Magnetic tunnel junctions can help prevent intellectual property manipulation and piracy.

Imagine watching a movie about a rogue employee who compromises security at a company that inserts chips into half of the computers on the planet. They enslave the world by installing Trojans in systems all over the world.

According to Rajat Kumar, a Ph.D., this is not unfathomable. D. student working in Yehia Massoud’s lab at KAUST He confirms that a single company currently provides more than half of the chips in use worldwide, including nearly all of the most sophisticated chips.

The group led by Massoud investigates cutting-edge technology that might strengthen chip security. Multifunctional logic gates have been recently reported to provide users with a number of hardware security benefits. Better device control, tamper resistance, watermarking, fingerprinting, and layout camouflage are a few of these.

“A single business presently supplies more than half of the world’s chips, and virtually all of the most sophisticated chips.”

Rajat Kumar, a Ph.D. student in Yehia Massoud’s lab at KAUST.

Even if a semiconductor foundry is extremely reliable, Massoud warns, “a dishonest entity in the supply chain could tamper with chips.”

“If these were defense force chips, a breach could compromise the security of the whole nation.”.

There is a risk of counterfeiting, intellectual property theft, or intercepting and reverse engineering of classified chips when purchasing components from a long, complex supply chain.

As a safe substitute, Kumar and associates investigated polymorphic gates built from nanoscale structures with an oxide layer sandwiched between two ferromagnetic layers. By flipping the relative orientation of the magnetic spins of the ferromagnetic layers, these structures—known as magnetic tunnel junctions (MTJ)—can be quickly switched. MTJs are spintronic devices due to the spin-based control they use.

The switchable characteristics of MTJs, according to Kumar and colleagues, could be used to build polymorphic gates whose configuration users could check and modify, wiping out any malicious settings. They demonstrated that MTJs’ symmetry at both the circuit and layout levels makes them difficult to reverse engineer and functions as polymorphic gates in a way that prevents tampering and intellectual property piracy.

Since MTJs are used in hard drives, it is now possible to combine memory and processing capabilities, which could significantly reduce the power requirement and interconnect delay. Because of their lower output driving capability, MTJs can’t yet match the functionality of conventional chips.

Massoud thinks spintronic devices will play a significant role despite the fact that others are investigating various emerging technologies for their potential to improve hardware security. They can be quickly integrated with traditional silicon substrates and are nonvolatile and energy-efficient, according to him.

More information: Rajat Kumar et al, Polymorphic Hybrid CMOS-MTJ Logic Gates for Hardware Security Applications, Electronics (2023). DOI: 10.3390/electronics12040902

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