Short-circuited circuits: Pentagon turns to plant DNA to thwart electronic component counterfeiters

Counterfeit electronics embedded in missile guidance systems and hundred million dollar planes have become a serious problem for the US military and its contractors. Unlike a Gucci handbag or Rolex watch, however, it takes more than misspelled brand labels, altered logos, or oddly low prices to spot a fake microprocessor that’s being passed off as the real thing.

False components create safety and security concerns because little is known about their originator and, therefore, whether they may have been programmed with malware that could be used to disable flight, radar, or other controls. weapons, or allow hackers to intercept communications. And, evil intent or not, if they don’t meet military specifications, they could simply fail prematurely – and possibly catastrophically.

Does this sound like an unlikely problem? Barely. Between November 2007 and May 2010, US customs officials seized 5.6 million counterfeit microprocessors intended for military contractors and the commercial aviation industry.

Aerospace and defense entrepreneurs tend to develop their technologies to last a long time. However, the parts used to repair these systems often become obsolete during the life of the system, forcing the military and its suppliers to find components from alternative and in some cases unsavory manufacturers and distributors. For example, between September 2007 and August 2009, MVP Micro in Irvine, Calif., Earned more than $ 140,000 by selling at least 13,000 counterfeit integrated circuits to 420 buyers in the United States and abroad, including the United States 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 US Department of Justice in February sentenced MVP owner Mustafa Abdul Aljaff and former MVP operations director Neil Felahy to 30 months and 20 months in prison, respectively, for conspiring to sell mislabeled chips. ” military grade “. The two were caught in a joint undercover operation called Chain Reaction, which included investigators from the US Customs and Border Protection, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Defense Logistics Agency ( DLA) and at least five other federal agencies.

Turn to nature
DLA, based in Fort Belvoir, Va., Buys most of the military’s electronic components and has tested authentication technologies in recent years that the agency hopes can fight counterfeiting. One of the most promising approaches is to label microchips with plant DNA. Applied DNA Sciences, in Stony Brook, NY, isolates strands of botanical DNA, breaks them down into segments, and then mixes those segments together to create a custom DNA marker that qualified manufacturers can incorporate into a number of different substances, including including ink, varnish, thread, laminates and metallic coatings.

DNA produces a false positive less than one in a trillion times, while even the most complex labeling, serialized code, engraved or inked symbols or the application of microdots can be copied or imitated, says James Hayward, President and CEO of Applied DNA. The company’s SigNature DNA markers are small enough to be placed in various places on an integrated circuit chip or other component, right down to the silicon wafer. If the authenticity of a component or batch of components is in doubt, Applied DNA performs forensic analysis to determine if the material is labeled with one of the company’s DNA markers.

Applied DNA and microarray maker Altera Corp. successfully completed a six-month pilot program with DLA last year, winning an 18-month Phase 2 test launched in February. During the initial testing, Applied DNA labeled Altera microchips with plant DNA embedded in ink at an Altera production facility. The second phase includes both Altera and chip distributor SMT Corp., which will test Applied DNA technology on a larger scale and at several stages of the supply chain, including existing chips already in circulation.

The DLA’s efforts to find more accurate authentication technologies coincided with Congressional hearings late last year that revealed the surprising extent of the US Department of Defense’s counterfeit detection problem. The hearings prompted President Obama to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December, a provision of which requires the Secretary of Defense, by the end of June, to design a training, testing and monitoring plan for dramatically reduce the use of counterfeit parts. The NDAA also allows the Defense to punish suppliers who knowingly sell counterfeit parts or do not do enough to ensure their parts are genuine. By the end of September, government contractors will also need to put in place a system that can identify, intercept and report any counterfeit parts they find in their supply chain.

The NDAA also sets penalties for trafficking in counterfeit coins. People who do so intentionally face fines of up to $ 2 million and 10 years in prison. If a counterfeit coin causes serious injury or death to someone, the culprit faces a life sentence.

China’s role
Reducing the source of counterfeit parts might also help. Companies in China are often cited as the worst offenders. At the request of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year set up a shell company to purchase electronic parts over the Internet (pdf). GAO received responses from nearly 400 suppliers (334 located in China) to its requests for quotes. The bogus company eventually bought 16 pieces from 13 Chinese suppliers, and all of them were either counterfeit or suspected. The committee’s investigation also uncovered “dozens” of cases of suspicious counterfeit electronic parts installed or delivered to the military for use on thermal weapon sights, missile control computers, and military aircraft, including the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules Military Transport.

A counterfeit report released in January 2010 by the Bureau of Industry and Safety of the United States Department of Commerce provided insight into how some of these fake Chinese electronic devices are being made. Much of the raw material is collected electronic waste shipped from the United States and the rest of the world to Hong Kong. From there, the waste is trucked to cities in mainland China, where electronic parts can be burnt from old circuit boards, washed in a river, and dried on city sidewalks. In other cases, parts can be sanded to remove the existing part number, date code (which indicates when a part was manufactured) and other identifying marks. Sometimes the tops of parts are covered to hide sanding marks. Printing equipment can then be used to add false markings to make the parts appear as new.

Detection technologies such as integrated plant DNA are an important step towards disrupting the supply of counterfeit parts. Future manufacturers might also be able to embed tiny microprocessors into their wares that can proactively track the progress of a shipment or individual items, says Benjamin Jun, chief technology officer at Cryptography Research (CRI), a security company developing such technology. “A microchip with some data storage capacity can easily capture information wherever it is in the supply chain,” he says. This would allow manufacturers, distributors and customers to follow a part’s journey through the supply chain. If any stops are missing along the way, a part may have been introduced into the supply chain by someone other than the manufacturer.

Jun notes that neither CRI’s nor Applied DNA technologies alone will be the answer. Instead, he says, anti-counterfeiting measures will be based on a combination of proactive monitoring and forensic investigation.

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