August 18, 2004

Taking Electronic Discovery to the Molecular Level

Ever since nanotechnology heated up with discussions of nano-sized computer chips, I've been wondering when it would be extended to storing information. This time, it's taken on an organic spin: Courtesy of Engadget, it's been reported that "Korean scientists have created the world’s first Nano-DNA Barcode System (NDBS)."

"Suspended in a DNA-friendly buffer solution, the synthetic DNA may be sprayed-on or suffused into items that are normally hard to tag with a sticker, such as oil, agriculture products, or even money, providing invisible information on product origin, quality, or supplier. And unlike the stuff in us, this barcode DNA doesn’t mutate and is unhackable, making code alteration impossible."

This reminds of when, a number of years ago, graphic artists and photographers starting inserting digital signatures and copyright notices directly into their JPEG images -- due to the massive copying of web art going on at the time.

A DNA barcode would be a cool surreptitious way to track items and supposedly prove authenticity at the same time. However, I question whether it could also be abused. For a simple example, while the DNA code is purportedly unalterable, could a less-than-ethical oil distributer add a lesser grade of oil into a DNA-barcoded lot to "cut" or dilute it, yet still piggyback or pass itself off on the "authentic" DNA code present in the remaining original molecules? It seems to me there would need to be a parts-per-million type baseline established before it shipped, and not the mere presence of the barcode as the authentication.

The "money" application above also opens itself up to tracking other kinds of paper documents -- thus making the usually low-tech analog world of paper suddenly rich with its own style of metadata.

While some of this sounds Sci-Fi-ish, I've been thinking for quite some time that techno-tagging is going to get a lot more personal. RFID and DNA barcoding issues are only the first baby steps. Right now they're only sewing it into our garments.

I've seen numerous EED checklists expanding due to new data storage advances (PDA's, flash drives and memory cards, iPods, cell phones, hybrid consumer devices, etc.). I fully expect that list to become noticeably longer over the coming decade and beyond.

Topic(s):   Electronic Discovery
Posted by Jeff Beard