Xerox PARC Engineers and DARPA Develop Self-Destructing Chip
In the Mission:Impossible movies, Tom Cruise typically receives his mission orders through a device that promises to self-destruct once it’s finished playing. A new chip co-developed by Xerox and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) promises to do something similar, a development that could significantly improve device security.
The new chip (Image: DARPA) will smash itself on command, making it possible to store an encryption key on it without fear it will fall into the wrong hands. The chip is built on Gorilla Glass, which researchers were able to stress by applying heat until it broke into tiny pieces, rendering any data on the chip unrecoverable.
This Chip Will Self-Destruct in Five Seconds
DARPA and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) debuted the new technology at DARPA’s Wait, What? forum on future technologies in St. Louis last week. DARPA is interested in the technology for its applications in military devices deployed in battlefields, allowing military personnel to disable chips to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
The self-destructing chip was designed as part of DARPA’s initiative to help develop electronic systems capable of being destroyed in a controlled, triggerable manner as part of the agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) initiative.
“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” Alicia Jackson, DARPA program manager, said when the VAPR initiative was first announced two years ago. “DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature.”
Xerox, on the other hand, is interested in developing the technology for commercial purposes, particularly for devices aimed at high-security applications. The chip is designed to be compatible with existing commercial electronics, according to the company.
No More Fear From Lost Devices
If the technology is widely adopted, it has the potential to revolutionize data security and privacy for corporations and individuals. Consumers would be able to protect their information in the event their mobile devices or laptops are lost or stolen, while enterprises and government agencies could ensure that sensitive information isn’t inadvertently leaked when employees misplace their devices.
The key to the new technology revolves around the conditions under which the chip is manufactured. Xerox engineers tempered the Gorilla Glass with an ion exchange, stressing the structure of the glass. Because the glass is already weakened, it is primed for catastrophic failure in the event of certain stressors.
To trigger the destruction of the chip, a circuit heats a small resistor built into the chip when it is activated. At that point, the heat causes the glass surface to splinter into thousands of shards, making it impossible to recover any data from the chip.
At the Wait, What? event, engineers triggered the destruction using a photo-diode, but the chip could be designed to be destroyed when a mechanical switch is flipped or when a radio signal is received, enabling the chip to be destroyed remotely.