Countering counterfeits: ASU professor works on making electronics more secure

August 24, 2016

Accidentally purchasing a counterfeit product usually results in an inferior product and mild annoyance for the average consumer, but if the military receives a counterfeit computer chip it can mean major security and reliability issues with failures at critical moments.

“U.S. defense security is very worried about cyberattacks,” said Hugh Barnaby, associate professor in electrical engineering. “They’re worried about what we think of as ‘Trojan horses,’” which, in this case, are counterfeit integrated circuit chips masquerading as the real deal. Associate Professor Hugh Barnaby looks to make electronics more secure through new reliability modeling and cybersecurity technologies. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Associate professor Hugh Barnaby looks to make electronics more secure through new reliability modeling and cybersecurity technologies. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

While most highly publicized hacks are based in software, it’s also possible to hack hardware. When a company like Intel or IBM manufactures its chips in another country, there’s a significant concern of tampering or the production of substandard chips that can result in dire consequences.

“Say you have an IC chip that’s designed to enable access from an external actor,” Barnaby says, “They can access and steal intellectual property, spy, or have a system break down while performing a task. Anyone from the U.S. Air Force to Intel to a political party is susceptible.”

One way for malicious actors to compromise hardware is to exploit reliability threats, Barnaby says, so in order to ensure electronics are secure enough to withstand hardware attacks is to make them more reliable. Barnaby is working on multiple projects to make electronics more resilient in this regard.

Ensuring electronic reliability with DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding a project focused on developing techniques for modeling reliability in high-end integrated circuit electronics. Reliability involves making something last longer until it starts to break down or, at the very least, understanding when it’ll break down to limit unpredictable failures.

Barnaby and his hostile environment electronics research team of four graduate students are part of a one-year, $700,000 DARPA-funded Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits program in partnership with the University of Southern California to develop models that help designers account for reliability effects.

Counterfeit chips are often not nearly as reliable as the ones that come from original manufacturers. Inserting less reliable components into electrical systems — whether it be an unintentional outcome of manufacturing or done intentionally as a malicious attack — can pose severe threats to hardware infrastructure.

Traditionally, understanding electronics reliability has come from “post mortem” analysis where an “autopsy” is performed on a device, which destroys the actual hardware, is time consuming and expensive. DARPA is looking to test reliability in a less destructive way.

“They want us to develop modeling techniques that enable us to do this autopsy virtually, without destroying it,” Barnaby said. “Cost and speed are better when doing it in software.”

DARPA wants researchers to use the current understanding of IC aging mechanisms to develop new diagnostic testing techniques. Such diagnostics may help industrial and defense systems analysts more quickly identify and respond to the reliability threat posed by counterfeit systems.

Barnaby’s approach is to go right to the source.

“The way you make an IC is you use computers to help design it,” Barnaby said. “It helps to have features that are put in at the design phase that help you model the reliability.”

A transition from radiation to reliability

Modeling reliability issues is a logical next step beyond Barnaby’s traditional focus on issues related to radiation, which can also cause electronics to operate poorly or fail. In this area, Barnaby’s research has contributed to a recent $100,000 NASA program to understand and model radiation effects for satellites and other space vehicle electronics.

“The effects are similar between radiation and breaking down [due to reliability issues],” Barnaby said. “The fundamental mechanisms are very similar so I can use my understanding of the effects of radiation to model the effects of what we call operational stress.”

A patented approach to modeling electronic failures

Barnaby’s recent work builds on experience in developing a patent through Arizona Technology Enterprises that models the impact or damage to the materials of an integrated circuit as a result of operational stress. The designer using this modeling technique can see operational stress effects in real time.

The patented method models the very tiny deep submicron transistors in complementary metal oxide semiconductors — CMOS circuits, the standard technology platform used in most integrated electronics today.

Defects build up in the circuit material at the deep submicron level as the circuit ages by a number of mechanisms, particularly the negative bias temperature instability and hot carrier injection causes of defects. As these defects build up they change the operation of the IC, causing reliability issues and, ultimately, failures.

Barnaby’s success with his modeling patent was helped by ASU’s relationship with software company Silvaco, which provides its software tools to universities through its Silvaco University Program.

