When purchasing a smart phone, consumers seldom think about the security of the computer chips it contains. The majority of semiconductor manufacturing occurs overseas, which could put U.S. companies that outsource the fabrication of their products at increased risk for theft of intellectual property, hardware trojans, and supply chain interruptions. The United States must incentivize the creation of more semiconductor foundries, along with the production of electronics, to secure the manufacturing and supply of technology.
Manufacturing integrated circuits is capital intensive, because of the need to keep up with ever-changing technological upgrades. While the United States accounts for around half of the world’s semiconductor sales, most U.S. semiconductor manufacturers have outsourced or offshored their foundries over the past several decades. As a result, most designs are sent overseas to be manufactured. This means some Department of Defense (DoD) technology inevitably will have integrated circuits fabricated in foreign countries. Relying on foreign companies to guarantee security for technology such as computer chips for cruise missiles or footage streaming from drones poses incredible risk to U.S. interests and safety.
Alterations to integrated circuits can take millions of dollars and months to detect. A chip must be stripped down layer by layer, using an electron microscope to detect any changes. For DoD to detect alterations to its technology this way would be too costly and inefficient, and it also would just detect a problem, not prevent it.
Semiconductor technology can be protected through methods such as logic obfuscation, which conceals a device’s functionality or purpose. Watermarking also is used to prove ownership of a given semiconductor design. These defenses do not come without weaknesses, however. Obfuscation is still sensitive to attacks, can degrade performance, and can complicate the build process. Watermarking only provides evidence to support claims of IP address piracy and would not solve a wartime problem.
The risk of overseas manufacturing is not limited to semiconductors but can affect electronics manufacturing in general. If an adversary gained access to the designs for U.S. defense technology, it would have the potential not only to copy it, but to alter it as well. These modifications, called “hardware trojans,” could be as simple as additional logic circuits on the nanoscopic scale or additional hardware and would be difficult to detect. Hardware trojans alter the device’s intended functionality. Some examples of this could be providing a backdoor into the device or causing the system to shut down under certain circumstances.
This is not an unimaginable scenario. In 2015, Super Micro Computer (also known as Supermicro) produced motherboards for Elemental Technologies—a company that provided streaming equipment used by Amazon, Apple, and the U.S. government, among others. Supermicro was found to have a hardware trojan on the motherboards of its servers. The chip—the size of a grain of rice—was placed by Chinese manufacturing subcontractors and potentially gave China access to any device with the trojan on it.
There is yet another risk for hardware security, known as interdiction. This involves the alteration of a product somewhere in the supply chain between manufacturer and consumer. This could be done in multiple ways; for example, by changing an integrated circuit’s bitstream or altering a computer’s central processing unit code.
The best plan for preventing hardware trojans would be for the United States to incentivize the creation of more semiconductor foundries and the production of electronics technology—especially defense technology—on U.S. soil. While this would not be a perfect solution, it would allow direct government oversight of the production of defense technology. The ability of countries such as China to access U.S. technology would be restricted by significantly reducing the time and distance between manufacturer and customer.
Even if the security of hardware manufactured overseas could be reasonably guaranteed, major supply chain disruption could occur. For example, were some or all of Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s nine operational foundries to become disabled—because of an attack by an outside entity, an insider threat, or even natural disaster—half the world’s annual supply of integrated circuits would be lost, which in turn would hinder the production of technology throughout the world.
In a worst-case scenario, a hostile nation could use a kinetic attack on these foundries to disable manufacturing capabilities, or it could attack or blockade ports to hinder exports. China’s advances in missile technology, for example, provide the capability to damage if not destroy the foundries should relations between China and Taiwan and the United States deteriorate.
U.S.-based semiconductor foundries would protect U.S. semiconductor interests and supply lines.
China has a plan, “Guidelines to Promote National Integrated Circuit Industry Development,” to grow its industrial chain to “an advanced international level, with some enterprises entering the ranks of the international front runners.” To achieve this, it intends to pump between $100 billion and $150 billion into its semiconductor industry.
If China becomes a leading manufacturer of semiconductor technology, it would have the ability to control and manipulate the world’s supply, not to mention that it would raise potential security concerns seen with hardware trojans and intellectual property piracy. As a nation, it already has demonstrated its ability to insert hardware trojans into the technology that it produces for other countries. These trojans could have catastrophic results if implemented in U.S. defense technology.
The Way Forward
The government needs to incentivize the creation of more semiconductor foundries and the production of hardware on U.S. soil. This would provide more control over the supply chain and quality-control process. This is not a trivial undertaking. With the technology consistently changing, foundries require large sums of capital to remain up to date. Other issues include disposal of the byproducts from the etching process and the cost of labor.
The U.S. government needs to move the production of semiconductors and electronics back to U.S. soil. Protecting the intellectual property of U.S. tech companies and strengthening and shortening the supply chain would be major benefits.