tracking tag (MIT News)

Scientists build ‘tag of everything’ to combat counterfeits

One way to fight counterfeiting and hacking in the electronic supply chain and the internet of things would be to affix a tag to every component so its authenticity could be verified. Theoretically, that would enable the tracking and security of every bolt, chip or medical implant as it makes its way into a final product.

Existing electronic tracking tags like radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are too big to put on many electronics and require too much power to run strong encryption. Plus, they’re expensive to manufacture. Smaller tags have limited encryption and communication options.

Now, researchers at MIT have hit on a way to reduce the size and power requirements of tracking tags while boosting their security.

According to a paper presented at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference, the MIT researchers have developed a millimeter-sized ID chip that runs on low levels of power supplied by photovoltaic diodes and can invoke a popular cryptography scheme, thanks to algorithm optimization techniques. It can also communicate over distances of five centimeters by using a power-free backscatter technique that operates at a much higher frequency than RFIDs.

“We call it the ‘tag of everything.’ And everything should mean everything,” said the paper’s co-author Ruonan Han, an associate professor in MIT’s department of electrical engineering and computer science and head of the terahertz integrated electronics group in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “We built a low-cost, tiny chip without packaging, batteries, or other external components that stores and transmits sensitive data,” Han told MIT News.

The antenna presented the major challenge and opportunity.

By using an array of small antennas and some signal splitting and mixing techniques, the researchers were able to use backscattering – where a battery-free tag gets its power from the reader – and beam steering -- where the signal gets focused at the reader – to  increase signal strength and range and reduce interference.

Tiny holes in the antennas allow light from the reader to pass through to photodiodes that convert the light into enough electricity to power up the chip’s processor so it can run an encryption scheme that uses the tag’s private key and the reader’s public key for authentication. 

The chips are so small, easy to make and inexpensive, according to MIT officials, that they can also be embedded into larger silicon computer chips, which are especially popular targets for counterfeiting.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also researching securing the electronics supply chain with tracking technology. DARPA's Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense program aims to combine National Security Agency-level encryption, sensors, near-field power and communications into a microscopic-scale components -- approximately the diameter of a strand of human hair -- called dielets that can be placed inside electronic devices or attached to individual components.

Parts and components are first "enrolled" in a database -- the earlier in the production lifecycle the better -- and given a unique ID number that can later be queried through an RFID wand. The wand can also ping the dielets, which contain a number of passive sensors, for information on temperature changes, light exposure and other signs that a device has been opened or had parts removed or manipulated.

“The U.S. semiconductor industry suffered $7 billion to $10 billion in losses annually because of counterfeit chips,” MIT graduate student and co-author Wasiq Khan said.

“Our chip can be seamlessly integrated into other electronic chips for security purposes, so it could have huge impact on industry,” he said. “Our chips cost a few cents each, but the technology is priceless.”

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