Security researchers create undetectable hardware trojans

September 17, 2013 – 4:57 PM

A team of security researchers from the U.S. and Europe has released a paper showing how integrated circuits used in computers, military equipment and other critical systems can be maliciously compromised during the manufacturing process through virtually undetectable changes at the transistor level.

As proof of the effectiveness of the approach, the paper describes how the method could be used to modify and weaken the hardware random number generator on Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors and the encryption protections on a smartcard without anyone detecting the changes.

The research paper is important because it is the first to describe how someone can insert a hardware trojan into a microchip without any additional circuitry, transistors or other logic resources, said Christof Paar, chairman for embedded security, Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at Ruhr University in Germany.

Hardware trojans have been the subject of considerable research since at least 2005 when the U.S. Department of Defense publicly expressed concerns over the military’s reliance on integrated circuits manufactured abroad, Paar said.

Often, the individual circuit blocks in a single microchip are designed by different parties, manufactured by an offshore foundry, packaged by a separate company and distributed by yet another vendor. This kind of outsourcing and globalization of chip manufacturing has led to trust and security issues, the paper noted.


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