DNA Marking for Fighting the Fakes

07 January 2014

With the enormous number of electronic devices in products from calculators to pacemakers to computers, cars and aircraft carriers, it should come as no surprise that counterfeiters want to get in on the action. Counterfeit parts may not meet specifications. They also may fail prematurely, but by the time they fail the suppliers may have faded into the woodwork with their ill-gotten gains.

The short lives of products like phones and other consumer items reduce the likelihood that a clever counterfeit substitution will be discovered. On the other hand, in long-lived products (such as military electronics) or those in which failure can cause severe consequences (including death), manufacturers must ensure that only genuine parts enter their processes. U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., put it this way: "Counterfeit parts pose an increasing risk to our national security, to the reliability of our weapons systems and to the safety of our men and women in uniform."

What is a counterfeit?

The Electronic Resellers Association International (ERAI) defines counterfeit electronic components as "ones that are misrepresented by their origin or quality." As in other industries, a counterfeit semiconductor may indeed be a knockoff manufactured by an unscrupulous company in a faraway country. But the definition also includes genuine devices rejected during manufacturing or salvaged from dead printed-circuit boards (PCBs). Part of the problem stems from the fact that contractors often do not know where their parts originated. Identifying devices in the latter categories can prove extremely difficult without thorough testing, a cost that most companies resist as detrimental to the bottom line.

Even an aggressive campaign to test for counterfeits may prove ineffective. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2011, Vivek Kamath, Raytheon vice president of supply chain operations, stated, "What keeps us up at night is the dynamic nature of this threat. By the time we've figured out a test for the counterfeits, they've figured out how to get around it."

The extent of the problem is far from trivial. Between 2005 and 2008, the U.S. Commerce Department received more than 26,000 reports of counterfeit devices. In 2012 alone, the manufacturer's suggested retail price of all counterfeit seizures totaled $1.26 billion. As an example, in 2011 Raytheon reported suspected counterfeits in three electromagnetic interference filters (EIFs) installed in the forward-looking infrared system that allows SH-60B Navy helicopters to target their missiles accurately and engage in missions at night. Further investigation determined that although the EIFs came from a subcontractor in Texas, the parts themselves came through a circuitous supply route from a company in China.

Aside from the human cost of failures, incorporating such devices into critical systems has economic consequences. Repairs and other corrective measures often far exceed the cost of the devices themselves. In September 2010 the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) discovered suspect memory chips in mission computers aboard THAAD missile systems. A failure of those devices likely would have caused the missiles to fail. Replacing the bogus parts in those systems cost $2.7 million.

What to do?

Although everyone agrees that counterfeit devices represent a significant threat, there is little consensus on how to respond. As a first priority, the Government Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP) sought to collect data to assess the extent of the problem. An investigation by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in November 2011 uncovered 1,300 instances of parts that had failed tests at the Defense Logistics Agency's (DLA's) Product Testing Center in the years 2009 and 2010. Of those, the Center identified 202 instances in which the failures likely resulted from suspected counterfeit devices or integrated circuits. The GIDEP received reports on only 15 of those cases, of which 4 came from the DLA. Private companies or other agencies within the Defense Department supplied the remainder.

To reduce the likelihood that counterfeit devices would enter defense system supply chains, DLA in 2009 created a Qualified Supplier List of Distributors (QSLD). To make the list, a distributor's quality management procedures were required to meet DLA's strict standards. The agency could buy parts only from manufacturers and other distributors that were on the list and had submitted to periodic inspections that included providing traceability documentation.

Contracts to purchase parts would go first to approved sources, followed by companies on the qualified manufacturers list or the qualified parts list. Any company on those lists that could not supply the proper traceability documentation lost its classification as a qualified manufacturer and therefore its place in the pecking order. Companies that could supply verified documentation but were not on the list would come next in line, followed by everybody else. It was a laudable guideline, but not always practical. In 2011 the QSLD included only 26 companies. Of the more than 3,600 awards for semiconductor and microcircuit device purchases the DLA issued, only 52 percent came from companies on the list.

The unique requirements of the defense industry make the threat of counterfeit parts more likely. Defense systems comprise only a small portion of all semiconductor sales, and their life spans often exceed 20 years. Long before the systems go out of service, the original component manufacturer (OCM) typically stops making the parts and the authorized distributors no longer stock them. Purchasers at the Defense Department inevitably turn to independent distributors whose sources may prove less reliable. A 2012 report from the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee cited a study of 51 independent distributors by the Missile Defense Agency that found 60 percent of those independent distributors showed a moderate to high risk of supplying counterfeit devices. The message was clear: DLA had to come up with a better solution.

DNA marking

So the DLA began the search for a method of eliminating counterfeits that would unambiguously identify a part's original manufacturer and its provenance. One option was to create a unique mark on a component that could not be faked or duplicated. It had to be robust enough to survive harsh manufacturing conditions and hostile environments that the part might endure in the field, as well as attacks by solvents and other attempts to remove it.

After an exhaustive investigation lasting more than two years, DLA found only one approach that met its requirements—the SigNature DNA technology from a New York-based company called Applied DNA Sciences. This solution was already in commercial use for authentication of products as diverse as national currencies, high-end wines and clothing and Martin guitars. The mark begins with a strand of plant DNA that the company segments, shuffles and reassembles to create a unique identifier. During testing that the DLA commissioned, the mark endured the requisite hostile environmental conditions.

