Friday, March 14, 2014


I attended a meeting today on the DARPA SHIELD program where I learned a lot about the problems of assuring the integrity of electronic hardware.  Counterfeit parts are a major concern for the U. S. military and a growing concern for companies.  The SHIELD program will develop a tag with a unique ID that can be attached to all sorts of electronic components.  The tag chip will be designed to
resist efforts to examine or alter it.

Counterfeit parts are widespread and come from a variety of sources.  False designs that contain Easter eggs designed to activate at a later date and cause problem are just one of the concerns.  A lot of fake chips are recycled from old, recycled electronics; ironically, much of that recycled gear comes from U. S. consumers.  Other fakes were made by the manufacturer but didn't pass all their tests for performance, temperature, etc.  The entities that sell these chips range from mom-and-pop operations to sophisticated criminal organizations to countries.  Some of the counterfeiters just want to make money while others are intent on harming the United States.

Interestingly, DARPA thinks that some of the most serious threat comes not from the high-end components but from simpler, commodity parts.  If your Ethernet chip goes bad, it can cause just as much problems as a bad high-performance CPU.  And intermittent failures, which are common in counterfeits, are harder to debug and trace to the part causing the problem.

Electronic parts have very long, complex supply chains.   All it takes is one slip-up anywhere along that path to allow bad parts to slip into the sytsem. Paperwork on the sources of components isn't enough.  The SHIELD program could make a big change in how we think about manufacturing and using electronics.

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