“This industry collaboration gives us access to tools that let us do pretty advanced work for DARPA in reliability,” Barnaby said.

The company’s tools, such as its TCAD device simulation tool, are built with modeling in mind, in addition to product design.

“It enables me to model device physics as well as integrated circuits in a very flexible way,” Barnaby said.

New collaboration set to create new physical security features

Barnaby is also working on electronic security beyond modeling with electrical engineering Professor Michael Kozicki, whom he’s previously worked with on radiation effects on space and medical electronics. Through the Exploiting Nanomaterials for End-to-End Cybersecurity Solutions project — a collaboration between ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona that is funded through the Arizona Board of Regents Innovation Fund — they’re finding new ways to authenticate hardware for cybersecurity purposes.

They’re exploring a connection between Kozicki’s research in conductive bridging RAM memory technology and Programmable Metallization Cell technology, in which he holds several dozen key patents, to create “fingerprints” on electronics that will make them more secure.

“The flexibility of the technology allows us not only to address issues with space electronics, but also cybersecurity,” Barnaby said. “It’s a nice niche that complements our existing efforts with DARPA and NASA.”

Through Kozicki’s memory technology, they found two ways to derive uniquely identifying “fingerprints” on a chip, one via the electronic elements and another via the physical components.

The first exploits the inherent variability of the current flowing through switching devices. In the design process this variation at the nanoscale level is normally ignored, but Kozicki looks to the random nature of current variation to generate unique random codes to encrypt information.

The second uses dendrites, the metallic growths in a dielectric — a key material in CMOS — as a result of metal ion migration from the interconnections within the IC. Each dendrite is a unique and complex fractal pattern, which looks like a two-dimensional tree, and can be used as an identification mark for a specific chip.

“We specialize in using things that are normally avoided by the industry and use them to good effect,” said Kozicki, the principal investigator on the project.

They aim to leverage their expertise in electronic materials and devices combined with NAU’s cybersecurity strengths and UA’s optical processing strengths to develop new cybersecurity methods to prevent theft and corruption of information and keep counterfeit parts out of critical applications such as aircraft, cars and medical devices.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Pueblo scholar expands political role

Varied career path leads Ken Lucero to ASU doctoral program.
After receiving PhD, Ken Lucero is strengthening his Native communities.
August 24, 2016

Ken Lucero, an ASU PhD, advocates for Indian health in New Mexico

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series following members of the first ASU Pueblo Indian Doctoral Cohort. The 10-member group — formed to address a glaring underrepresentation of Native American doctorates — graduated a year ago, and in the time since they’ve expanded leadership programs, women’s rights work and political efforts. ASU Now visited New Mexico to get a close-up view of their progress. Read the first story here.

Ken Lucero has been a policymaker, sheriff, accountant, board member, federal government official, health care advocate, contractor, mentor, jock, musician and dedicated son.

And now he’s a PhD.

Lucero said he never saw this latest role coming, but in retrospect, it couldn’t have been more clear.

“It’s always been ingrained in me that it’s about community first, family first, others first,” he said. “It took a few years and various jobs, but I’m finally in a place where I can be an effective advocate for change.”

Earning his doctorate as part of Arizona State University’s Pueblo Indian doctoral cohort has helped Lucero in his role as a special representative between New Mexico’s 19 Native American tribal lands and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

The intensive ASU program gave the 48-year-old Lucero a deeper and clearer understanding of the social, legal, economic and human rights inequities that American Indians face, which he says puts him in better position to seek solutions.

Lucero was selected for the program along with nine other Native American leaders with deep backgrounds — as teachers, advocates, lawyers and health care professionals — working on problems facing New Mexico pueblos. The three-year program involved studies in New Mexico, Arizona and around the world as the group traveled to work with other indigenous doctoral students, including the Sami in Norway and the Maori in New Zealand.

Launched in 2012 by ASU’s School of Social Transformation in partnership with the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School, the program seeks to address a shortfall of Native American PhDs and to prepare graduates to more effectively address the range of needs of Pueblo residents.

Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, Arizona State University’s special adviser on American Indian Affairs and doctoral program co-director, said Lucero provided the cohort with an important perspective through his “wisdom, grounded-ness, strength mixed with humility and a focus on the future of Pueblos.”

Lucero says he inherited many of these traits from his father, Gilbert Lucero, a former three-term governor of the Zia Pueblo Tribe. The elder Lucero said he has long recognized potential in his son and that he has been preparing him for a leadership position. The former governor recalled thinking that “at some point in time, he’s going to be the kind of person that is needed here in the community.”

A view East of Zia Pueblo in New Mexico

A view East of Zia Pueblo
in New Mexico.

Photo by Deanna Dent/

The doctoral program, Gilbert Lucero said, “was exciting for me when I learned about it.” He said it represents a development opportunity that could help improve conditions for the tribe now and in the future.

Located 35 miles northwest of Albuquerque, the Zia Pueblo is a remote enclave off a little-used stretch of Highway 550 tucked into the steep slopes and canyons of the Sierra Nacimiento Mountains.

The community looks much as it did generations ago. Mud adobes and small outdoor pottery ovens surround the 400-year old Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church. The other structures are modest HUD homes, provided decades ago by the federal government. Horses roam freely, occasionally stopping drink from the Jemez River.

War, disease and droughts have threatened to wipe out the tribe several times, and its population dipped to 97 people nearly 100 years ago. Today, the Zia Pueblo boasts more than 800 members.

Lucero came of age in the 1970s at the end of a national Native pride campaign, led by American Indian Movement. But he wasn’t concerned with such matters back then, he was consumed by rock music, TV and sports.

Between garage band rehearsals, school dances and football games, however, Lucero’s father would remind him that the tribe could call at any point.

“My dad,” Lucero said, “was essentially saying, ‘Have fun now, son. But when you turn 18, it’s time to become a man.’”

The call didn’t come right away, and Lucero went out to find himself. He attended the University of New Mexico, but dropped out in 1987 and bounced around. He worked a state fair ticket booth, sold mutual funds door to door and worked at a bank.

Lucero said that by 1999 he began to mature and the tribe asked him to serve as a governor’s aide during a time when his father wasn’t in office. He said he kept his job as a retail accountant at Wells Fargo Bank but worked for the tribe in his downtime.

The next year, he took a full-time administrative position in tribal government, and his first assignment build a new elementary school.

Lucero, as project manager, guided the planning and construction of the $7.6 million T'syia Day School, which opened in 2002. The 18-month-long project finished on time and $1.2 million under budget. With the extra funds, he added a courtyard, assembly area and full-sized gym.

From there Lucero was responsible for grants and contracts with private, state and federal agencies — a job he worked for eight years.

“Ken always tries to incorporate integrity, honesty and fairness in all of his decision-making,” said Venita Yawakie, Lucero's girlfriend.

In February, just months before graduating with his doctorate, Lucero took a position as a tribal liaison for New Mexico’s junior U.S. senator. Lucero helps draft proposals on issues from economic development to public safety. He also has been involved in health care policy work, drawing on his experience as a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services board member.  

But that’s just his day job. After work, he returns to the pueblo and reports for a shift as a community sheriff. Lucero said he patrols the community five days a week, keeping the peace and responding to emergency calls.

He also mentors young people as others mentored him.

“I remind them as my father did me that even though they might not see it now, one day they’ll be role models and future leaders of this community,” Lucero said. “When they know they are cared for and there are expectations of them, they act more responsibly.”

Lucero went back to the University of New Mexico in 2010 and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies.

From there, he entered the three-year ASU fast-track program that allowed him to earn a masters and doctorate, which has had a benefit already, he said. 

“When you’re out in another community or at a meeting and you’re acknowledged as a doctor it’s helpful,” Lucero said. “People will say, ‘Oh, Dr. Lucero, I guess I’d better listen to what he has to say.’”

Lucero said even though it took him a while to emerge as a community leader, he doesn’t regret the past.

“My life experiences, serving my tribe and having the support of my family gave me the wherewithal to complete my PhD,” he said. Without those experiences, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”