French startup hacks secure chips for the common good

May 05, 2017 // By Julien Happich
On its brand new online store, French start-up Texplained (short for Technology Explained) presents itself as the leading expert in the reverse engineering and security analysis of integrated circuits. The company aims to review every major IC on the market to create a library of detailed information and analysis about IC hardware from leading chip manufacturers.

For now, the library in stock is only nascent and mostly constituted from microchip images at diverse magnification levels and throughout multiple layers. But Texplained plans to retail detailed IC architectural and security analysis reports, examining and evaluating the security characteristics of all major competing ICs on the market while describing their strengths and weaknesses in terms of protection against hardware attacks.

The company was founded in 2013 by Texplained's CTO Olivier Thomas, a microelectronics engineer who used to assess the security of PayTV subscriber cards from a private lab set up by French TV giant Canal+. Thomas now brings his expertise to all companies willing to assess and improve the security feature of their chips, and he hopes the reports offered by Texplained will bring some level of transparency, offering a neutral third-party expert opinion for OEMs and systems integrators to compare components and rank them against each other, with security benchmarking.

eeNews Europe caught up with Texplained's CEO Clarisse Ginet to learn more about the company's roadmap and mode of operations.

"We've been rather quiet over our first few years of existence, busy validating our analysis techniques and fine-tuning our proprietary reverse-engineering software tools" admits Ginet.

To get an overview of a chip's architecture, the company removes the package or gets a bare die and scans the IC through an optical microscope, taking thousands of images that are then stitched back together into a detailed map which can be zoomed through (think Google Earth on a chip landscape).


Optical microscope image of a microcontroller after it was removed from its package and after wet chemical etching (to remove the interconnections while keeping the transistors active layer). This image is  composed of thousands of pictures stitched up together. (source: Texplained)


SEM image of the same microcontroller reconstituted from tens of thousands of stitched up pictures. The close-up in the digital core shows the transistors' wells. (source: Texplained)