The distribution of counterfeit electronics is a growing problem. One approach to authenticating electrical components, developed by Applied DNA Sciences, is to give each of them a unique marker containing plant DNA. Image: Courtesy of Applied DNA Sciences
Counterfeit electronics embedded in missile guidance systems and hundred-million-dollar aircraft have become a serious problem for the U.S. military and its contractors. Unlike a knockoff Gucci purse or Rolex watch, however, it takes more than misspelled brand labels, altered logos or suspiciously low prices to spot a bogus microprocessor being passed off as the real thing.
Phony components create safety and security problems because little is known about who actually made them and, therefore, whether they might have been programmed with malicious software that could be used to disable flight, radar or weapons controls, or enable hackers to intercept communications. And, malefic intent or not, if they don't meet military specs, they could simply fail prematurely—and possibly catastrophically.
Sound like an unlikely problem? Hardly. Between November 2007 and May 2010, U.S. Customs officials seized 5.6 million counterfeit microprocessors destined for military contractors and the commercial aviation industry.
Aerospace and defense contractors tend to develop their technologies to last a long time. The parts used to repair these systems, however, often become obsolete during the life of the system, forcing the military and its suppliers to find components from alternative and in some cases disreputable manufacturers and distributors. For example, between September 2007 and August 2009, MVP Micro in Irvine, Calif., made more than $140,000 selling at least 13,000 knockoff integrated circuits to 420 buyers in the U.S. and abroad, including the U.S. Navy and companies in the transportation, medical services and aerospace industries.
Markings on computer chips indicate whether they are commercial-, industrial- or military-grade, the latter signifying that the part has been specially tested to withstand extreme temperature ranges and high vibration. The U.S. Department of Justice in February sentenced MVP owner Mustafa Abdul Aljaff and former MVP operations manager Neil Felahy to 30 months and 20 months in prison, respectively, for conspiring to sell chips mislabeled "military grade." The two were caught in a joint sting operation called Chain Reaction, which included investigators from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and at least five other federal agencies.
Turning to nature
DLA, based in Fort Belvoir, Va., buys most of the military's electronic components and has over the past few years been testing authentication technologies the agency hopes can crack down on counterfeiting. One of the more promising approaches involves marking microchips with plant DNA. Applied DNA Sciences, in Stony Brook, N.Y., isolates strands of botanical DNA, breaks them down into segments and then shuffles those segments to make a custom DNA marker that qualified manufacturers can embed into a number of different substances, including ink, varnish, thread, laminates and metal coatings.
DNA yields a false positive less than one in a trillion times, whereas even the most complex labeling, serialized code, etched or inked symbols, or microdot application may be copied or mimicked, says James Hayward, president and CEO of Applied DNA. The company's SigNature DNA markers are small enough to be placed at various locations on an integrated circuit chip or other component, all the way down to the silicon wafer. If the authenticity of a component or batch of components is questioned, Applied DNA performs forensic analysis to determine whether the hardware is tagged with one of the company's DNA markers.
Applied DNA and microchip maker Altera Corp. completed a successful six-month pilot program with DLA last year, earning an 18-month phase 2 test initiated in February. During the initial test, Applied DNA marked Altera microchips with plant DNA embedded in ink at an Altera production facility. The second phase includes both Altera and chip distributor SMT Corp., who will test Applied DNA's technology on a larger scale and at multiple steps through the supply chain, including existing chips already in circulation.
DLA's efforts to find more accurate authentication technologies coincided with congressional hearings late last year that revealed the surprising extent of the U.S. Department of Defense's counterfeit detection problem. The hearings prompted President Obama in December to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), one provision of which requires the secretary of defense, by the end of June, to devise a training, testing and tracking plan to drastically cut down on the use of counterfeit parts. The NDAA also authorizes Defense to punish suppliers that knowingly push counterfeit parts or are not doing enough to ensure that their parts are authentic. By the end of September government contractors will also have to have a system in place that can identify, intercept and report any counterfeit parts they find in their supply chain.