University of Bremen: Know-how protection for trustworthy electronics

In the future, our everyday lives will be influenced more and more by electronic components – for example in self-driving cars or service robots. In order to be able to trust these components, the federal government is promoting scientific projects in a flagship initiative. The computer architecture working group is also involved.
The content of the “Trustworthy Electronics” flagship initiative funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is the research and development of novel methods, solutions and processes, which range from design to manufacture to analysis and testing. The aim of the CirroStrato project is to research the use of so-called reconfigurable transistors, which serve to protect the intellectual property of chip layouts. The working group for computer architecture (AGRA) at the University of Bremen under the direction of Professor Rolf Drechsler fulfills central tasks in the project group for testing and verifying the new security mechanisms.

“Electronic devices such as cell phones or autonomous vehicles require trustworthy electronic components. In times of long international value chains, this is a constant challenge, ”explains Rolf Drechsler. Electronic components must therefore be effectively protected against the theft of know-how without causing high additional costs, limiting performance or even endangering the correct functionality of the resulting electronic components.

Reliable testing and complete verification are important
For these reasons, the highly complex automated design process for regular circuit technologies must be effectively adapted so that it is reliably analyzed – i.e. tested and verified – before the resulting electronic components are further processed in the overall system. “These processes require powerful algorithms that enable a complete analysis and thus take into account all possible circumstances so that the respective component works reliably after a successful test,” says Drechsler. This requires methods that use formal techniques in which effective modeling is a crucial role.

The AGRA of the University of Bremen and four other partners are developing innovative protective mechanisms for the know-how protection of electronic components in the joint research project CirroStrato. The project partners Nanoelectronics Materials Laboratory (NaMLab) gGmbH (as network coordinator), GLOBALFOUNDRIES LLC & Co. KG, Technische Universität Dresden and NXP Semiconductors Germany GmbH (as associated partner) rely on the new technology of reconfigurable field effect transistors (RFETs).

Spying on and counteracting plagiarism
On the basis of this technology, the CirroStrato project group is researching and conceiving an automated design process for the RFET-based technology, which will make it possible to integrate novel protective mechanisms into the electronics. These mechanisms are intended to counteract any spying of the functionality of electronic components and thus possible plagiarism. This is intended to create a secure and trustworthy value chain that contributes significantly to Germany’s technological sovereignty.

On the one hand, the developments should show the feasibility and effectiveness. On the other hand, they form the basis for a possible certification. In the exemplary implementation of a chip, the new procedure is tested and checked for security with the involvement of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). The Bremen working group forms the central link between the production and certification of RFET-based security mechanisms.

AGRA is responsible for quality assurance
Professor Drechsler’s team is responsible for quality assurance in the project. It develops new methods for testing and verification for the automated design process of this new type of RFET technology. Only these methods make it possible to create security mechanisms that implement the intended protective function. Due to the high level of technical competence in this area, AGRA holds this task in the project group. In addition, the researchers at the University of Bremen are world leaders in this special field. The Bremen scientists use the previous research work in the field of test generation, formal verification and the use of formal modeling techniques.

Much of this work has already been positively received by the specialist community and has led to more than twenty publications in recent years – including at the top circuit test conferences, such as the European Test Symposium (ETS) and the Design Automation and Test in Europe (DATE). Some of this work was done by Dr. Sebastian Huhn, who will take over the deputy project management within the framework of CirroStrato.

More than half a million euros for the AGRA team
The CirroStrato project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the “Trustworthy Electronics” flagship initiative with 2.11 million euros for three years. AGRA of the University of Bremen will receive more than half a million euros from this.

About the project name: CirroStrato is the Italian word for “CirroStratus”, which is the meteorological term for a veil. This analogy to the veil cloud refers to the subsequent “concealment” of the circuit by the protective mechanisms to be developed, which lay over the circuit like a cloud, thereby preventing potential spying.

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