The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) announced on Wednesday that advanced software and equipment it developed to spot counterfeit microelectronics in U.S. weapons and cyber security systems has been handed over to military contractors to continue development.
DARPA said the product of its Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits (IRIS) program: the Advanced Scanning Optical Microscope (ASOM) technology was transferred to the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Crane, Indiana, where it will be used to inspect microelectronics for signs of tampering or compromise. The technology was developed with the help of SRI International, an IRIS contractor.
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“The ASOM technology housed at NSWC Crane will help engineers provide forensic analysis of microelectronics, including integrated circuits (IC) confiscated by law enforcement officials,” DARPA said in a statement.
The DoD is a major buyer of integrated circuit chips, which are mainly manufactured outside the U.S. But the U.S. military doesn’t buy nearly enough to have influence to keep production of the chips domestic, or to influence their design and production of the chips imported to the U.S. – a $231 billion market.
“While offshore production has served to decrease chip prices globally, it has also made evaluating the integrity of circuitry components increasingly difficult,” DARPA said in a statement. “Without the ability to influence and regulate the off-shore fabrication of IC, there is a risk that parts acquired for DoD systems may not meet stated specifications for performance and reliability,” said Kerry Bernstein, a DARPA program manager. “This risk increases considerably with the proliferation of counterfeit IC in the marketplace.”
DARPA began IRIS in 2010 with the goal of developing technologies and software that could validate circuits for military use. Tools such as ASOM allow engineers to conduct nondestructive tests and identify modifications made to the integrated circuits used in a variety of electronic systems and devices.
The microscope scans integrated circuits using an extremely narrow infrared laser beam, which probes microelectronic circuits at nanometer levels, revealing information about chip construction as well as the function of circuits at the transistor level.
Supply chain compromises are a major concern for the U.S. military and for private firms, as well. In July, the security firm TrapX identified new malware it dubbed Zombie Zero that was installed on Microsoft Windows-based scanners manufactured in China and sold to U.S. logistics firms.
The DARPA technology is designed to ferret out even more subtle compromises buried deep inside integrated circuits and other hardware that cannot easily be assessed.
“The Advanced Scanning Optical Microscope—one of many IRIS-developed technologies—offers important hardware security and reliability assurance capabilities,” said Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager. “These tools are optimized to support the mission of ensuring trust in microelectronics in DoD labs such as NSWC Crane.”