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Blending Academia and Practice to Protect the Microelectronics Supply Chain

June 20, 2022
Arizona State University’s STAM Center educates the next generation of technology security experts and develops new innovations focused on microelectronics security.

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A field of electronics that uses very small and microscopic elements to manufacture electronic components, microelectronics has become one of the most in-demand fields of electronics due to the growing demand for inexpensive, lightweight equipment.

Used often by the government, microelectronics are a prime target for bad actors that target military or dual-use electronic components, according to the Center for Development of Security Excellence (CDSA). The Center says microelectronics help ensure the integrity of military systems in the Department of Defense (DoD), and are used to support “nearly all DoD activities” including communications.

Knowing the importance of the microelectronics supply chain—and the potential threats that could negatively impact it—Arizona State University has established a center dedicated to microelectronics security. The ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering’s Secure, Trusted, and Assured Microelectronics (STAM) Center investigates new technologies and methodologies that offer opportunities for designing secure computing devices and systems that go beyond what is currently achievable.

A Three-Pronged Approach

According to ASU, the center couples its research mission with active recruiting and training of students, especially domestic students, targeting applications of national security importance.

It conducts fundamental research in these three technical areas, all of which focus on establishing a foundation for future secure and trusted semiconductor/microelectronics technologies:

  1. New substrates, synthesis, and fabrication
  2. New computing paradigms and architectures
  3. Integrated sensing, edge computing, and secure communications

The university says STAM Center researchers and students “investigate, design and prototype application-aware processors and embedded systems with cybersecurity compliance, technology transfer and field tests with readiness in mind.” Using a multidisciplinary and integrative approach, teams work on algorithmic optimization, design flow automation, hardware-firmware co-development and prototyping.

Securing the Supply Chain

In “Securing the microelectronics supply chain,” the university highlights some of the STAM’s Center’s projects and accomplishments. It also details the complexities of the microelectronics production supply chain and how a typical semiconductor is manufactured on multiple continents and takes three or more trips around the world—spanning 25,000 miles—during the production phase.

“Over the course of this journey, many security challenges arise,” ASU says. For example, counterfeiting is one issue that’s always been there, but that has increased due to supply chain issues and the resulting chip shortages during the global pandemic. Other security issues include stolen intellectual property and design reverse-engineering.

Bad actors can also manipulate quality control information to pass lower-quality microchips as military-grade for a higher resale price. During production, malicious circuits or components could also be added, ASU says, and activated later to steal critical user information or disrupt the proper function of the device (i.e., a car failing to stop at a red light or a missile striking the wrong location).

“Hardware-based attacks are a particularly insidious form of cyberattacks,” says Michel Kinsy, an ASU associate professor of computer systems engineering who established the STAM Center. “When an attacker is leveraging hardware to mount the attack, it is truly an electronic kneecapping. They are attacking you from within the computing core. There is very little your software or software security apparatus or tools can do.”

Projects Currently Underway

According to ASU, the STAM Center investigates emerging microelectronics technologies, new computation paradigms and new secure hardware root-of-trust techniques through research and development. Its laboratories design and prototype application-driven, complete, secure and trustworthy systems that demonstrate real-world impacts.

The Center’s projects span multiple laboratories and incorporate each other’s resources and their researchers’ expertise. “This strategic approach provides the center with a strong differentiating factor and enables a faster path to commercialization,” Kinsy says.

Right now, for example, STAM Center researchers are exploring integrated circuit (IC) security through vertically stacked ICs in a technique known as 3D integration. They’re also exploring counterfeit-resistant and anti-cloning design methodologies, according to ASU, along with other design obscuration and masking techniques that use self-adaptation to automatically react to threats.

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.