Integrated circuits, or microchips, are found in any device considered “smart” — from computers, to phones, to refrigerators, to airplanes. Though these ubiquitous wafers of metal and silicon facilitate our lives, they are subject to vulnerabilities.
One threat is piracy. Companies that design integrated circuits invest huge sums into the ideas that make chips work; but since these firms have their chips built through a distributed supply chain that spans continents, their blueprints can be easily poached.
Thirty years ago, everything was done in one place, but today, a microchip could be designed in California, manufactured in South Korea, tested in Taiwan, and packaged in China. At any point along the supply chain, an unsecured chip could be copied or tampered with.
Ozgur Sinanoglu and his team at the Design for Excellence Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi have devised a system to secure integrated circuits at the hardware level, and this innovation may have a huge impact on an industry that loses up to $4 billion USD each year to piracy.
Sinanoglu used a tactic called logic locking, where the chip is locked until a secret, binary code is applied to it. Before the circuit is unlocked, it either simply won’t work, or when it does compute, it creates incorrect outputs. This approach can thwart both piracy and the introduction of malicious circuitry.
Once the defense is created, attackers — usually from other academic labs — are invited to hack the electrical fortifications. “The ultimate way to test your security is to share the details of your design and see if anyone can break it,” said Sinanoglu. “We hope this solution makes it to chips out there in the world to improve hardware security.”