Semiconductor Equipment

New Techniques for Detecting Counterfeit ICs

04 November 2015

Engineers at Charleroi, Penn.-based Nokomis, Inc. have spent several years looking for better ways to detect counterfeit integrated circuits (ICs). These bogus chips—which range from crudely re-labeled semiconductor devices salvaged from electronics scrap by Chinese sweatshop workers, to sophisticated “clone” designs produced at leading-edge factories—are increasingly finding their way into military, industrial and consumer goods, where malfunctions could have life-threatening consequences.

Until recently, most counterfeit ICs were identified using X-rays or electron microscopes, or by carefully dismantling and inspecting the suspect devices. However, these methods are time consuming and often destroy the devices being tested.

Nokomis advanced detection of electronics counterfeits

Nokomis advanced detection of electronics counterfeitsNokomis advanced detection of electronics counterfeitsNow, with Nokomis’ new counterfeit-detection system, users can simply plug a suspect chip into a test socket, push a button and wait 3-5 seconds to learn whether it is authentic, or fake, without damaging the test device. Although the technology is still being tested and refined, Nokomis CEO Walter Keller expects to sell the first commercial systems soon. “We have completed pilot projects for both the Air Force and the Navy, and we are rapidly moving toward employing the technology on their behalf,” he says.

Nokomis is not alone in pursuing the suddenly hot field of detecting counterfeit ICs. At least four other companies or organizations are reportedly developing technologies that, if widely adopted, could help to shift the balance of power in the battle against counterfeit chips (see “Anti-Counterfeit Contenders”).

Other contenders include:

Battelle, the nonprofit operator of several national R&D labs

PFP Cybersecurity, a malware and cyber-intrusions software specialist

Booz Allen Hamilton, a major defense consultant and contractor

Lewis Innovative Technologies, a military tech developer

Unique Signatures

While the last two companies declined to discuss their anti-counterfeit initiatives, Nokomis, Battelle and PFP Cybersecurity have confirmed that they are developing counterfeit-detection systems that analyze electronic devices’ unique power-consumption patterns, or “signatures.” These patterns vary depending on multiple factors such as a part’s age, condition, speed and temperature characteristics and where it was manufactured.

Anti-Counterfeit ContendersAnti-Counterfeit Contenders

To create a baseline for comparison, each system uses proprietary algorithms to analyze these variables and create detailed profiles of chips known to be authentic. Those profiles are then compared to the signals of unknown chips, which can be quickly identified as authentic, or counterfeit.

Despite similarities, there are significant differences between the various systems. Nokomis’ Keller, for instance, says his company’s system includes an extremely powerful sensor, which provides “a wealth of information that would not be otherwise available.”

Thurston Brooks, PFP’s vice president of product marketing, contends that his company’s “sensor agnostic” approach will be easier for users to integrate with existing test equipment. He also expects PFP’s software–based systems to sell for around $30,000, far less than the Nokomis system’s reported $300,000 price.

Stylianos Kaminaris, Battelle’s director of cyber product development, says that his organization’s system, too, should cost “dramatically” less than that. He says Battelle’s system also will offer a more secure architecture that keeps proprietary data on remote servers. “We don’t put any of our secret sauce at the end-user site,” he says.

New Rules

New procurement rules issued by the U.S. Defense Dept. last year are a big reason why industry is paying more attention to counterfeit detection. The rules require major defense contractors to “establish and maintain an acceptable counterfeit electronic part detection and avoidance system,” and authorize the government to withhold payments to companies that do not comply. “Clearly the defense contractors have the mandate now, they need to get it done,” says PFP’S Brooks.

David Monahan, research director for Boulder, Colo.-based market research firm Enterprise Management Associates, expects counterfeit-detection products to attract initial buyers from the defense, government, health care, infrastructure control, law-enforcement and space sectors. “They need to be able to certify clean, new, correct chips,” he says.

Fred Schipp, an electrical engineer who works on anti-counterfeit programs for both the Navy and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, has seen most of the new counterfeit-detection systems demonstrated, and says he is impressed. Although more testing is needed, he says, “The sky’s the limit” if the technology can be proven reliable. “There’s no question that cheap, non-labor-intensive electrical test is one of the missing links in the counterfeit part detection process."

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