Researchers have shown that it is possible to compromise the functioning of a cryptographic chip without changing its physical layout.
Based on altering the distribution of dopants in a few components on the chip during fabrication, this method represents a big challenge for cyber-security as it is nearly impossible to detect with any currently practical detection scheme.
Progress in the design and fabrication of processor chips is mainly aimed at making them faster and smaller. There is another important requirement, however – ensuring that they function as intended. In particular, the cryptographic functions of new chips must provide the level of security with which they were designed. If they fail in this task, even use of sophisticated security software, physical isolation, and well vetted operators cannot ensure the security of a system.
Such structural attacks on the functions of a chip are called hardware Trojans, and are capable of rendering ineffective the security protecting our most critical computer systems and data. Both industry and governments have put a great deal of not very public effort into the problem of hardware Trojans. The most reliable tests to find hardware Trojans will be applied to the finished product. So how are they tested and what are the implications of the new research?
Functional testing is the sort of testing with which most people are familiar. The function of a chip is tested by applying patterns of test inputs to the input pins of the chip. The outputs are monitored, and compared with the outputs expected from the original specifications and definition of the chip.
Extremely sophisticated devices for functional testing abound in the world of IC design and fabrication. Unfortunately, such testing is usually not very effective for finding hardware Trojans. It is impossible in any practical sense to test all patterns of activation of all components in the chip, so the test patterns are usually designed to test all the known gates on the chip. While such patterns catch most accidental design flaws and fabrication defects, they are likely to fail to activate malicious logic elements added to the original design.
The most direct approach to find hardware Trojans is to disassemble the chip layer by layer, and compare it with the correct structural design. If there is a visible difference (possibly detected with scanning electron microscopy rather than a camera) between the layers of the chip as designed and the layers of the actual chip, there is a problem that needs to be diagnosed. This is essentially the procedure that would be undertaken to reverse-engineer a chip.
While reverse-engineering a chip sounds like a good way to detect hardware alterations, the problem is considerably more slippery when the goal is to find hardware Trojans. When reverse-engineering is the goal, you start with your competitor’s chip, and try to decipher and duplicate the chip. While various techniques can be applied to the chip to complicate this process, you are never in any doubt that the original chip works properly.
If a production chip is suspected of harboring hardware Trojans, however, the structure revealed in the disassembly process must be compared with some reference design. The ideal reference is a “golden chip”, meaning a chip known to accurately reflect the goals of the desired chip functionality with no additions, subtractions, or alterations. We’ll talk about where such a chip might come from later.
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