New Approach Fights Microchip Piracy
by Linda Dailey Paulson
A Rice University researcher has developed an innovative process designed to make it harder to use pirated microchips. Using the approach by Rice University assistant professor Farinaz Koushanfar, chip designers would lock their processors electronically upon fabrication. Only the chip designer could provide the unlocking signal and would do so only if contacted by the product manufacturer that is supposed to be using the processor.
Piracy has become a growing problem during the last few years as an increasing number of chip designers have turned to overseas foundries to build their processors, said Koushanfar. They do this because multibillion-dollar fabrication plants are too expensive for all but the biggest chip vendors to build.
Individuals or groups of people steal chips from the foundry and sell them to device counterfeiters, who frequently use them to make MP3 players, cell phones, computers, and other types of machines. According to Koushanfar, chip piracy is growing more than 20 percent annually.
She said her antipiracy approach uses small, standard, unclonable manufacturing variations in chips, such as tiny clock delays, as the processors’ unique identifiers.
The chip itself is built electronically locked. Only the designer can unlock the chip via a signal that includes a unique code.
For this to occur, the maker of the device that is going to contain the chip must put the processor in electronic contact with the designer. This is something a chip thief couldn’t do. The processor’s signals to the designer would reflect its unique identifier.
Cracking the security by reverseengineering the scheme would be very difficult because chip designs are so complex, according to Koushanfar.
In 2008, she collaborated with University of Michigan associate professor Igor Markov to use her research to create Ending Piracy of Integrated Circuits technology.
EPIC works like her original antipiracy scheme but uses publickey cryptography as the locking and unlocking mechanism. This is good for chips that already have cryptography modules.
The researchers have built prototypes of protected processors and are collaborating with several companies, including IBM and Texas Instruments, that are interested in the technology. Koushanfar said the technique could appear commercially in three to five years.
Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research for the Yankee Group, a market research firm, said that the approach is clever but that hackers have been pretty good in the past at bypassing such security systems.
Moreover, he added, system malfunctions might keep legitimate users from working with the chips they’ve paid for.