Security technology targets chip pirates

Researchers today said they were working on an advanced security technique designed to thwart the billion dollar black-market business of pirated microchips. 

Integrated circuit piracy is growing as US companies outsource production of newer chips with ultra-fine features. Transferring chip blueprints to overseas locations opened new doors for bootleggers who have used the chips to make counterfeit MP3 players, cell phones and computers, among other devices, researchers said.

The answer, or one of the answers to the problem could be a technology called  “EPIC: Ending Piracy of Integrated Circuits." EPIC is based on public key cryptography and works for chips that already have a built-in cryptography module.  Computer engineers at the University of Michigan and Rice University have devised a way that each chip would have its own unique lock and key. The patent holder would hold the keys. The chip would securely communicate with the patent-holder to unlock itself, and it could operate only after being unlocked.

With EPIC protection enabled, each integrated circuit would be manufactured with a few extra switches that behave like a combination lock. Each would also have the ability to produce its own 64-bit random identification number that could not be changed. The chips would not be manufactured with an ID number, but instead with the tools needed to produce the number during activation, researchers said.Because the ID generated in this scheme is derived directly from the chip itself, so without the ID, the chip will not function.

"The chip itself provides the key," said Farinaz Koushanfar, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice. "There is no way to steal it because it doesn't exist until the chip is actually made, and once made, only the designer knows how to decipher the key." 

In tests and research published during the past year, the technology has proven to be stable, unclonable and attack-resilient, researchers said. 

EPIC was to be shown Wednesday at the the  IEEE Design Automation and Test Conference in Europe.

The original technology underlying EPIC was presented last August at the USENIX Security Symposium in Boston. Since the invention of the method, Koushanfar has collaborated with a number of researchers to build upon her original scheme. In October, at the International Conference in Computer Aided Designs, Koushanfar and Rice graduate student Yousra Alkabani, in collaboration with Miodrag Potkonjak from UCLA, showed the first method that could continuously check, control, enable and disable a chip's operation online by integrating the chip's fingerprints into its functionality and actively checking them during operation, researchers said in a release.

The National Science Foundation and DARPA fund Koushanfar’s research. Koushanfar is also the director of the Texas Instruments DSP Leadership University program at Rice and has close industrial-level collaborations on her hardware security projects.  

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