Last September, Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear installation in northeastern Syria. Among the many mysteries still surrounding that strike was the failure of a Syrian radar—supposedly state-of-the-art—to warn the Syrian military of the incoming assault. It wasn’t long before military and technology bloggers concluded that this was an incident of electronic warfare—and not just any kind.
Post after post speculated that the commercial off-the-shelf microprocessors in the Syrian radar might have been purposely fabricated with a hidden “backdoor” inside. By sending a preprogrammed code to those chips, an unknown antagonist had disrupted the chips’ function and temporarily blocked the radar.
That same basic scenario is cropping up more frequently lately, and not just in the Middle East, where conspiracy theories abound. According to a U.S. defense contractor who spoke on condition of anonymity, a “European chip maker” recently built into its microprocessors a kill switch that could be accessed remotely. French defense contractors have used the chips in military equipment, the contractor told IEEE Spectrum. If in the future the equipment fell into hostile hands, “the French wanted a way to disable that circuit,” he said. Spectrum could not confirm this account independently, but spirited discussion about it among researchers and another defense contractor last summer at a military research conference reveals a lot about the fever dreams plaguing the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
Feeding those dreams is the Pentagon’s realization that it no longer controls who manufactures the components that go into its increasingly complex systems. A single plane like the DOD’s next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, can contain an “insane number” of chips, says one semiconductor expert familiar with that aircraft’s design. Estimates from other sources put the total at several hundred to more than a thousand. And tracing a part back to its source is not always straightforward. The dwindling of domestic chip and electronics manufacturing in the United States, combined with the phenomenal growth of suppliers in countries like China, has only deepened the U.S. military’s concern.
Recognizing this enormous vulnerability, the DOD recently launched its most ambitious program yet to verify the integrity of the electronics that will underpin future additions to its arsenal. In December, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s R&D wing, released details about a three-year initiative it calls the Trust in Integrated Circuits program. The findings from the program could give the military—and defense contractors who make sensitive microelectronics like the weapons systems for the F-35—a guaranteed method of determining whether their chips have been compromised. In January, the Trust program started its prequalifying rounds by sending to three contractors four identical versions of a chip that contained unspecified malicious circuitry. The teams have until the end of this month to ferret out as many of the devious insertions as they can.
Vetting a chip with a hidden agenda can’t be all that tough, right? Wrong. Although commercial chip makers routinely and exhaustively test chips with hundreds of millions of logic gates, they can’t afford to inspect everything. So instead they focus on how well the chip performs specific functions. For a microprocessor destined for use in a cellphone, for instance, the chip maker will check to see whether all the phone’s various functions work. Any extraneous circuitry that doesn’t interfere with the chip’s normal functions won’t show up in these tests.
“You don’t check for the infinite possible things that are not specified,” says electrical engineering professor Ruby Lee, a cryptography expert at Princeton. “You could check the obvious possibilities, but can you test for every unspecified function?”
Nor can chip makers afford to test every chip. From a batch of thousands, technicians select a single chip for physical inspection, assuming that the manufacturing process has yielded essentially identical devices. They then laboriously grind away a thin layer of the chip, put the chip into a scanning electron microscope, and then take a picture of it, repeating the process until every layer of the chip has been imaged. Even here, spotting a tiny discrepancy amid a chip’s many layers and millions or billions of transistors is a fantastically difficult task, and the chip is destroyed in the process.
But the military can’t really work that way. For ICs destined for mission-critical systems, you’d ideally want to test every chip without destroying it.
The upshot is that the Trust program’s challenge is enormous. “We can all do with more verification,” says Samsung’s Victoria Coleman, who helped create the Cyber Trust initiative to secure congressional support for cybersecurity. “My advice to [DARPA director] Tony Tether was ’trust but verify.’ That’s all you can do.”
Semiconductor offshoring dates back to the 1960s, when U.S. chip makers began moving the labor-intensive assembly and testing stages to Singapore, Taiwan, and other countries with educated workforces and relatively inexpensive labor.
Today only Intel and a few other companies still design and manufacture all their own chips in their own fabrication plants. Other chip designers—including LSI Corp. and most recently Sony—have gone “fabless,” outsourcing their manufacturing to offshore facilities known as foundries. In doing so, they avoid the huge expense of building a state-of-the-art fab, which in 2007 cost as much as US $2 billion to $4 billion.
Well into the 1970s, the U.S. military’s status as one of the largest consumers of integrated circuits gave it some control over the industry’s production and manufacturing, so the offshoring trend didn’t pose a big problem. The Pentagon could always find a domestic fab and pay a little more to make highly classified and mission-critical chips. The DOD also maintained its own chip-making plant at Fort Meade, near Washington, D.C., until the early 1980s, when costs became prohibitive.
But these days, the U.S. military consumes only about 1 percent of the world’s integrated circuits. “Now,” says Coleman, “all they can do is buy stuff.” Nearly every military system today contains some commercial hardware. It’s a pretty sure bet that the National Security Agency doesn’t fabricate its encryption chips in China. But no entity, no matter how well funded, can afford to manufacture its own safe version of every chip in every piece of equipment.
The Pentagon is now caught in a bind. It likes the cheap, cutting-edge devices emerging from commercial foundries and the regular leaps in IC performance the commercial sector is known for. But with those improvements comes the potential for sabotage. “The economy is globalized, but defense is not globalized,” says Coleman. “How do you reconcile the two?”
In 2004, the Defense Department created the Trusted Foundries Program to try to ensure an unbroken supply of secure microchips for the government. DOD inspectors have now certified certain commercial chip plants, such as IBM’s Burlington, Vt., facility, as trusted foundries. These plants are then contracted to supply a set number of chips to the Pentagon each year. But Coleman argues that the program blesses a process, not a product. And, she says, the Defense Department’s assumption that onshore assembly is more secure than offshore reveals a blind spot. “Why can’t people put something bad into the chips made right here?” she says.