An Unnerving Reality

An Unnerving Reality

Departments - Features

Counterfeit goods have been masquerading as legitimate products for years. But when the difference could mean life or death, it's imperative to have the real thing.

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February 4, 2009

According to an FAA estimate, about 520,000 counterfeit or unapproved parts are currently making it into planes annually, which is about 2% of the overall 26 million active parts. While 2% may seem like a small number, consider that a typical passenger aircraft contains up to 6 million parts, and consider the extreme tolerances for failure to which each part must adhere.

Playing With Fire

The business of counterfeiting products has a multi-layered effect on the aviation universe. Legitimate part suppliers are being cheated out of money, and purchasers are receiving sub-standard products. But, most importantly, the ultimate problem is the danger that a defective part can pose to the pilot, crew and passengers on an aircraft.

A printout of an internal FAA database obtained by Business Week in 1996 showed that from 1973 to 1993, bogus parts played a role in at least 166 U.S.-based aircraft accidents or less serious mishaps. Four of those were accidents involving commercial carriers that resulted in six deaths.

The FAA began to proactively address this problem in 1995, when they enacted the "Suspected Unapproved Parts" (SUP) program. The program was partially spurred by unapproved fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and oxygen supply systems being found in Air Force One. The fact that the most high-security plane in the world contained unapproved components caused much concern regarding this growing threat. The SUP program aims to identify, report, and penalize companies that are known to manufacture and/or distribute components that are either unapproved or counterfeit.

The motivating factor behind the dangerous and unethical practice of supplying counterfeit aircraft parts lies behind one simple incentive: money. Many unapproved parts have been traced back to China. Safety testing, which can cost a significant amount, is often bypassed by counterfeiters. The product is then sold for a considerable profit, often with the purchaser none the wiser.

"One of the factors that determines the ease of counterfeiting relates to how some of the distribution channels work, and whether there are enough people who are effectively distributors with very low profit margins who are involved in the distribution chain," says Paul Kocher, president and chief scientist of Cryptography Research, Inc., a San Francisco-based company that specializes in anticounterfeiting technology. "The more you've got and the smaller [the profit margins] are, and the more competitive the business is, then the more likely you are to have counterfeiting problems."

Counteracting the Counterfeiters

A number of steps can be taken to combat the unapproved aircraft parts business. The FAA's SUP program was a step in the right direction, as was the Aircraft Safety Act of 2000, which detailed a four-tier punishment system for would-be offenders, with repercussions being increasingly stronger with the level of disaster the part causes. However, the problem is still rampant to this day. Other measures can be taken by aircraft manufacturers themselves to help ensure that the parts going into the planes are legitimate.

Counterfeiters often attempt to recreate components by copying the part or serial number of an item. With electrical components, the identification information, or the key, is contained in a chip within the part. Counterfeiters can pull the identification information from a legitimate electrical component by taking a chip apart and looking at it under a microscope, then using the same number to produce a fake.

Cryptography Research is a company that has been battling counterfeit goods for more than 13 years, with securing semiconductors as a main focus all along. The company builds silicon cores that are tamper-resistant and difficult for counterfeiters to copy. For airplane components that have electronic capabilities and have chips in them, Cryptography Research can add a piece of circuitry into the chips, which can authenticate it either to other components on the airplane, to the person installing it, or to anyone who wants to authenticate the component. The silicon core is built in by the manufacturer that is designing the part.


Cryptography Research, Inc. adds a piece of circuitry into chips to ensure proper authentication.

"At the highest level, we are building circuits that have cryptographic keys built into continued from page 46 them," Kocher explains. Cryptographic keys are a set of, typically, anywhere between 100 and 1,000 zeros and ones. "Also in the circuit is logic that does mathematical computations using the key. The key can create messages or provide responses that can show to somebody else or to another component that the key is known by that chip, but it doesn't reveal the key itself."

Ultimately, the ability of a chip to be as effective as an anti-counterfeiting solution rests in how good of a job it can do with keeping somebody with a significant budget from taking the chip apart and pulling the key out.

However, electrical components make up only a small percentage of a plane, and unapproved parts are going into all aspects of aircraft manufacturing. The industry needs to pull together on all fronts to improve this enormous problem, Kocher explains. According to him, manufacturers should be doing more to make their products easily authenticatable and make it more difficult to counterfeit them. Distributers that sell counterfeit or unapproved parts should have heavier penalties to offset the lure of profit. U.S. Customs plays an important roll in terms of policing imports of aircraft components. Finally, according to Kocher, airlines themselves often go to the lowest-cost maintenance company and ask no questions, and instead should make sure that the parts that are getting installed are authentic and the paperwork associated with each part is carefully authenticated.

"There needs to be a custody chain that goes all the way back to an approved manufacturer," Kocher says. "If all of these things got done, you'd still have some problems, but it could easily be a quarter of what it is now."