Can a microscopic component foil electronics counterfeiters?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has started a new program, the Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD), to combat the use of counterfeit electronics in the defense supply chain. The program is currently seeking proposals to develop a tiny, cheap authentication system, according to a posting on the FedBizOps website.

Counterfeit electronic components such as microchips are a major problem for the Defense Department, where a single malfunctioning part can reduce reliability and threaten the lives of soldiers. A 2011 Senate Armed Services Committee investigation found at least 1,800 cases of counterfeit parts in U.S. weapons and about 1 million suspected counterfeit parts in the supply chain. In a single missile interceptor system, the Missile Defense Agency found 800 fake parts; it cost over $2 million to replace them.

The proposal specifies a small (100 micron x 100 micron, about a tenth of the size of the tip of a pencil) component, or dielet, that would validate the authenticity of electronics components. The dielet would have to have a full encryption engine, be easily attachable to components and have sensors to detect tampering. The dielet would be attached to electronics at the original manufacturing site or to trusted parts without maintaining an electric connection or interfering with the functionality of the component.

DARPA anti counterfeit dielet

An artist's rendition of a proposed dielet.

The program envisions the use of either an automated or handheld probe to closely scan the dielet, uploading a serial number to a central server. The server would then send an unencrypted challenge to the dielet, which would respond by sending an encrypted answer and data from its sensors.

According to the DARPA announcement, the technology would have to provide complete protection against:

  • Covertly repackaged components used for unauthorized applications.
  • Recycled components that are passed off as new.
  • Low-quality clones and copies that may have hidden functions.
  • Unlicensed overproduction of authorized components.
  • Substandard components sold as high-quality ones.
  • Parts labeled with a newer date of manufacture or falsely elevated reliability.

The program is seeking an inexpensive solution that would disincentivize would-be counterfeiters. SHIELD will host a Proposers’ Day Workshop on March 14.

“SHIELD demands a tool that costs less than a penny per unit, yet makes counterfeiting too expensive and technically difficult to do,” said Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager. “The dielet will be designed to be robust in operation, yet fragile in the face of tampering. What SHIELD is seeking is a very advanced piece of hardware that will offer an on-demand authentication method never before available to the supply chain.”

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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