DARPA technology uncovers counterfeit microchips

DARPA partners are developing technologies and software that can certify circuits

Any counterfeit high-tech goods are a serious safety threat to people and cybersecurity as well as a problem for system reliability and performance.

 The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said this week one of its contractors, working on one of the agency’s anti-counterfeit projects has developed and deployed what it calls an Advanced Scanning Optical Microscope that can scan integrated circuits by using an extremely narrow infrared laser beam, to probe microelectronic circuits at nanometer levels, revealing information about chip construction as well as the function of circuits at the transistor level.

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SRI International said it has delivered the Advanced Scanning Optical Microscope (ASOM) technology to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, where it will join an arsenal of laboratory equipment used to ensure the integrity of microelectronics.

 The ASOM technology housed at Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane will help engineers provide forensic analysis of microelectronics, including integrated circuits confiscated by law enforcement officials, DARPA stated.

 The ASOM technology is developed under a DARPA program known as IRIS, or Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits. The IRIS program began in 2010 and according to DARPA looks to develop technologies and software that could validate circuits.

 “Over the past 50 years, the worldwide IC market has expanded dramatically. In 2013, the import value of integrated circuits was $231 billion, up 20% from the previous year. As a result of the globalization of the IC marketplace, most U.S. production of advanced circuits has moved to offshore foundries in Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan and China. While offshore production has served to decrease chip prices globally, it has also made evaluating the integrity of circuitry components increasingly difficult,” DARPA stated.

 The military is a small force in the worldwide IC market, responsible for only about one percent of total demand. Given the relatively low rate of IC consumption by the U.S. military, the DoD has limited ability to influence global production and be confident that parts are delivered as specified, DARPA stated.

 “Without the ability to influence and regulate the off-shore fabrication of IC, there is a risk that parts acquired for DoD systems may not meet stated specifications for performance and reliability,” said said Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager. “This risk increases considerably with the proliferation of counterfeit IC in the marketplace.”

 Fighting counterfeit gear is an ongoing effort at DARPA. In March the agency detailed a program called Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) that will develop a small (100 micron x 100 micron) component, or dielet, that authenticates the provenance of electronics components. Proposed dielets should contain a full encryption engine, sensors to detect tampering and would readily affix to today's electronic components such as microchips, the agency said.

DARPA said it eversions this dielet will be inserted into the electronic component's package at the manufacturing site or affixed to existing trusted components, without any alteration of the host component's design or reliability. There is no electrical connection between the dielet and the host component. Authenticity testing could be done anywhere with a handheld probe or with an automated one for larger volumes. Probes need to be close to the dielet for scanning. After a scan, an inexpensive appliance (perhaps a smartphone) uploads a serial number to a central, industry-owned server. The server sends an unencrypted challenge to the dielet, which sends back an encrypted answer and data from passive sensors-like light exposure-that could indicate tampering, DARP said.

"SHIELD demands a tool that costs less than a penny per unit, yet makes counterfeiting too expensive and technically difficult to do," said Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager. "The dielet will be designed to be robust in operation, yet fragile in the face of tampering. What SHIELD is seeking is a very advanced piece of hardware that will offer an on-demand authentication method never before available to the supply chain."

The idea behind SHIELD will be to develop what DARPA calls a "hardware root‐of‐trust" comprising full onboard encryption, intrusion sensors, wireless communication and power, and hardened cipher key storage.

Technical areas DARPA says the program will look to develop include a new on‐chip hardware‐root‐of‐ trust secret key containers,  passive sensors that detect potential compromises,  ID chip self‐ destruct mechanisms to counter attempted reverse engineering, new manufacturing process technologies to fabricate, personalize, and place these devices, the integration and design of the small ID chips comprising these features.

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