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Pentagon, Darpa Fear Enemies Could Tamper With Chips

The U.S. military's heavy dependence on overseas-made chips has got the government thinking about how to prevent tampering prior to delivery.
LONDON — The U.S. government is concerned that its weapons systems rely on foreign-manufactured integrated circuits, which could be compromised prior to delivery. As a result, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is soliciting research proposals under the "Trust for integrated circuits" initiative.

The heavy dependence of the U.S. military on overseas-made chips has sparked discussion on how to prevent tampering with ICs prior to delivery.

Among the concerns are that ICs could be doctored crudely in design or manufacture to fail early—for example, by changing chemical composition, by reducing material thicknesses or placing wires too close together. Alternatively, chips could be engineered to misbehave under more specialized circumstances with functional blocks serving as embedded "Trojan horses." That raises the prospect of weapon systems that could appear to be in perfect working order during tests or deployment but which could "switch off" in combat.

Darpa posted a call for proposals under solicitation number BAA06-40 on June 5, calling for researchers to come up with "revolutionary advances in science, devices or systems" to support the verification that chips have been manufactured as intended and without interference. The call for proposals also mentioned issues with protecting intellectual property and military secrets that are, of necessity, embedded in ICs or needed by the manufacturer. The final aspect of the call is to find ways to get around the possible reverse engineering of ICs and systems that are no longer under U.S. control.

The "Trust for integrated circuits" call for proposals specifically referenced a February 2005 study by the Defense Science Board Task Force on "High Performance Microchip Supply," which could be found at when this story was first posted.

This 118-page report covers design, the use of advanced design tools, fabrication, packaging, testing, and monitoring of high-performance ICs within critical systems and subsystems.

"The shift from United States to foreign IC manufacture endangers the security of classified information embedded in chip designs; additionally, it opens the possibility that 'Trojan horses' and other unauthorized design inclusions may appear in unclassified integrated circuits used in military applications," the board's report said. It added, "Neither extensive electrical testing nor reverse engineering is capable of reliably detecting compromised microelectronics components."

It is not clear from the Darpa call how much money the U.S. is prepared to spend and how quickly it expects supported research to yield results.