Last month it was reported that a crew of international con artists allegedly convinced a U.S. defense contractor to ship out millions of dollars worth of sensitive military hardware. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made up a fictitious law enforcement agency website and address and was able to convince the Department of Defense to supply more than a million dollars in military equipment.

These two stories highlight how military equipment is all too often shipped out without any way of it actually being tracked once it leaves the warehouse. In the case of the scammers, who used fake IDs and a phony shipping address, they made off with merchandize worth more than $10.6 million, including $3.2 million in classified gear.

“Shrinkage” – the retail term for stolen merchandize – is actually a common problem in the world of military defense hardware. While sensitive hardware and weapons generally aren’t the items stolen, more common items such as batches of hard drives, memory cards and other computer hardware disappears on routine basis.

The commercial world also deals with the so-called issue of “it fell off the truck,” but in recent years has begun to use RFID (radio-frequency identification), which utilizes an electromagnetic field to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. Unlike with barcodes, these tags do not need to be within the line of sight of a reader, and can be embedded in the tracked object.

RFID could be “downsized” so that it is harder to even know it is there.

Nanotechnology and how to track military hardware

Nanotechnology is the science, engineering and technology conducted at the “nanoscale,” which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. To put that in perspective, a sheet of a newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

“Nanotechnology covers a host of sins, the common thread being ‘tiny,'” explained Roger Kay, technology analyst and founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“Beyond that, it can be anything,” Kay told ClearanceJobs. “It could be used for ‘fingerprinting’ or tagging an item with a unique signature that would be hard to detect. It could be used as a beacon or transmitter, some hidden passive device that could be scanned or pinged regularly with GPS or some other way.”

Nanotechnology today encompasses a huge number of technologies with many varied applications, all about getting smaller in ever creative ways. It would be so tiny it could be implanted within shipping materials as well as actual products, allowing items to be tracked.

Efforts to disable the nanotechnology could prove futile as it could render any high-tech device – such as a hard drive or memory card – also unusable in the process.

“It will come down to how you manipulate material on an unbelievably small scale,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland.

Size could have other advantages for tracking software, as well.

“All computation is based on moving data around, and the closer we can place data to where it needs to be, the faster we can move it there, which speeds up those computations,” Purtilo told ClearanceJobs. “The way we make components ‘close’ is to make them small – really small.”

Protecting Items in Transit

There are already companies exploring how nanotechnology could be used to enhance current RFID methods of tracking military and government contractor shipments. Atlanta, GA-based LocatorX has developed tools that can provide item-level tracking to help safeguard against foreign actors from obtaining U.S. military technologies.

The company has developed its own automated inventory systems that leverage Internet of Things (IoT) technology and offers the power of certified event logs to provide accurate, real-time asset inventories with very little manual input and at a lower price point than rival tracking systems.

“These products will help U.S. defense contractors to manage the sale and shipment of military technologies and critical assets by providing automated inventory, anti-fraud protection, asset location, and environmental sensors to safeguard the status of products in the supply chain,” Scott Fletcher, CEO of LocatorX, told ClearanceJobs.

“Through the use of certified asset labels and certified ‘chips-in-labels’ containing ultra-low cost and Ultra Low Power Communications (ULPC) chipsets that contain tracking definable chain-of-trust event logs and encrypted serialization, nanotechnologies will enable contractors to have more insight into where their shipments are located at any given time,” Fletcher added.

“Utilizing wireless technology and IoT to manage supply chain tracking and logistics in an unprecedented manner has the potential to disrupt the marketplace,” said Deborah Lee James, former secretary of the U.S. Air Force and LocatorX board member.

“The impact these products will have on the U.S. defense sector will likely be transformational,” James told ClearanceJobs. “The proposed solution is a cradle to grave asset management solution that can provide the basis of technology enhancements for years to come.”

Nanotechnology can protect items from threats beyond shipping – including safeguarding hardware from theft by employees or other bad actors.

“Nanotech would be what helps with safe storage, better preservation of properties of what is shipped – you could use it to encode information in creative ways,” said Purtilo, who added that there are still some challenges that may need to be overcome. “All the challenges of maintaining reliability in a supply chain would surely apply to products packed with or marked by various nanotechnology means, so probably a suite of related technologies are needed to work together to offer assurance about origin, provenance, authenticity and so on.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.