A comment on one of my earlier articles in March, Counterfeiting: The Battle Is On, asked me to look into Applied DNA Sciences (APDN) and its botanical DNA applications. So, I have been reviewing various publications and press announcements and discovering that APDN's use of plant DNA for supply chain tracking is rapidly gaining the world's attention.
Fortunately, I was able to contact a key scientist with significant DNA knowledge: Vicky Markstein, president of Life Sciences Society and IEEE CS Bioinformatics General Chair. Vicky was very instrumental in this research effort. I was very surprised to discover that plant DNA is more complex than human DNA. I asked her how easy it was to copy a genome, explaining that I was interested in anti-counterfeiting strategies. When she said it was possible, I began to wonder how APDN could give the assurances required to gain customer confidence. Here is what I learned.
APDN uses unclonable, full genomic botanical DNA to create its tags. Its technology may have some secret sauce or process to “harden” the signature of the DNA. I really like its registered technology marketing term, “SigNature.” The military has been testing APDN's technology, so I am sure APDN would not make its claim of absolute security if it could not back it up. The code uses a numbering system, stored in a linear array, with the primer detection sequence stored on cloud-based servers. When a chip is being scanned, the cloud server is accessed for the matching sequence. The sequence on the server is encrypted, and access is only given on a partial or limited basis to authorized users.
In addition to the server security, the scanning for DNA authentication requires that the DNA marker has not been tampered with or obscured in any way. If there was even a scratch in the original mark or ink formulated with the concentrated DNA, the scan would fail. If the chip was blacktopped, the DNA would be unreachable and the scan would fail. Any change from the manufacturer's original product marker would indicate the marked part had been intercepted and should thereby be under suspicion.
Furthermore, there are two levels of authentication: The first is with a portable scanner, while the second is a full, lab-based forensic evaluation process. The cost for the full forensic scan has come down considerably with portable desktop testers coming to market now. Prior to the new tester technology, the sequencing and verification operation cost thousands of dollars and sometimes required several weeks or months.
The Holy Grail for sequencing cost used to be $1000, but with the new table-top testers, that cost target has now been achieved, and the time required for completing the entire sequencing process is down to just hours. The new predicted target is for less than $10, and there are inventions in process that can pull a single genome through a nanopore mesh using electrical pulsing techniques that advance the genome in single-sequence steps while identifying the genome code progressively.
The anti-counterfeiting technology using plant DNA is now being used to protect cash in transit, designer clothing, and in law enforcement. Cloth fibers and threads are now being coated with DNA materials to prevent knock-offs from being marketed as designer brands. One company has developed a DNA spray application to protect spools of copper wire. The spray is applied to the copper, and, if the copper is stolen, the DNA marker helps the OEM identify the products on the open market.
For law enforcement, a criminal's clothing is sprayed with plant DNA. and, if any of the clothing is recovered at or near the scene of a crime, the discarded material carries the tell-tale DNA and is prime evidence in any criminal conviction decision. I'm not sure how this works if the bad guy buys a new suit after being tagged, but apparently it has helped solve a number of crimes in Europe. Maybe his clothes are sprayed without his knowledge. I'm guessing. But I think it is a good guess.
If botanical DNA proves to be the last word in anti-counterfeiting then the money will be there to produce the least costly identification methodologies and equipment. Don't be too quickly lulled into a false confidence, though. What can be made, can be taken apart. What can be taken apart, can be analyzed. What can be analyzed, can be reproduced. Technology may buy us a little time and a higher level of security, but with counterfeiters profiting worldwide at a $30 billion a year clip, they can afford their own high-tech research and countermeasures. Even near-perfect copies of holograms become available within days of their initial launch.
In my next blog, I will up the ante and discuss Hardware Intrinsic Security (HIS), which is absolutely unique to each and every silicon chip. In that, we are referencing the variations at the deep-submicron level brought about by manufacturing processes. So to all the Al Capone types, stick that in your pipes and smoke it.