DARPA Looks for Ways to Verify Integrated Computer Chip Security
Reported by Stew Magnuson
Trust, but verify,” was once the axiom that ruled the world of nuclear deterrence.
A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program seeks to do the same with the integrated computer chips that are now embedded in every major U.S. military weapon system.
Malicious circuits, defined by DARPA as “something more” than what is specified by the system designer, can be inserted into integrated chips (ICs) during the design, manufacture and packaging phases, said Dean Collins, a program manager at the agency’s microsystems technology office. Field programmable gate arrays — chips that can be altered after a weapon system has already been fielded — are another possible vulnerability, he said.
“Drastic changes in functionality can occur with only a few changes in interconnections,” he said at a DARPA conference.
Once, the integrated chips that operate the complex weapon systems the U.S. military depends upon were manufactured domestically. In the 1960s, the Defense Department was the world’s leading consumer of the rapidly advancing technology. Today, it buys less than 1 percent of all ICs, and its influence on the market is minimal, Collins said. As a result, the vast majority of IC manufacturing plants has moved overseas.
Even when security-cleared U.S.-based workers designed and built the ICs “in house,” the policy was to trust the procedures, Collins said. When built in secure facilities, a rogue worker could alter a chip, he said. “Don’t trust procedures, only things you can measure,” he added.
DARPA’s new TRUST in IC program is seeking ideas on how to quickly verify that chips only carry out the functions they are designed to do with a minimal amount of false alarms.
Checking chips to ensure nothing is out of the ordinary will be a tough problem to crack, Collins admitted. The program is in its infancy, and DARPA would like to hear from anyone who thinks they can help, he added.
Malicious circuits are difficult to spot. A million transistors can now fit on the head of a pin. Switching as few as 100 connections around can change the function.
“It’s like looking for 100 extra straws in a haystack,” he added.