UF researchers bolster computer chip security

Technician putting CPU on motherboard socket
Technician putting CPU on motherboard socket

Computers power nearly everything, from the planes we fly and cars we drive to the device allowing you to read this article.

Nations invest heavily in vital infrastructure powered by computer chips, and yet, even governments and defense contractors fall into the trap of purchasing counterfeit computer chips.

At a 2012 hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Brian Toohey, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, told senators that an estimated 15 percent of the spare and replacement parts purchased by the Pentagon are counterfeit.

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, semiconductor manufacturers shut down, staunching the flow of computer chips into the market and causing an ongoing shortage.

“That’s going to create a vacuum for counterfeits,” UF associate professor Domenic Forte said in an interview. “When it’s tougher to get certain types of chips, that’s when counterfeiters take advantage.”

Forte and Nima Maghari, also an associate professor at UF, discovered and researched a new “universal testing technique” that could save both business and government time and money.

UF professor Domenic Forte

Many counterfeit chips work like normal computer chips. The deceit lies in the fact that the chips are sold as brand new when the counterfeiters actually recycled it.

“And because of the shortage, they recycle that chip,” Maghari said. “They take it off of the board, they polish it and sell it as new.”

But these counterfeit chips are more prone to fail because of the recycled parts.

Forte and Maghari’s technique zeros in on a computer chip component called low-dropout regulators (LDO). An LDO cleans up electrical voltage when it is converted from the battery’s voltage, like 3.7 for a cell phone, into the specific voltages needed for different parts of the electrical chip, like central processing units (CPUs) and gated recurrent units (GRUs).

UF professor Nima Maghari

Once a computer chip is used, the LDO’s ability to clean up the voltage changes. By measuring that change or degradation, you can tell if the LDO is new or used.

“If you get a chip that’s been used, (the LDO) has been aged,” Forte said. “There’s no way to avoid it; there’s no way to undo it.”

Unlike other techniques, Forte and Maghari’s universal test applies to both analog and digital chips.

Another key is simplicity. Current testing techniques require state-of-the-art equipment or specialized job positions.

“For a microprocessor/microcontroller, the tests that have to be done could be in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Forte said.

Even on the lower end of the spectrum, tests cost thousands of hours and dollars to companies.

But anyone can run the universal technique without a specialized job position or hundreds of hours of training. And no thousand-dollar machines are needed either.

“I would probably say it would save a few hours per chip, and that’s at a minimum,” Forte said. “And then if you go through more advanced tests like X-ray and these materials-based tests, I mean, you’re looking at even more savings.”

With companies buying chips in bulk, saving a few hours per chip adds up, but computer chip owners must first buy the parts before testing them.

Even authorized distributors of computer chips can sometimes include counterfeits unknowingly. So chips bought from an authorized source need testing before being installed into a fighter jet or public transport vehicle.

The industry uses different standards for physical and electrical testing techniques.

“It takes years upon years for them to create these standards and revise them,” Forte said. “So there’s potential that (the universal testing technique) would make it into one of those standards eventually.”

The patent for the technique was published in March, and now the researchers are awaiting the actual patent.

While the technique won’t prevent buyers from purchasing counterfeits to begin with, it can save the time and money used to test the chips, ensuring only authentic chips are used.

In July 2020, the Army Research Office awarded Forte a $1 million grant to continue research into securing electronic hardware.

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