Beyond the Cloud: Securing Data in Our DNA?

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(DGIwire)    Vint Cerf is one smart man. Widely recognized as one of the fathers of the internet, Cerf is currently vice president of Google. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Simply put, the modern web would not exist without him. Recently, at age 71, Cerf dropped a new technology bombshell: we may lose all the data we have been storing on computers much sooner than we think.

Cerf made this dire prediction on February 13, 2015 in a televised BBC interview. Cerf warned that all the data we store on computers—images, files, documents, music, etc.— could be rendered indecipherable as the software they are stored on becomes obsolete. Cerf used explosive rhetoric in the interview, saying that a digital Dark Age threatens to eradicate our history. What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is, Cerf said.

Think of it in terms of discovering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics with no Rosetta Stone to decipher them. Cerf’s solution to the problem is what he calls “digital vellum”—an operating system needed to read a particular file. This vellum will be stored in the cloud, and when we need to access an antiquated file, we simply search for the operating system to read it with.

Others, however, have proposed different solutions to preserve our data. Researchers from ETH Zurich say we can store infinite amounts of data forever in our DNA. Robert Grass, a lecturer at ETH Zurich and the mastermind behind the plan, claims isolated strands of DNA can hold nearly limitless amounts of information in an extremely compressed form. Using the longevity of fossils and the formulas of the Reed-Solomon codes as inspiration, Grass and his fellow researchers have been furiously trying to attach exterior information to DNA, and then transmit that data back to themselves. While the Zurich scientists maintain that their plan will be both viable and affordable, they are still a long way from putting out a practical product. There are, however, a plethora of exciting DNA-based technologies that currently exist in the marketplace.

Applied DNA Sciences, a company based in Stony Brook, NY, is also using DNA in a different way by offering numerous anti-counterfeit and security solutions. Its mainstay product is SigNature® DNA, derived from double-strand plant DNA that is then embedded into fabrics, plastics, metals and electronics. SigNature DNA markers can essentially replace barcodes, watermarks or microdots as security measures on merchandise, equipment or currency. These marks are impossible to break or alter, and are resistant to UV radiation, extreme temperatures or water damage. They can be used to verify the authenticity of products or identify stolen goods recovered at crimes scenes.

“It may be still on the horizon, but we are excited about the real prospect of DNA being used for data storage,” says Dr. James A. Hayward, President and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences. “It just goes to show the amazing versatility of solutions that DNA allows when applied to 21st-century problems.”