips, is presented.

The evolution of counterfeiting as a trade nearly parallels the evolution of technology itself. The past two decades have witnessed explosive growth of technology, and the condensation of travel, communication, and the massive impact of the Internet ensured these new technologies were laterally propagated instantly across the planet. Now counterfeits emerge on the market nearly simultaneously with new product launches, in time for the counterfeits to benefit from the marketing efforts expended by the original. The World Customs Organization estimated that annual global trade in illegitimate goods was roughly $600 billion in 2004, and was expected to double by 2014, representing between 5 to 7 percent of all world trade (Source: The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition). But this is more than a vexing nuisance for brand owners. Counterfeits threaten economies, destroy health and take lives, and destabilize the military.

The Defense Standardization Program Journal (Oct/Dec 2009) recognizes the definition of a counterfeit electronic part as “one whose identity or pedigree has been deliberately altered, misrepresented or offered as an authorized product.”

In June of 2007, the U.S. Department of the Navy suspected that an increasing number of counterfeit electronics was infiltrating the Department of Defense (DoD) supply chain. In collaboration with the Department of Commerce (DOC), a study was initiated to assess the defense industrial supply base and to determine the statistical frequency of counterfeit electronics penetrating DoD. The results of this study, finalized in January 2010 (U.S. DOC “Defense Industrial Base Assessment: Counterfeit Electronics”) showed:

  • All elements of the military supply chain have been directly impacted by counterfeit electronics
  • Stricter testing protocols and quality practices are required
  • The use of authentication technologies by parts manufacturers, distributors, and integrators should be expanded

Current authentication methods are inadequate

Efforts to secure the authenticity of electronics are first encountered at the primary and secondary packaging. Traditional security platforms to prevent counterfeits are now also part of the counterfeiter’s target and consequently within the arsenal of counterfeiters’ resources. New advances in holograms, optical strips, and RFID are often available as near-perfect copies within days of their initial launch.

Additionally, most distributors and integrators store microchips and semiconductors in high-volume bins. This “bin approach” excludes the packaging to save space and time, so security must be implemented at the product level. Product inspections offer limited value as a method of authentication. Physicochemical characterizations are often destructive and rely on a degree of similarity to a bona fide original and the tolerance of the measurements.

Taggants can provide a unique code or fingerprint to authenticate originality. However, as evidentiary tools, the value of a taggant increases as a function of the density of its information content. Mineral taggants, which simply provide parameters of chemical identity and concentration, are only effective as rapid-screening tools, often by handheld detectors. Stochastic arrays of fibers or particles are difficult to incorporate in the media used to fabricate microchips and semiconductors. Stochastic arrays of nanoparticulate ferrite can generate complex “fingerprint” patterns, but care must be exercised to ensure the magnetic field does not interfere with semiconductor function. However, forensic DNA taggants have proven most effective.

Forensic DNA as a taggant ensures authenticity

Evolved over eons, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) provides the blueprint for all of biology. The information content is massive, highly customized by organism, and capable of compaction into infinitesimal space.

Used by forensic laboratories all around the world, including the FBI, DNA authentication is absolute in character. When used to identify individuals or to establish paternity, the error frequency for false positives is less than one in a trillion.

SigNature DNA (forensic DNA) markers cannot be copied or reverse engineered and have already been independently validated through a two-year vetted process conducted by the DoE and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Some mechanisms for protecting DNA in harsh chemical and physical environments are shown in Table 1 – relative to the insertion of DNA into plastics, films, adhesives, inks, and metal surfaces.


Table 1: Some mechanisms for protecting DNA in harsh chemical and physical environments, relative to the insertion of DNA into plastics, films, adhesives, inks, and metal surfaces.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Key attributes of SigNature DNA

Applied DNA Sciences has proved that botanical DNA technology provides the following advantages over existing competitive security options:

  • Resistant to reverse engineering or replication. The botanical SigNature DNA platform is virtually impossible to copy. The DNA segment used in the taggants needs to be replicated billions of times for detection and identification to take place, a process that can only be achieved by applying matching strands of DNA.
  • Low cost and high accuracy. SigNature DNA taggants are relatively inexpensive when compared to other anti-counterfeiting devices, such as RFID, integrated circuit chips, and holograms. The costs associated with the production of DNA taggants are not significant since the amount of DNA required for each taggant is small, and the cloning of the DNA segments is performed inside microorganisms such as yeast or bacteria, which are highly productive and inexpensive to grow.
  • Easily integrated with other anti-counterfeit technologies. SigNature DNA taggants can be embedded into RFID devices, labels, serial numbers, holograms, and other marking systems using inks, threads, and other media.

Industry deployment of DNA markers

As shown in Figure 1, the procurement entity within the electronics industry typically services a range of end users and would engage Applied DNA Sciences in the DNA marking process. Applied DNA Sciences would work with trusted supply chain participants, including, but not limited to, the integrator, distributor, and Original Component Manufacturers (OCMs) and create unique DNA markers to be embedded into the microchip. Statistical confidence levels are established to determine authentication parameters. Lab analysis is then performed, typically in a non-destructive manner, at any point along the logistics chain. The analysis would absolutely distinguish between genuine and counterfeit components and unequivocal forensic ID would be declared. The result would be authentic components in the end users’ product with counterfeit components segregated and supported with forensic proof should legal action be deemed appropriate.


Figure 1: The procurement entity within the electronics industry typically services a range of end users and would engage Applied DNA Sciences in the DNA marking process.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Dr. James A. Hayward is Chairman, President, and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences. With more than 20 years of experience in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, life science, and consumer product industries, he works to ensure the authenticity of products and protect global supply chains from counterfeiting. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Chemistry from the State University of New York at Oneonta, his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and an honorary Doctor of Science from the same institution.

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