Latest Use for One’s DNA — Thwarting Counterfeiters

How the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney are changing the face of counterfeiting. Also upping the ante for societal power structures and corporate dominance.

How the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney are changing the face of counterfeiting. Also upping the ante for societal power structures and corporate dominance.

Syd the platypus, Millie the echidna and Olly the kookaburra have a secret weapon to foil counterfeiting crooks.

The furry mascots of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney — as well as an avalanche of caps, T-shirts, mugs, pins and other official Olympics merchandise — are being tagged with invisible ink containing DNA strands from an unidentified Australian athlete.

The goal is to thwart increasingly sophisticated forgers trying to get a piece of the $389 million market for Olympics keepsakes.

“High-quality infringements have increased during the past couple of months leading up to the games,” said Catherine McGill, legal counsel and brand protection manager for the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Detail-oriented counterfeiters “copy the swing tags, sewn-in labels and packaging. That is where the DNA comes into its own as being the absolutely foolproof, sure way to determine if something is fake.”

Other ways to combat counterfeiting, such as holograms, can be duplicated by determined bootleggers.

The DNA-laced ink is being applied to most of the 3,500 official souvenirs — some 50 million individual items. It’s the largest deployment ever of DNA as a security device.

McGill oversees a team of 60 “logocops” equipped with special scanners that can detect the DNA ink. The logocops will roam Sydney and other Australian cities,

pouncing on street vendors and retail outlets to determine whether their merchandise is authentic. Australian customs officials have already seized more than 120,000 phony Olympics souvenirs worth millions of dollars that were being sent into the country from overseas, largely from Asia, she said.

DNA Technologies of Los Angeles is the company behind the initiative, which reportedly costs about 5 cents per item.

Chris Outwater, president of DNA Technologies, said the process involves extracting DNA from a blood sample, taking a fraction of it, then amplifying it and adding a small amount to the invisible ink. Some “junk DNA” is also thrown into the mix as a red herring, he said.

“There’s no way someone could take (a sample tag) and reproduce the mark,” he said. “Imagine standing outside the New York City Public Library and challenging a counterfeiter: `I’m using one sentence from one book inside that library; you find that sentence.’ That’s how daunting it would be for someone to figure out what the code is.”

Using DNA, the unique biological signature of each human, for such a commercial purpose signifies how society has come to view DNA as a magic potion, said Susan Lindee, co-author of “The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon,” a 1995 book. “It’s the commercialization of the genome to the most ridiculous degree,” she said. “Promoters have been successful at weaving into popular culture the idea that DNA is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true, authentic, real.”

She challenged Outwater’s assertion that a DNA security code would be counterfeit-proof. “Most people don’t have that kind of technical expertise, but if they’re only using a sequence there are plenty of individuals who could be hired (to duplicate it),” she said. “If it became truly profitable — let’s say all designer clothing were tagged with DNA — there’d be somebody who had a financial stake in figuring out how to copy the DNA and fake it.”

Outwater said some well-known designer brands have adopted the technology on sewn-in labels, but prefer not to publicize it. He hopes to extend the technology to such areas as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and to secure documents and financial instruments, including passports, currency and ID cards.

A reliable, duplication-proof means of authenticating goods is sorely needed. Counterfeit goods in the United States amount to some $200 billion a year.

Fine arts and sports collectibles are areas where authentication is crucial. Artist Thomas Kinkade incorporates some of his own DNA into the signatures inked on his artwork.

PSA/DNA Authentication Services of Newport Beach (Orange County) licenses the DNA Technologies product to authenticate sports memorabilia and autographs. After starting with Mark McGwire’s record-setting 70th home-run ball, it next tagged Hank Aaron’s 715th home-run ball and bat, and now broadly uses the technology.

“Major League Baseball asked us to authenticate all the game balls used during the World Series,” said Jason Meyerson, PSA/DNA president. “We can apply the DNA onto the surface of any collectible with a custom-made felt-tip pen.”

The company will provide representatives to stand next to Joe Montana as he signs autographs and mark each one with the invisible DNA ink, Meyerson said. “What’s beautiful about it is that it’s permanent, nontransferable and invisible.”

Author: Carolyn Said

News Service: SF Gate

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/09/11/BU93468.DTL

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