New technology uses microchip fingerprints to combat chip pirates

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Washington, Mar 12 : Pirated microchips i.e. chips stolen from legitimate factories or made from stolen blueprints, have been a major problem for chipmakers. But now, thanks to techniques developed at Rice University, it will be possible for chip designers to lock and remotely activate chips with a unique ID tags.

When a chip is locked with this new technology, originally invented by Farinaz Koushanfar, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice, only the patent-holder can decipher the key and activate the chip, making knockoffs and stolen chips completely worthless.

"Ours is the first remote-activation scheme that protects integrated circuits against piracy by exploiting their inherent, unclonable variability. We use slight variations that arise in modern manufacturing to create a unique, digital identification that acts like a fingerprint for each chip, and we integrate that into the chip's functionality," said Koushanfar.

Ever since the invention of this method, Koushanfar has collaborated with a number of researchers to build upon her original scheme and last October came out with 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.

And this month, Koushanfar and colleagues at the University of Michigan have developed a new form of the technology called "EPIC: Ending Piracy of Integrated Circuits" at the IEEE Design Automation and Test Conference in Europe.

This new technique is based on public key cryptography and works for chips that already have a built-in cryptography module. In all the previous researches, the new technology has proven to be stable, unclonable and attack-resilient.

"The public tends to overlook hardware piracy and focus instead on the well-known and oft-publicized problem of software piracy. But some intellectual-property experts who have studied both estimate that the economic losses from hardware piracy is more severe compared to software piracy," said Koushanfar.

Hardware piracy has become increasingly problematic as the escalating costs of microchip production have led chip-design companies to get out of the manufacturing business. In case the design and manufacturing are done by different companies, the design company's sole asset is the intellectual property (IP) associated with the integrated circuit's (IP) blueprints.

Already, hardware makers have put to use a number of approaches to safeguard designers' IP, including stamping chips with watermarks, registering legitimate chips in databases and requiring the one-time use of an ID to unlock a chip's functionality.

However, it is the safeguarding individual ICs, and not IPs, that is the unique aspect and contribution of Koushanfar's work.

Koushanfar said her original technology and the collaborative work later is a step ahead from previously tried schemes because the ID generated in her scheme is derived directly from the chip itself, and without the ID, the chip will not function.

"The chip itself provides the key. 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," she said.

ANI

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