Using DNA Differently

The next step in identity biometrics will have far-reaching implications for the IoE.


As the Internet of Everything creeps closer and closer, technologies from wireless to biometrics are undergoing metamorphosis.

On the biometrics front, there is a vast array of applications, from fingerprints to facial recognition—even finger vein recognition. But the one that is garnering a lot of attention these days is DNA sequencing, and a subset called rapid DNA sequencing. Both are being investigated for applicability in the IoE.

While not new, DNA capabilities have advanced significantly in the last few years. These advancements have applicability in a number of areas, but they are getting a particularly hard look by the public safety sector. DNA sequencing seems to be a great tool, especially the rapid derivative, for fast and efficient identification in a variety of circumstances. Looking ahead a bit, the ability of DNA technology to be accurate and error-free has some interesting ramifications for the IoE.

Opinions vary
Whenever a highly technical topic such as biometrics is broached, it’s easy to find a vast library of research on what works, how well it works, and under what conditions. The range of experts who have opinions is nearly endless, which is a good thing because it grounds the technology and minimizes the hype.

Those who say biometrics will be the ultimate security platform stand toe to toe with those who see its flaws. “Biometrics, typically crosses multiple boundaries,” says Rajiv Dholakia, vice president of products at Nok Nok Labs. “I like to think of it in two parts, passive and active.”

And going forward, that makes a lot of sense from an IoE perspective. In an IoE world, there will be a lot of activities that require user awareness, while many others simply will be autonomous, or based on some of the advanced artificial intelligence that will accompany this evolution, and they are not always about identity verification.

Dholakia says biometrics certainly will be required for authentication and to prove your identity. This parallels today’s requirement for showing a picture ID when doing certain bank transactions. But there are many more possible uses for this technology. Consider someone sipping a cocktail. With advanced biometrics, and a ubiquitous world of sensors, it’s quite possible the glass will contain sensors that can tell what the person is drinking, when the glass is close to empty, perhaps even read their body language to some degree, and let the bartender know when to check for a refill. In addition, biometrics can be used to sense the level of alcohol in one’s system and let the server know the customer is nearing a high alcohol blood level, or automatically cut off drinks to the customer.

“The interesting thing about this particular application is that this has nothing to do with who I am, where I live, or anything that involves authentication,” notes Dholakia. So biometrics is not always about individual and verifying identity, and increasingly it will find many other use cases.

DNA in advanced biometrics
One of the more intriguing segments of advanced biometrics is DNA analysis. There has been a lot of discussion around what role DNA will play in an expanding field of biometrics. Some are rather eclectic applications, while others are more practical.

DNA sequencing is the process of reading nucleotide bases in a DNA molecule. It is used to unlock the genome. Sequencing DNA involves analyzing and determining the order of the “bases,” the four chemical building blocks known to make up the DNA molecule. The sequence contains genetic data that is carried in a particular DNA segment, and can reveal a plethora of information to the trained scientist.

In the DNA double helix, these four chemical bases will always bond with the same partner to form what are called the base pairs. The chemical Adenine (A) will always bond, or pair with thymine (T). Likewise, cytosine (C) will always pair with guanine (G).

The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs, which map out the instructions for creating and maintaining the human presence. Sequencing can reveal information for determining the stretches of DNA that contain genes and what they carry. Of tantamount importance is the ability to see what changes go on in the genes.

This can be extremely useful for everything from finding signs of disease to security. On the security side, there is work being done on predicting unusual patterns, or even footprints that can suggest instability in psychological makeup that predetermine aggressive behavior, leaning toward potential criminal behavior. In fact, there is an entire discipline, called biosocial criminology, which deals with that aspect.

Much of this is still in the investigation or experimental stages, meaning solid evidence is scarce, but as computing power reaches quantum proportions and Big Data becomes more mainstream, the library of knowledge is growing. One of the touted benefits of Big Data is not just more data, but using Big Data metrics to provide much more accurate and predictable results. Coupled with massive computing capabilities, what took days or even weeks not long ago, now takes hours. Big Data promises to attain real, reliable data that can unequivocally be used to predict behavior.

Rapid DNA
At the same time, advancements in semiconductor technology are accelerating what is being called rapid DNA sequencing (R-DNA). “Technology has moved DNA from the scientific arena to almost a consumable at this point.” notes Paul Karazuba, director of product marketing at Rambus.

R-DNA, is of very strong interest to security agencies, the military, and first-responder services. It is described by the FBI as “the fully automated (hands-free) process of developing a CODIS (combined DNA index system) Core STR profile from a reference sample buccal swab.”

The goal of this automated process is to create field-deployable instruments capable of producing a CODIS-compatible DNA profile within two hours.” That compares to days or weeks for standard DNA analysis.

