Friday, November 30, 2012

Government chips with DNA: Policy or folly?

The US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)'s new anti-counterfeiting requirement became effective November 15, mandating that electronic microcircuits it procures must be "marked with botanically-generated DNA marking material." It's a move to address increasing concerns about the proliferance of counterfeit components, which carries the twin worries of reliability and security. Credit to John Keller over at our sister publication Military and Aerospace Electronics who has been tracking this story and hashing out its implications to the military supply-side.

Applied DNA Sciences and Altera have been working on technology which converts plant DNA into genetic codes, to be mixed with ink to mark products or even directly infused into materials. Detectable in the simplest way with a swab or blacklight, the technology is already used in end products including wine, textiles, and European bank notes. James Hayward, head of Applied DNA, flatly states "the strongest claim in the industry [...] which is our DNA cannot be copied."

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), which has more than once voiced its opposition to the DLA measure, argues that it won't solve either problem of part quality or security. "It is clear that there are better, more efficient, and less expensive technologies that accomplish more than simply identifying what entity might have applied the DNA," the SIA asserts. Among its rebuttals to the DNA marking:

  • It adds extra process and costs to existing lines. That's the very opposite of what chipmakers (and any manufacturers) want to hear.

  • It doesn't encompass the entire value chain. Suppliers sell direct to government, and how do you track the original qualified source for parts that have shifted through the market and industry for decades?

  • It doesn't address -- and might even impact -- component performance and reliability.

  • It can be defeated. The SIA says the process could be circumvented by "mimic[ing] the material of the marker when counterfeiting a product," or by coping a marker from a legit device to a counterfeit one.

  • It relies upon a single small supplier. Mulitsourcing is a long-embraced strategy to ensure reliable product quality and availability; should such an important policy and marketplace decision rest on one company's shoulders? (Not to mention potential marketplace-competitive angles.) In its letter to the DLA, the SIA goes out of its way to question Applied DNA's capabilities, from its barely 17-person "operations" staff to its balance sheet and the firm's own public admittance of questionable ongoing viability ("We have sufficient funds to conduct our operations until approximately November 2012"). Note that this week Applied DNA did land another $7.5M in financing from "accredited investor" Crede CG II, so presumably it's bought some time.

    Ensuring total legitimacy of government components is a lofty goal, but unrealistic. It's one thing for Intel to want to track a part cradle-to-grave for a lightning-fast consumer market lifespan or a somewhat more measured B2B environment -- but it's an entirely different animal when that end market is a 60-year-old B-52 for which parts simply no longer exist through any other means besides channel middlemen, Keller explained to us. And for this new policy to truly be effective, shouldn't every component from individual devices to their packaging to integrated system have equal assurance of legitimacy? (How many layers of "trusted" qualifications will this require?) Little wonder, Keller tells us, that chip and electronics distributors to the government are balking at the new rules; eventually that parts pipeline will slow to a trickle and cause even bigger supply headaches for government purchasers.

    The SIA, which has had its own counterfeiting task force since 2006, counterproposes that the semiconductor industry, DLA, and Department of Defense (DoD) should band together "to leverage existing technologies, individual company R&D projects underway, and a multimillion dollar research and development project to select a more effective anti-counterfeit technology." JEDEC also apparently is examining the viability of the DLA's new mandate and choice of technology. Both sides are gathering momentum to make pitches to meetings in the coming weeks. Everyone recognizes the need to address the problem of counterfeit parts, and it's good to push both dialog and action along -- let's hope all sides can continue to do so responsibly.

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