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Spintronics-based IC ‘logic locks’ promise enhanced chip security

Technology News |
By Rich Pell


Researchers at KAUST say they have shown that protective “logic locks” — based on an advanced branch of electronics called spintronics — could be incorporated into the integrated circuits of electronic chips to defend chip security. Next-generation electronic devices could feature such enhanced security systems built directly into their circuitry to help fend off malicious attacks.

“The need for hardware-based security features reflects the globalized nature of modern electronics manufacture,” says Yehia Massoud from KAUST.

Electronics companies usually employ large specialized, external foundries to produce their chips, which minimizes costs but introduces potential vulnerabilities to the supply chain. For example, say the researchers, the circuit design could simply be illegally copied by an untrusted foundry for counterfeit chip production or could be maliciously modified by the incorporation of “hardware Trojans” into the circuitry that detrimentally affects its behavior in some way.

“To increase confidence in the globalized integrated circuit manufacturing chain, security approaches such as logic locking are now widely used,” says Divyanshu Divyanshu, a Ph.D. student in Massoud’s labs.

To defend chip security, the researchers designed an integrated circuit logic lock based on a component called a magnetic tunnel junction (MTJ). Logic locking works like a combination lock, where unless the correct “key” combination signal is supplied to the lock, the circuit’s operation is scrambled. The keys to the lock are stored in tamper-proof memory, ensuring hardware security against several threat models.

The logic-locking behavior of the MTJ is based on spintronics, an emerging form of advanced electronics in which a physical property of electrons called spin is exploited, in addition to their charge. The MTJ’s electronic output depends on the spin alignment of the electrons within it. Only when the MTJ receives the correct key signal input, however, does it produce the correct output for the protected circuit to function.

Spin-based devices have several advantages compared to conventional silicon components, say the researchers, including low operational voltage and no power consumption during standby.

“With the advancement in fabrication methods, the possibility of using emerging spintronic device structures in the chip design has increased,” says Massoud. “These properties make spintronic devices a potential choice for exploring hardware security.”

Spintronics, say the researchers, could be ideal for the logic-locking task.

“Our next steps include the investigation of other spin-based devices to develop logic-locking blocks, with the help of state-of-the-art fabrication facilities available at KAUST,” says Massoud.

For more, see “Logic Locking Using Emerging 2T/3T Magnetic Tunnel Junctions for Hardware Security.”


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