Guest columnCombating counterfeit microchips // by Dr. James Hayward, Ph.D, Sc.D.

Published 14 July 2011

Dr. James Hayward, the chairman, president, and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences, argues that the U.S. government needs to do more to prevent corrupted microchips from entering U.S. computers that make it easier for hackers and foreign governments to infiltrate networks

Cyberattacks are no longer confined to works of science fiction. The Russian and Chinese governments are widely believed to have been culprits in recent attacks and earlier this month there were accusations of a Chinese assault against Google. The implications are grave for the security of our nation’s energy, financial and communications systems, and the U.S. government has recently raised the possibility of responding to a cyberattack with a more traditional military strike.

Cyberattacks are something to take extremely seriously. We have seen the damage of an attack in the recent case of the Stuxnet virus that at least temporarily crippled Iran’s nuclear program by the introduction of malicious software into its computer systems. Western governments were the winners in that case, but there’s no telling what could happen next and who could be on the losing side in the next skirmish.

It is also time to broaden the definition of cyberwarfare, which has been usually identified with software attacks to include hardware as well. Microchips are the building blocks of computing and communications and ensuring their security is essential to ensuring the security of our “cyber-universe.” There is a growing market in counterfeit microchips and counterfeiters who stand to gain from either making a quick buck on inferior parts or foreign governments intent on gaining a strategic advantage through so-called Trojan software. Whether it is a plane downed due to a defective navigation system or a compromised security database, the results can be deadly.

Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the FBI have been vocal in expressing their concerns about counterfeit computer parts. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been attempting to get its arms around the issue of cyberintrusions and the need to create a secure microchip supply chain since 2007 with its Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits (IRIS) program.

My company, Applied DNA Sciences, a New York based biotechnology company, has just announced a pilot program with the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency to ensure the authenticity of mission critical microchips, a fix to a weak link in our nation’s security. Utilizing plant DNA we produce “marks” which can be placed on almost any substance – even microchips — in minute amounts, undetectable to anyone who is not aware of its sequence.

It is our hope that we can create a standard for assuring the authenticity of microchips that will protect not only parts used for military and national security purposes but for consumer products as well. Recent events have shown that we are susceptible to cyber intrusions even in our own family rooms. Sony announced this spring that as many as 100 million PlayStation users were exposed to hackers in one attack. While microchips are not to blame in every case, ensuring their authenticity represents an important step in providing a completely secure online environment.

It is our experience that the deterrent effect of our anti-counterfeiting products as well as others in the market is as strong as its direct impact. Our DNA-marking programs protecting the cash-in-transit industry in Europe have clearly had a strong deterrent effect: our technology has lowered attack rates against the security guards who work for our customers by more than 55 percent. There is every reason to think that the results will be similar in providing secure microchips. The stakes are high for the stability of our national security as well as the broader economy. Inaction is really not an option.

Dr. James Hayward is the chairman, president, and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences, a biotech-based company based in Stony Brook, New York