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Cryptographic “tag of everything”

Cryptographic “tag of everything”

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By Wisse Hettinga



Tiny, battery-free ID chip can authenticate nearly any product to help combat losses to counterfeiting

To combat supply chain counterfeiting, which can cost companies billions of dollars annually, MIT researchers have invented a cryptographic ID tag that’s small enough to fit on virtually any product and verify its authenticity.

Counterfeiters tend to use complex routes that include many checkpoints, making it challenging to verifying their origins and authenticity. Consequently, companies can end up with imitation parts. Wireless ID tags are becoming increasingly popular for authenticating assets as they change hands at each checkpoint. But these tags come with various size, cost, energy, and security tradeoffs that limit their potential.

Popular radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, for instance, are too large to fit on tiny objects such as medical and industrial components, automotive parts, or silicon chips. RFID tags also contain no tough security measures. Some tags are built with encryption schemes to protect against cloning and ward off hackers, but they’re large and power hungry. Shrinking the tags means giving up both the antenna package — which enables radio-frequency communication — and the ability to run strong encryption.

In a paper presented yesterday at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), the researchers describe an ID chip that navigates all those tradeoffs. It’s millimeter-sized and runs on relatively low levels of power supplied by photovoltaic diodes. It also transmits data at far ranges, using a power-free “backscatter” technique that operates at a frequency hundreds of times higher than RFIDs. Algorithm optimization techniques also enable the chip to run a popular cryptography scheme that guarantees secure communications using extremely low energy.

MIT researchers’ millimeter-sized ID chip integrates a cryptographic processor, an antenna array that transmits data in the high terahertz range, and photovoltaic diodes for power.
Credits:

Image: courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News

“We call it the ‘tag of everything.’ And everything should mean everything,” says co-author Ruonan Han, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and head of the Terahertz Integrated Electronics Group in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). “If I want to track the logistics of, say, a single bolt or tooth implant or silicon chip, current RFID tags don’t enable that. We built a low-cost, tiny chip without packaging, batteries, or other external components, that stores and transmits sensitive data.”

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