During the investigation, Applied DNA Sciences participated in a "red team challenge," engaging research and development company Battelle to attempt to defeat or mimic the DNA mark. The company provided Battelle with information about the technology, then gave it a year to prepare by reviewing the patent application and other relevant literature. Applied DNA then supplied Battelle with 500 marked parts. The company attempted to defeat the marks on a percentage of those devices, then returned the entire lot for verification. Applied DNA correctly identified all marks that had been altered and all those that had not.

Based on the results of the investigation, DLA issued a mandate requiring that beginning in November 2012, all semiconductor devices managed by DLA in Federal Supply Class 5962 (electronic components deemed at risk of counterfeiting) contain the SigNature DNA mark. DLA required marking only purchased components, not components that were already placed on PCBs or other assemblies.

No panacea

The DNA mark does not guarantee a device's authenticity, only its origin and provenance. The initial mark unambiguously identifies the OCM. A distributor that may handle parts from many manufacturers can add a second DNA mark that uniquely identifies that distributor, regardless of which OCM supplied the parts. Each of the manufacturer's marks would be unique, but the devices would identify the distributor as well.

Not all component manufacturers and distributors have welcomed the mandate (see Point/Counterpoint: Two Views on DNA Marking). Some contend that it is unnecessary if purchasers buy only from OCMs and authorized third-party sources. Yet because of the longevity of defense systems, OCMs often no longer make the parts or retain any inventory. So sourcing from the OCMs is generally no longer an option.

Logic suggests that electronics distributors that source their entire inventory from OCMs and other authorized distributors should not require a mark. "We specialize in products that have gone end-of-life from the OCMs," commented Dan Deisz, design team manager at Rochester Electronics. "We specialize in bringing products back to life in OCM-authorized processes. Everything we have comes from them. Nothing comes from anywhere else. We work with the original design IP and the OCMs' original test programs. We do everything except fabricate the silicon.

"The government regards the problem as a supply-chain issue, equating traceability to reliability," Deisz continued, adding that the procurement system is what needs to be fixed. "Tagging itself is not a bad technology. The DLA has simply oversold it. It would only work effectively if there were no e-waste."

"SigNature DNA marking is no different from anti-counterfeiting efforts in any industry," said Janice Meraglia, Applied DNA's vice president of government and military programs. "If we want a healthy supply chain, everyone must conform to the same standards and everyone must participate."

For this reason, Applied DNA recently announced a new class of SigNature DNA mark for authorized channels. "This mark will reveal and certify the provenance of components from authorized dealers wherever they go in the supply chain for however long that takes," said Meraglia.

"Authorized distributors who mark their products also confidently accept returns, which can allow counterfeits to enter an otherwise pristine supply chain," she added. "In addition, with accountability and traceability so prominent with the National Defense Authorization Act, an authorized distributor can provide a value-added layer of security [for] their customers both immediately and in the future."

Companies have also objected to the cost of implementing DNA marking. At first, the DLA required manufacturers and distributors to bear the additional cost of the marking. More recently, however, the DLA agreed to some reimbursement for ink, marking and training. The agency also recognizes that it will have to make price adjustments to accommodate the cost increase. Whether this concession will satisfy detractors remains to be seen.

Several manufacturers lamented that the DLA requires marking the parts using ink, despite the fact that most OCMs have migrated to laser marking. Requiring ink adds a step to the manufacturing process. "Applied DNA offers laser marking," Meraglia said. "The DLA wanted OCMs to mark the parts in ink. The company will work with any distributor who would prefer to use laser techniques."


Some of the program's detractors contend that DLA did not consider any technologies other than DNA marking from Applied DNA Sciences. However, iNEMI representative Dr. Digante Das, from the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park, described numerous other options that were evaluated and found wanting for this application.

"DLA tried to reach out to as many companies as possible to provide candidate technology," Das said. "Companies that did not respond to the solicitation cannot blame DLA for ignoring them. Key to any method's success, suppliers have to ensure that proposed solutions will not interfere with device performance."

As an example, he cited an earlier effort to eliminate bromine as a fire retardant in electronics as part of the mandate to eliminate toxic materials from the manufacturing process. One company proposed an alternative called "red phosphorus." Although it functioned well as a flame retardant, extensive testing revealed that the material absorbed water over time, causing shorts and resulting in device failure.

One company suggested an alternative to DNA marking that placed a tiny dot containing the identifier on the device package. Unfortunately, to a pick-and-place machine or automated-optical inspection system, such a dot commonly indicates a defective or out-of-spec device. The system flags such devices as defective and rejects them, so implementing such an approach would require modifying the manufacturing process.

According to Das, the DLA also planned to apply whichever marking method it selected to products other than semiconductors. At the time the decision was made, SigNature DNA had already established a track record in commercial production on textiles and other materials.

Das emphasized the need to create a testing protocol that would validate any candidate technology prior to adopting it to ensure that the marking does not adversely affect device performance. Further testing the DNA solution might uncover conditions under which it would not work as well, such as in environments with excessive dust or other contaminants. For those situations, one of the alternatives may offer a better choice.

No one expects the DNA marking initiative to provide a comprehensive or ultimate solution. With a problem this large and complex, no one can "flip a switch" and make it go away. Even Applied DNA Sciences, the primary beneficiary of the government mandate, recognizes that the current initiative represents only a beginning. But it is a beginning.

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