Global production trends have introduced significant vulnerabilities into electronics hardware. Integrated circuits that once were created by a single company, possibly under a single roof, now are produced by "fabless foundries" with few or no facilities of their own. State-of-the-art production instead relies on a complex, international design and manufacturing process. The same development flow and novel physics that are pushing chips to new levels also expose new security risks.

Compounding Risk

Designs may be generated with tools from multiple software vendors. Source code may be written by different companies, possibly in different countries. Key technical elements may be licensed from third parties. Foundries and their customers rarely know with absolute certainty whose hands a chip has passed through, whether a latent issue has occurred, and how the chip will perform in all circumstances.

In addition, modern nano-scale fabrication is adding complexity to reliability and resiliency issues. The performance of individual transistors has become increasingly variable, making overall system reliability challenging. Shrinking voltage margins increase susceptibility to errors that historically were seen only in space environments. Additionally, wear-out and aging effects appear sooner in the lifetime of integrated circuits and with more variability.

The resulting technology could have profound consequences for everything from misfires or failures of major US infrastructure, both physical and virtual, to individual smartphone performance.

Toward Hardware Security

SURE will focus on four key areas: trust, security, resilience and reliability. Trust is defined as assurance that hardware is what it's supposed to be, no more and no less. Security involves ensuring that chips can’t be hacked or counterfeited. Resilience concerns error tolerance, or ability to withstand harsh environments in space or from ground-based radiation. And reliability centers on ensuring chips don’t wear out prematurely. Inherent complexities in state-of-the-art electronics have significantly compromised all four areas – making concerns that once were highly specialized pervasive across electronics applications.