New York University Abu Dhabi researchers develop 'unhackable' computer chip

Chip is designed to prevent physical tampering of devices but could be extended to defend against online hackers

Researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi said they have created an 'unhackable' chip to shore up the defences of computer hardware, in an age of increasing threats to individuals and companies across the globe.

This is the first working prototype of a chip that has security features or locks implemented as part of its hardware design, protecting it from hardware-level - rather than software - threats.

Ozgur Sinanoglu, NYUAD’s associate dean of engineering for academic affairs and head of the university’s Design for Excellence lab, has previously said malicious computer components - so-called Trojans - could be physically installed in factories or manufacturing labs. This would allow those behind the plan unfettered access to devices.

The chip has a secret key that makes it virtually impossible to access and would only function for authorised users.

“Without the secret key, the chips cannot be made functional,” he said.

“The functionality of chip - what it does, how it does it - can only be known if the secret key is known.”

A patent application has been filed at the US Patent Office. The researchers are creating a web-based platform to make information about the chip available to the public.

An extensive research paper by NYUAD’s Design for Excellence team will be presented in November at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in the US.

“These are all theoretically proven points and we will present this at a top cyber security conference, but we need to test our claims practically as well," said Mr Sinanoglu.

"We will create a web-based platform to make all information about this chip available to public. We will ask researchers to act as hackers and retrieve the secret key of our chip or reveal the exact functionality of our chip design based on this information."

There has been growing concern about cyber security and calls for solutions to secure systems from hackers following the WannaCry ransomware attack.

WannaCry infected files, shut down hospitals, banks, transport systems and industry and affected more than 150 countries in May.

Although that virus was largely spread by individuals and company employees opening scam email attachments, Mr Sinanoglu said the technology used in the hardware chips could be extended to provide protection against threats such as WannaCry.

“Ours is rather a solution for hardware-level threats, at least the way it is implemented currently.

“One challenge is to raise awareness for hardware-level threats. Chip design companies are slowly becoming aware. Another challenge is to extend our solution to not only protect from hardware-level threats but also provide protection against system-level threats such as WannaCry.”

The new development could be used on any digital chip so would work in electronic chips across all industries.

“We can expect earlier adoption in certain industries that are more security-critical," he said.

"One such example is defence applications. We expect the hardware-level threats to be more pressing in the near future, necessitating most industries to adopt solutions such as ours."