The Complex

DoD using plant DNA to combat counterfeit microchips

The problem of counterfeit parts seeping into Defense Department supply chains is nothing new. However, in the age where the threat of malware being built into military electronics exists, the Pentagon has begun requiring that microchips bound for weapons systems be marked to prove they are legit. How? With DNA, seriously. Following the inclusion in ...

Applied DNA Sciences
Applied DNA Sciences

The problem of counterfeit parts seeping into Defense Department supply chains is nothing new. However, in the age where the threat of malware being built into military electronics exists, the Pentagon has begun requiring that microchips bound for weapons systems be marked to prove they are legit. How? With DNA, seriously.

Following the inclusion in the 2012 Defense Authorization Act of a requirement that the Pentagon establish measures to detect and avoid buying counterfeit parts, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) – the Pentagon branch responsible for purchasing microchips — is expanding a pilot program to inject plant-based DNA into the ink used to mark microchips with the manufacturers logos. That DNA contains special codes telling inspectors that a part is the real deal.

"Plant DNA is as complex as human DNA, so the fact that DNA has held up in courts is because it’s so complex and allows for so much [unique] content," Janice Meraglia, VP for military and government programs with Applied DNA Sciences, the company that makes the magic ink, told Killer Apps on Oct. 2. "We use the DNA to create a unique marker and one company would have a marker that’s used for them and only them and it’s usually," good for one year, allowing the DoD to know where and what year a microchip was made.

In the wake of the 2012 defense authorization law, DLA announced in August that it will only buy microchips stamped with DNA. (The agency is also only buying microchips from trusted vendors, using new software to detect suspicious vendors and doing its own testing to make sure products are genuine.)

Because plant DNA is incredibly difficult to replicate, the Pentagon can quickly see which parts are genuine and which are bogus simply by wiping a swab over the ink.

"You’re swabbing it, and you’re getting a sample of the DNA onto the swab and that’s what we use to authenticate, we run a full forensic analysis on the swab," said Mergulia.

So, how do you make sure no one simply swabs a chip and copies the information embedded in the DNA?

"We do a number of different things to scramble the DNA," said Mergulia. While she wouldn’t go into specifics, she did say that the company uses a secret "primer" that is basically a key to be able to see the scrambled inside of the DNA. Without it, you won’t even see the information.

Applied DNA is also working with companies that specialize in finding out-of-production chips for older weapon systems and then selling them to the Pentagon.

These companies are now required to test and certify that any chips they buy and sell to the DoD are clean, original chips, not faulty or knockoff chips. Once they test a chip, they stamp an invisible drop of Applied DNA’s ink on it to signal that the chip is ok.

The big and unanswered question remains is, when will Chinese hackers try to break into Applied DNA’s computers and steal the codes embedded in the DNA and the keys to get at those codes?

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