Surreptitiously Tampering with Computer Chips
This is really interesting research: "Stealthy Dopant-Level Hardware Trojans." Basically, you can tamper with a logic gate to be either stuck-on or stuck-off by changing the doping of one transistor. This sort of sabotage is undetectable by functional testing or optical inspection. And it can be done at mask generation -- very late in the design process -- since it does not require adding circuits, changing the circuit layout, or anything else. All this makes it really hard to detect.
The paper talks about several uses for this type of sabotage, but the most interesting -- and devastating -- is to modify a chip's random number generator. This technique could, for example, reduce the amount of entropy in Intel's hardware random number generator from 128 bits to 32 bits. This could be done without triggering any of the built-in self-tests, without disabling any of the built-in self-tests, and without failing any randomness tests.
I have no idea if the NSA convinced Intel to do this with the hardware random number generator it embedded into its CPU chips, but I do know that it could. And I was always leery of Intel strongly pushing for applications to use the output of its hardware RNG directly and not putting it through some strong software PRNG like Fortuna. And now Theodore Ts'o writes this about Linux: "I am so glad I resisted pressure from Intel engineers to let /dev/random rely only on the RDRAND instruction."
Posted on September 16, 2013 at 1:25 PM • 241 Comments