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The CHEST Center Sets its Sights on the Semiconductor Security

July 28, 2021
A consortium of five universities is addressing security, assurance and trust across all levels and stages of semiconductor manufacturing.

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The “brains” of modern technology, semiconductors play a key role in our everyday lives. Used to manufacture various kinds of electronic devices, including diodes, transistors and integrated circuits, these chips are well known for their compactness, reliability, power efficiency and low cost.

And as demand for electronic devices increases, the importance of securing those devices and the mechanisms that they run on goes up exponentially. “This will require a holistic approach to weave security in semiconductor manufacturing carefully,” Semiconductor Review points out.

As technology continues to advance, organizations are paying closer attention to the role of security in semiconductor manufacturing. “The techniques and procedures to verify security must catch up to the robustness of chips that implement them,” the publication continues. “A secured chip system is paramount for the safe and reliable operation of electronic devices.”

Tampering with Chips

Just as computer networks can be vulnerable to cyberattacks, semiconductor chips also can be tampered with in ways that could compromise the safety of cars, airplanes, electric grids, defense systems or any of the growing number of technologies that depend on these electronic components.

Knowing this, The University of Texas at Dallas has joined forces with five other universities to establish the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust (CHEST). The new   research center focuses on protecting the security of semiconductors, the circuit boards they are mounted on and other computer hardware.

 As the largest National Science Foundation Industry–University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC), the CHEST Center is funded by a combination of National Science Foundation grants and memberships by industry and non-profit institutions. The overall investment in CHEST exceeds $13 million, including equal NSF funds for each university and dues from Industrial Advisory Board members. Congress included $3 million for the center through the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

Integrity, Tenacity & Growth

CHEST coordinates university-based research with the needs of industry and government partners to advance knowledge of security, assurance, and trust for electronic hardware and embedded systems. “We will achieve natural growth by continuously providing high quality security, assurance and trust strategies for cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things (IoT),” the organization states on its website. “Through integrity, tenacity, and growth, we will enable confidence in our members’ ability to meet fundamental human needs, along with supporting broader social, environmental, and economic progress as a nation.”

CHEST’s current focuses include identification, detection, monitoring, mitigation and elimination of vulnerabilities that affect hardware and embedded systems. The group covers all levels of hardware and embedded systems design: system, architectural, board, microprocessor, embedded system, application specific integrated circuit (ASIC), field programmable gate array (FPGA), and other circuits.

“Threats to hardware and embedded devices cover a broad range of attack vectors with the integration of design, manufacturing, supply chains, operations and complex assemblies of hardware, software and firmware,” it says, adding that vulnerabilities can be introduced at any hardware design level and any stage of the product lifecycle.

“The NSF CHEST Center addresses security, assurance, and trust across all levels and stages,” CHEST notes, “and is inventing and disseminating technologies, practices and guidelines to stakeholders and educating a next generation of experts.”

Reducing Attack Entry Points

UT Dallas says it’s currently leading the consortium’s research on the security and trust of wireless communication devices, threat detection and prevention, protection of intellectual property from unauthorized use and provenance attestation, which involves a record that describes entities and processes involved in producing the devices.

“Increasingly, hardware can be the entry point for a cyberattack,” said Dr. Yiorgos Makris, director of UT Dallas’ CHEST effort. “That’s why it is so important for researchers, industry, and national and federal laboratories to work together to develop solutions.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

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

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