Counterfeiters Meet Their Match in DNA Tagging

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.

15 comments on “Counterfeiters Meet Their Match in DNA Tagging

  1. opeters
    April 11, 2012

    Douglas, Appreciate your follow-up. Looks like a worthy solution, at the very least a leap forward.

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    April 11, 2012

    This is fascinating stuff! Better yet, it sounds like this is bio-degradable or at least not harmful to the environment. If this process can be integrated at some point toward the final manfacturing a component–even the packaging — the implications for the tech industry are huge.


  3. dalexander
    April 11, 2012

    Barbara, since the DNA is resident in the ink or spray, a packaging label can be marked, component reels and tubes, internal packaging, and the entire outer shipping carton can now be cross verified against the actual DNA signature that applies to the order. Along the supply chain, the OEM cartons do not need to be opened, but if the cartons are verified as coming from the OEM as indicated on the Purchase Order, and checked via the specific cloud server data tied to that Purchase Order, then all is well in Pleasantville. If there is a mismatch, then something has been tampered with and the order is held under suspicion.

  4. mike_at_DCA
    April 11, 2012

    Very cool!

  5. opeters
    April 12, 2012

    Douglas, I have done some further research myself regarding the Hardware Intrinsic Security (HIS) you refered to above.

    According to Bruce Raynor, Contributing Editor, EE Times, and author of “DNA Tagging: Secret Weapon Against Industiral Espionage” which appeared on 1/24/2012 in EBN, APDN is in fact developing just such a process. Here's a quote from his piece.

    “Just this week, the company (Applied DNA Sciences) followed up with the announcement of a joint venture to take its patented technology to the next level — or to be more precise, to the nano level. As part of a government-funded program, the company is partnering with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University of Albany to tag chips at stages in the fabrication process. Calling it “nanosecurity,” Applied DNA and CNSE issued a press release last week Tuesday touting the new “nano-chip anti-counterfeiting program.” CNSE expects the process will be validated within a few months.”

    Beware counterfeiters!

  6. prabhakar_deosthali
    April 12, 2012


    You have put it quite aptly ….

    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

    That is the main danger. Anything you devise the counterfeiters can also devise. The cost can be the only deterrent.

  7. opeters
    April 12, 2012

    Prabhakar Deosthall,

    It's difficult to argue with that premise, however, I have yet to see a more promising solution.

  8. Ariella
    April 12, 2012


    Perhaps it would work rather like gadgets designed to ward off auto-theft. There is a way around all of them for the determined criminal, but the hope is that if your car is harder to steal than the next one, it will be the other guy who finds the car missing. 

  9. bolaji ojo
    April 12, 2012

    Prabhakar, Counterfeiters won't go out of the business of faking anything they can simply because manufacturers are getting help from applicaitons like DNA tagging. I believe the war will be long fought though eventually one side (manufacturers) will have the upper hand even if it cannot completely eliminate the competition.

  10. bolaji ojo
    April 12, 2012

    Douglas, What's the cost of all this to manufacturers and is the viability of the option dependent upon the product and the depth of the problem for the individual supplier?

  11. Taimoor Zubar
    April 15, 2012

    I was also concerned about the cost factor and whether it would be worth to spend it to have DNA tag with every product. It may make sense to use these if the initial research cost is high but the per-unit cost is low

    Apart from this, is there absolutely no way that counterfeiters will be able to fake copies of these DNA tags?

  12. opeters
    April 15, 2012

    From  what I have read and heard ( the cost would be pennies per unit and the technologiy has proved “un-copyable” in all tests, including one done by the Idaho National Laboratories.

  13. Anne
    April 22, 2012

    This sound great, I believe to some point this will eliminate counterfeiting product supply chain.

  14. dalexander
    April 27, 2012

    Openers, I talked with Applied again this week. As to the cost, the application of the DNA tag or marker is less than a penny a part. Currently, they are only marking packages but are experimenting with die level approaches. I was told that the app,I cation cost would be almost nothing as the volume and use of this technology increased. They did stress the initial scan did not verify the sequence but only that the DNA marker was present. The sequencing authentication was still big bucks and required lab level forensic equipment and procedures. But, just verifying the presence of the DNA can take the confidence level to a high number. I will be meeting with their science team to get more understanding. I will write more about the company and their technology then.

  15. dalexander
    April 27, 2012

    Bolaji, I have a meeting planned with Applied DNA Sciences and will try to get more information as to cost and the associated road map. Both the verification and authentication costs will be addressed. Stand by for a more detailed article than this present one.

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