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Encrypted DNA technology protects the warfighter

December 2012

If you have ever wondered whether the luxury handbag you got for Christmas was authentic or just a haggled-over knock-off from Canal Street in New York City, there may be a way to find out: DNA encryption.

Synthetic strands of DNA are added to various forms of ink that can be injected into two-dimensional barcodes or quick-response codes for tracking.

Synthetic strands of DNA are added to various forms of ink that can be injected into two-dimensional barcodes or quick-response codes for tracking.

Customers may not even be aware that DNA barcodes are sometimes hidden inside luxury goods, a piece of new technology that can be snapped off and sent to a laboratory to verify the authenticity of an item, says Aleksandr Miklos, Ph.D., senior scientist in the Research & Technology Directorate BioDefense division at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC).

Although luxury handbags are not typically seen on the battlefield, related DNA technology could one day be found there. In fact, it is exactly what Miklos is working on at the Center, which is located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
“We’re honestly always thinking about the warfighter. How is this actually going to help our armed services? If you’re in the middle of nowhere and you want to make sure that some bearing you’re about to install in your helicopter isn’t a counterfeit from who-knows-where, you can’t very well snap the tag off and send it back to a lab. That’s basically useless,” he says.

“We’re going to take an existing idea, which is to use DNA to tag things, and make it super easy to use in austere environments.”
As the primary investigator for an ECBC project designed to protect troops in theater from counterfeiting schemes, Miklos and his colleagues are developing technologies that would enable a DNA-based barcode to be read with an inexpensive, disposable test ticket that verifies the authenticity of a
given item.

Without modifying printing methods, a specific mixture of small synthetic DNA strands would be added to various forms of inks like offset or inkjet, and incorporated into two-dimensional bar codes or quick-response (QR) codes. These labels are then rubbed with a wet swab from a testing kit and applied to a test ticket containing a tiny piece of membrane printed with DNA. According to Miklos, if the barcode and the test ticket have matching DNA sequences, a fluorescent image of a hidden barcode would develop and could be verified by a simple picture taken by a cell phone in less than 10 minutes.

ECBC senior scientist Aleksandr Miklos tests the DNA encryption technology in the laboratory.

ECBC senior scientist Aleksandr Miklos tests the DNA encryption technology in the laboratory.

In less time and at a fraction of the cost, this innovative encrypted DNA technology could let our warfighters use a cutting-edge anti-counterfeiting technology without access to a lab and even without heat or cooling. But the biggest benefit, Miklos said, was being able to build end-user confidence in the supply chain.

“You provide an easy-to-use tool like this and the people who are receiving the items are now all the more confident that they’ve received something that’s authentic, been approved, that’s been checked, that’s gone through all of the correct quality controls, and is going to keep them alive and not get them sick,” says Miklos.

Modern-day counterfeiting has become more than just faux designer bags and cheap plastic toys. It has also infiltrated the military realm, flooding U.S. Armed Forces systems with unreliable equipment, he says. Products like integrated circuits, electronics and microchips cannot always be trusted even if they appear to be working properly.

“It has become known at this point that counterfeit items have entered the military supply chain. Furthermore, in discussions with military folks, we’ve learned that once we have a presence in another country, sometimes we start to use people in the other country as contractors to provide water and food and things like that,” says Miklos.

“Presumably, there are measures in place to inspect and test these things but when does that system break down? If there’s a pallet of bottled water that comes in and somebody’s actually tested it, they can apply a mark to it and seal it. Then the soldiers can verify that mark and know that the water hasn’t been tampered with or that the water hasn’t just been refilled out of a stream and delivered to them by a local looking to make a buck.”

Despite the subtle tactics, counterfeiting still poses a threat to national security and places a financial burden on the American taxpayer. According to Miklos, utilizing existing infrastructures like the cloud can help prevent counterfeit material from mixing in with quality products. If a product were to turn up as inauthentic or if there was an attempt to hack the DNA code, the Armed Forces would know about it, he says. Every time an item is scanned, a data points system is created, which across a large supply ecosystem would create a rich data set that could identify and detect suspicious patterns.

The senior scientist says the easy-to-use unpowered test ticket style of verifying the validity of goods on the battlefield is “the magic that ECBC brings to the table” as it continues to rework an existing technology to meet the needs of the warfighter. Now, the Center is seeking sponsors to fund the continued development of the prototype into a product that is genuinely valuable in the field. The DNA technology allows high-density information to be securely stored in just a handful of atoms, Miklos says, giving the soldier the peace of mind that that equipment, food and water sources have not been tainted.

As the premier center that specializes in chemical biological solutions for U.S. Armed Forces and the nation, ECBC continues extensive research and innovative engineering to pursue technologies that protect the warfighter and inform the national defense community.

Article contributed by ECBC, the Army’s principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations. ECBC has achieved major technological advances for the warfighter and for our national defense, with a long and distinguished history of providing the Armed Forces with quality systems and outstanding customer service. ECBC is a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command laboratory located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. I95

Edgewood Chemical Biological Center