Foiling Electronics Fraudsters
Pitt Engineers Receive $553K from NSF to Develop Electronic Hardware that Thwarts Counterfeiting Attempts
A new project, led by the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is exploring the use of new materials to create programmable hardware that can thwart counterfeiting attempts with fewer devices and lower energy requirements. The project recently received $553,482 from the National Science Foundation.
Counterfeiting is big business: hardware counterfeiting and intellectual property piracy costs the U.S. more than $200 billion annually. To address this issue, Pitt engineers are developing hardware solutions that obscure the true function of device components. The approach—called polymorphic electronics—involves engineering a circuit so that it can be reprogrammed on-the-fly, making it much harder to counterfeit.
For example, a circuit could be locked or hidden during manufacturing and only unlocked when ready for deployment using a precise set of control signals only known by the designer.
A new project, led by the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is exploring the use of new materials to create such programmable hardware with fewer devices and lower energy requirements. The project recently received $553,482 from the National Science Foundation.
“Hardware security breaks are often executed in the form of malicious circuity, known as a Hardware Trojan—a modification or insertion made by an untrusted third party,” said principal investigator Susan Fullerton, Associate Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Vice Chair for Graduate Education, and Bicentennial Board of Visitors Faculty Fellow. “To address this problem, hardware solutions are needed, and demonstrating a configurable transistor like the one we are proposing represents a large step towards realizing polymorphic electronics to improve hardware security.”
The transistors currently being explored for this purpose have fixed polarity, or require continuously supplied power to maintain their state. However, the proposed transistor’s polarity is set and locked during operation without needing a constant power supply to maintain the state. This innovation means the device will use less energy, and few devices will be needed overall, enabling a smaller design.
“The annual cost to the American economy from hardware piracy and intellectual property theft is staggering,” said David Hickton, founding director of Pitt Cyber, which is not directly involved in the project. “Professor Fullerton’s approach to anti-counterfeiting is remarkably promising. These types of hardware-based security innovation solutions, in combination with continued policy efforts, have the potential to mitigate this ongoing threat to our economy.”
Joining Fullerton as co-principal investigators are Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Ke Xu, an Assistant Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy and program faculty in Microsystems Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology.
The project, titled “Ion-Locked Polymorphic Electronics for Hardware Security,” began Aug. 20, 2021.