This has applications well beyond basic criminal investigations, according to Chris Asplen, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing. Some of the tangential applications include human trafficking, immigration, natural disasters, and war crimes. One very hot area is about the capability of the military to track terrorists or militants via their DNA.

There are even questions about whether integrating big data, biosocial criminology techniques and supercomputing would make it possible to ascertain the “biometrics” of entire populations. Why this is even on the radar screen these days is due to leading-edge semiconductor technology that converts the chemically encoded data (A, C, G, T) into digital information (1s, 0s) on a chip. This is the integration of chemistry and electronics, and it is the gateway to making R-DNA a reality.

This approach is still in its infancy, and technology being used is proprietary at this point. It has been colloquially referred to, by one player, as Watson meets Moore. But this technology breaks down both technology and cost barriers, bumping sequencing up an order of magnitude by making it simpler, faster, more cost-effective, and scalable.
Source: sol awakening

DNA and the IoE
There is a fair amount of discussion about DNA, and how it can become part of the biometric family—finger, face, palm, iris recognition, among others. This is still a fairly fuzzy vision, and there are various schools of thought around it. Much of it involves what role biometrics will play in applications (authentication, identification, or simply recognition, for example) for the IoE. But more likely, DNA technology and the various applications will be somewhat peripheral to many mainstream IoE applications.

However, in certain areas such as medicine and security, DNA and the IoE will be inextricably interwoven, and the advancements in these segments will spawn radical changes in several segments. With telemedicine, DNA can be used to custom-tailor medications. In the case of R-DNA, as the analysis and results window keeps shrinking, it can be used on-site to blueprint a person’s genetics in more critical situations such as battlefield conditions. Couple that with everything connected to everything else and the benefits start to pile up.

“On the security side, however, such a dramatic cut in the amount of time to get a DNA sample has huge ramifications for law enforcement, war crimes investigations and immigration,” says Asplen. “When it comes to solving crime (not proving it in court but actually using DNA to find a criminal at large) the value of DNA as an investigative tool is directly proportional to the speed at which it can be leveraged in any given investigation.”

Securing R-DNA
Because R-DNA has moved to the digital domain and involves silicon, all the issues that can compromise chips come into play. Presently, the silicon being used in R-DNA is proprietary, so for now that is less of an issue. But once it goes mainstream and competition develops, that will change and add new security risks, in addition to the familiar challenges of keeping results private.

It’s not foolproof, yet. DNA technology typically is used in areas such as legal, security and medical because of its unquestionable precision. DNA analysis, done properly, is foolproof. But that requires a foolproof analysis process, from acquisition to analysis. That hasn’t always been the case.

There are circumstances where results have been incorrect. The first is the human factor. DNA results must be interpreted by trained scientists. If that doesn’t happen, they can be interpreted wrong and the results can be disastrous. Another circumstance is if the sample is polluted, or cross-contaminated somewhere between the acquisition and the lab. A third involves sloppy labs. Labs have been known to mislabel samples, or allow them to become contaminated.

There are, of course others, and even perhaps some that are yet to be discovered as the technology advances. Therefore, when DNA becomes part of this advanced biometric world, the issues of accuracy and errors must be resolved, or at a minimum, recognized when the occur. So once DNA analysis integrates with IoE platforms, the emphasis will have to be placed on safeguarding, and validating the full procedure chain.

Going forward
Advances in biometrics are somewhat linked to developments in sensors. The more sophisticated—and the more inexpensive—the sensors become, the more biometrics can play a role in a variety of applications. “There is some chatter that DNA testing, in general, and even R-DNA might become an application at the mobile-phone level,” says Karazuba. “DNA testing will become a tool that will be part of an arsenal that will be used by law enforcement, medical, and others to add valuable resources to the analysis of many things.”

Of course it is highly unlikely there will be sufficient processing power in a mobile phone to do DNA analysis, at least in the near future. So the process will simply upload the raw data to the cloud and let data centers do the number crunching. “For now, the mobile device simply functions as a funnel between the cloud and the source of the testing,” says Karazuba.

This will require sufficient bandwidth, of course. As mobile devices become the “first” device for functionality, there will have to be a much wider pipe, and there will need to be more seamless connectivity among networks and systems. Getting results as soon as possible is a key metric for mobile genetic platforms, especially in law enforcement and military situations, and it can make a difference in what direction needs to be taken in the situation.

DNA technology is a fascinating subject. Its role in certain areas, has been long established. Advances such as R-DNA are changing the landscape. With the ability to use DNA to get near immediate results, the field opens dramatically. DNA acquisition will be able to play a role in a much wider situation base.

Evolving platforms like biosocial criminology, with support platforms like Big Data and super computers, are adding big guns to the DNA portfolio. The ability to use DNA technology by the military and to fight terrorism is even more exciting.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to the potential of what DNA sciences will offer for the future. There is much, much more ahead.