Post-quantum chip has built-in hardware Trojan

August 04, 2021 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
Post-quantum chip has built-in hardware Trojan
A team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has created a computer chip that implements post-quantum cryptography particularly effectively. In future, such chips could protect against hacker attacks with quantum computers. The researchers have also built hardware Trojans into the chip. They want to investigate how such "malware from the chip factory" can be debunked.

Hacker attacks on industrial plants are no longer fiction. Attackers can steal information about production processes or paralyse entire factories. To prevent this, chips in the individual components of the plants already communicate with each other in encrypted form. However, many encryption algorithms will soon no longer offer protection: While today's computers cannot crack established procedures, quantum computers would certainly be able to do so. This is especially critical for durable devices such as industrial plants.

For this reason, security experts worldwide are working feverishly to develop technical standards for post-quantum cryptography. One of the challenges here is the high computational demands of these encryption methods. A team led by Georg Sigl, Professor for Security in Information Technology at TUM, has now designed and had manufactured a chip that implements post-quantum cryptography particularly effectively.

Sigl and his team rely on a hardware-software co-design. In this process, specialised components and control software complement each other. "Our chip is the first to consistently rely on a hardware-software co-design for post-quantum cryptography," says Prof. Sigl. "As a result, it can implement encryption with 'Kyber' - one of the most promising candidates for post-quantum cryptography - about ten times as fast as chips that rely on pure software solutions, consumes about eight times less energy and is almost as flexible as them."

The chip is an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). Such specialised microcontrollers are often manufactured in large numbers according to the specifications of companies. The TUM team modified an open-source chip design based on the open-source RISC-V standard. This de facto standard is becoming more widespread and could replace proprietary approaches by large companies in many areas. The chip becomes post-quantum cryptography-capable on the one hand through a modification of the computing core and specific additional instructions with which necessary computing operations are accelerated.

In addition, the design was expanded to include a specially developed hardware accelerator.


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