Preventing counterfeits with an iPhone and digital DNA

If you’re looking for a foolproof way to secure your supply chain and prevent the spread of counterfeit goods, Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS) thinks it has created just the tool. Its new product, called digitalDNA, creates unique plant-based DNA signatures that are encrypted onto QR codes readable by an iPhone (s AAPL) app. When phones scan the code, data is analyzed by a cloud database to identify possible theft or counterfeiting. It’s mobile meets cloud computing meets big data, with genomics as glue holding them all together.

In order to understand digitalDNA, though, you first must be familiar with ADNAS’s core technology. Its flagship product, called SigNature DNA, takes specially created, double-stranded DNA signatures derived from plant DNA and combines them in solution made out of ink or some other material. That solution can be applied directly to a product — anything from textiles to microchips to documents — or applied to an invisible bar code that can be read by scanners capable of detecting the DNA strand. Marks can also be swabbed and sent to ADNAS for verification.

Companies using SigNature can verify the authenticity of shipments by scanning the products they receive. If the products aren’t legit, businesses don’t accept them and, presumably, an investigation ensures. Presently, Miller said, this process is unreproducible, meaning would-be counterfeiters can’t one-up ADNAS customers by replicating their authentication method as well as the product itself. In January, Wired published an article about how the U.S. Department of Defense is using SigNature to detect bogus microchips in military equipment.

Aside from simply stopping counterfeiting activity, though, SigNature is also used to prosecute criminals because the DNA markers are all-but irrefutable evidence (the false positive rate is 1 in a trillion) that someone is in possession of stolen goods. In the United Kingdom, Miller told me, more than a quarter of all cash in banks is marked with using SigNature in order to catch criminals who steal it from transporters such as ADNAS customer Loomis. ADNAS also sells products that pre-mark certain items in order to transfer DNA to thieves, or that spray fleeing intruders with DNA.

Another company, called DNA Technologies, claims to use a similar method for anti-counterfeiting and actually tagged the footballs to be used in Super Bowl XLVI. Unlike RFID tags, DNA marks can be placed even on small individual objects, or incorporated into them in the case of clothing, for example, and cannot be easily removed.

Turning DNA into QR codes

The new digitalDNA product takes SigNature to the next level by tying it to cloud computing, big data and mobile phones. The unique DNA signature still exists on the physical QR code applied to packages, but it has also been digitally encrypted onto to a 2-dimensional QR code in a way ADNAS claims is not copyable. As packages move along the supply chain, employees equipped with iPhones and the ADNAS app can scan products to chart their progress and verify authenticity. But that’s just the beginning.

With every scan, information is also sent to a cloud-based database where it’s stored and analyzed a set of algorithms specially designed to identify patterns associated with counterfeiting or theft. If something pops up, companies can be proactive in trying to determine the problem or take measures to prevent a crime. And even if there isn’t nefarious activity taking place, digitalDNA users can still use the geospatial data they’re generating to get a better handle on their supply chain dynamics.

Looking to the future, Miller said ADNAS is also experimenting with methods for using the ubiquity of iPhones to bring consumers and retail outlets into the fold. That could mean anything from scanning the DNA-based QR code to ensure the freshness of a product to helping stores identify sales trends. Admittedly, though, those uses are a while out and would require cooperation from ADNAS’s customers, which are the ones dealing directly with resellers and consumers. Presumably, the DNA-based QR codes could provide more granular data because they’re tied to individual units of products.

However digitalDNA usage evolves, even if it never really takes off, the high-level concept behind the product is sound. As we’ll discuss in numerous sessions at our Structure conference next month in San Francisco, there’s an undeniable connections between cloud computing, big data and mobile technologies as it relates to capturing, storing and processing entirely new types of data. When literally anybody with a mobile phone and the right app can scan a code and send rich data up to the cloud, it opens up entirely new possibilities around both analytics and application architectures.

All images courtesy of Applied DNA Sciences.