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Good Chip, Bad Chip, Evil Chip: Viterbi Experts Developing Tests to Tell Which is Which

ISI researchers to participate in high priority DARPA effort to ensure reliability of integrated circuits in military equipment
Eric Mankin
July 15, 2011 —

Jeff Draper
Two specialists working at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's Information Sciences Institute have received a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to aid in the creation of reliable methods to detect potential failures, inadvertent and deliberate, in integrated circuits (ICs).

The research groups led by Jeffrey Draper and Matthew French are participating in the Integrity and Reliability of Integrated CircuitS (IRIS) program of the DARPA Microelectronics Technology Office.

IRIS addresses a growing security problem. Integrated circuits are now embedded in every aspect of modern life and machinery and are ubiquitous in sophisticated military equipment. But as a DARPA overview noted, the majority of such ICs “are made offshore…which presents a potential risk that the parts acquired abroad will not operate only in the specified manner.… At present, the United States does not have a comprehensive program to certify that the ICs being used in U.S. weapons systems do not contain malicious functions.”

IRIS will foster the development of technology for deriving the functionality of an IC to unambiguously determine if malicious modifications have been incorporated and to accurately determine the IC's useful lifespan from a physical perspective.

ICs are at the core of most systems and provide the critical functionalities that differentiate systems (e.g., detection and signal processing, targeting and processing). Modifications such as additions in functionality or intentionally reduced lifespan could cause faulty operation of such systems.

The ISI IRIS Test Article Generation (ITAG) project that Draper and French will carry on will develop a series of designs and then chips that will be used to test the integrity and reliability assessment technology under development by other participants in the IRIS program. ITAG will deliver about 10 such designs in the next three years.

“Our role on the program,” said Draper, “is to provide test vehicles for challenging integrity and reliability issues in ICs. In the process, not only will we be conducting research into integrity and reliability issues, but peripherally, into other architecture areas of interest, including energy vs. resilience trade-offs, network-on-chips, and fine-grained computing.”

Matt French

The current ISI effort grows out of the results and infrastructure of a previous DARPA study, Trust in Integrated Circuits, in which ISI played a key role. As DARPA noted in its published award intent, “ISI is in a unique position to conduct the subject research due to the fact they are currently providing such services in support of the Trust program. The same team, resources, access to in-house laboratories, and existing contractual/IP arrangements with vital commercial IC product/solution developers will ensure that a high quality set of test articles is produced in time to support DARPA's impending IRIS program.”

French noted that “DARPA recognized ISI’s unique role under the Trust program in our ability to combine state-of-the-art research in circuit design with reliable, low cost manufacturing provided by ISI’s MOSIS integrated chip fabrication service, while at the same time building off ISI’s legacy of developing research community infrastructure similar to such programs as ARPAnet DNS, the DETER testbed and grid computing.”

Draper is an ISI project leader and also a research faculty member of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. An expert in chip architecture, he has previously participated in the creation of a number of advanced processing-in-memory chips. French is an ISI project leader with expertise in intelligent control of computer architectures and reconfigurable computing.