Advancing microelectronics security through innovative research

The good news about microelectronics challenges, Kinsy says, is that there are new technologies and techniques being developed to improve security and trust.

Agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense are adopting “zero trust” policies, which assume no microelectronics are safe and all must be validated. Validation can take the form of using advanced imaging technologies and forensics methods to detect counterfeits and malicious circuits. Components can be marked or tagged to authenticate and track supply chain movements. Additional technologies can be applied to prevent exploitation and counter security threats.

The STAM Center’s role in advancing microelectronics security is to investigate emerging microelectronics technologies, new computation paradigms and new secure hardware root-of-trust techniques through research and development.

The center takes a highly integrated approach to its organization with two technology laboratories and four application laboratories.

The two technology laboratories focus on developing new components for microelectronics. The Semiconductor Security Laboratory, or SemiSec, focuses on low-level, secure integrated circuit, or IC, design, while the Laboratory for Unconventional Computing Substrates, or LUCS, investigates emerging substrates and post-CMOS technologies. CMOS, or complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor, is the main underlying design of modern ICs.

The application laboratories take the new components developed in the technology laboratories to develop new computing systems. The Adaptive and Secure Computing Systems Laboratory, or ASCS, develops situation-aware, adaptive secure computing and self-healing computing systems. The Artificial Intelligence Technology and Systems Laboratory examines secure and privacy-preserving AI/ML systems. The Computer Architecture and Embedded Systems Laboratory designs secure, high-performance computing architectures. The Secure and Resilient Cyber-Physical Systems Laboratory focuses on the deployment of microelectronics in critical infrastructures.

Each laboratory’s focus area is meant to complement the others to design and prototype application-driven, complete, secure and trustworthy systems that demonstrate real-world impact. Projects span multiple laboratories and incorporate each other’s resources and their researchers’ expertise.

“This strategic approach provides the center with a strong differentiating factor and enables a faster path to commercialization,” Kinsy says.

STAM Center researchers are exploring IC security through vertically stacked ICs in a technique called 3D integration. They are also exploring counterfeit-resistant and anti-cloning design methodologies, along with other design obscuration and masking techniques that use self-adaptation to automatically react to threats.

Through artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, researchers are developing methods for defending against hardware and intellectual property theft.

The research teams are also developing trusted circuit analysis tools with hardware-in-the-loop simulation capabilities and techniques to keep data and identities private.

Other projects focus on developing a cost-effective approach to comprehensively test how electronic components will perform in the end product.

The STAM Center’s work continues to evolve to address emerging real-world challenges in microelectronics security. With counterfeit threats increasing during the pandemic, the researchers’ work has accelerated in this area.

“We were able to collect more chips and identify new counterfeit techniques,” Kinsy says.

Training the next generation of microelectronics professionals

Kinsy earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and computer systems engineering from ASU nearly 15 years ago and returned to the university as a faculty member in 2021.

“One consistent thought I have about ASU’s computer systems engineering program over the years is how well it prepared me,” Kinsy says. “It is very impressive to see how ASU has continued to transform and grow since my undergrad years. It is a great joy to be able to add to that. As a faculty member now, I would like to shore up the graduate computer systems engineering program with a stronger emphasis in hardware and microelectronics security.”

Beyond curriculum in the Fulton Schools, Kinsy aims for the STAM Center to help build up the local workforce to keep and attract semiconductor companies in the Phoenix area.

“Without a robust and highly skilled workforce, the semiconductor industry does not take root,” he says. “Just 20 years ago, the U.S. was manufacturing 40% of the world’s microchips. Today, we are down to about 11%. This erosion mirrors the educational investment trend.”

Kinsy is helping to develop an exposure and outreach pipeline program of Saturday electronics design workshops, seminars, webinars, short- and long-term professional development training courses and a certification process. Collaboration with local semiconductor companies includes regular industry open-house events, research and development partnerships and student internship and job placement programs.

Recently, the STAM Center launched the Arizona Cyber Range, or AzCR, a training platform for security issues related to hardware/electronic devices. Trainees will have access to microcontrollers, industrial control systems, Internet of Things devices and more, and can explore the systems through virtual environments to learn valuable skills.

“Our short-term objective is to serve the local Phoenix microelectronics industry and use our local success to establish a national standing for creating a sustainable research training program in secure and trusted microelectronics,” Kinsy says.

“Phoenix is the perfect environment to ensure that the STAM Center’s research, education and outreach efforts reflect the composition of the larger U.S. population,” he says. “We want to serve as a national model for recruiting, engaging and training nontraditional students and U.S. military veterans — especially those from underrepresented groups and underserved communities.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering