The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

An Unhackable QR Code to Fight Bogus Chips

New QR code could stem the tide of counterfeit chips

2 min read
An Unhackable QR Code to Fight Bogus Chips
Photo: Adam Markman and Brhram Javidi

imgPhoto: Adam Markman and Brhram Javidi

To combat the rising threat posed by counterfeit microchips, researchers from the University of Connecticut now suggest the QR codes often used in ads and signage could be made nearly impossible to hack for use in security.

The UConn researchers claim that their new codes are very difficult to duplicate and decrypt, and could potentially help stem the flood of counterfeit electronics. They detailed their findings in the February issue of IEEE Photonics Journal.

Counterfeit electronics are on the rise, and could pose dangers to national security. For instance, a 2011 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing noted an increasing number of counterfeiting incidents were seen in the Department of Defense supply chain, from 3,868 incidents in 2005 to 9,356 incidents in 2008, mostly involving chips that came from China. In one key case, mission computers for high-altitude missiles used to destroy incoming missiles contained suspect counterfeit memory devices, a problem that cost nearly $2.7 million to fix.

To defend against counterfeiting, researchers at the University of Connecticut suggest enlisting QR codes, square bar codes that smartphones can read to look up information. The new strategy involves scaling the black and white boxes making up a QR code to just a few micrometers or millimeters in size to replace the electronic part number currently stamped on most chips. All the vital information about the chip, such as its function, capacity and part number, can be compressed into this code so a smartphone can obtain it without accessing the Internet, reducing its vulnerability to hacking.

To protect the data on this microscopic QR code, the researchers first encrypt it using double-random-phase encryption, scrambling it to resemble the snowy mass of black and white dots seen on television noise. They add an extra layer of security using photon-counting imaging techniques used to detect extremely low amounts of light, turning this snowy picture into a dark field sprinkled a few pixels of light, a sparse image they say is more robust against hacking.

The Conversation (0)

Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

Peer-to-peer file sharing would make the Internet far more efficient

12 min read
An illustration of a series
Carl De Torres

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

Keep Reading ↓Show less