Anti-counterfeit cryptographic tag operates battery-free

February 21, 2020 // By Julien Happich
cryptographic tag
MIT researchers have invented a cryptographic ID tag that’s small enough to fit on virtually any product and verify its authenticity, it could be used to combat supply chain counterfeiting which can cost companies billions of dollars annually.

Although wireless ID tags are becoming increasingly popular for authenticating assets as they change hands, these tags come with various size, cost, energy, and security trade-offs that limit their potential. Popular radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are too large to fit on tiny objects such as medical and industrial components, automotive parts, or silicon chips. 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 (required for radio-frequency communication) and the ability to run strong encryption, the researchers note, offering to circumvent all these trade-offs with a millimetre-sized ID chip.

MIT’s millimetre-sized ID chip integrates a cryptographic
processor, an antenna array that transmits data in the
high terahertz range, and photovoltaic diodes for power.
Image: courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News.

Presented at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), the tiny chip runs on relatively low levels of power supplied by integrated 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.

“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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