A group of researchers from two universities has proposed a way to prevent chip piracy. The technique uses public key cryptography to lock down circuitry.

In a white paper published this month, Jarrod A. Roy and Igor L. Markov (of the University of Michigan) and Farinaz Koushanfar (of Rice University) outline the problem and details of how their proposed technology will help solve it.

Chip designers sometimes outsource manufacturing, and that opens the door to piracy, should someone copy the design plans. The copied plans are then used to create 'clone' chips for a wide range of devices, including computers, MP3 players, and more.

"Pirated chips are sometimes being sold for pennies, but they are exactly the same as normal chips," said Igor Markov, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. "They were designed in the United States and usually manufactured overseas, where intellectual property law is more lax. Someone copies the blueprints or manufactures the chips without authorization."

The group proposes the use of public key cryptography, which would be embedded into circuitry designs. Each chip would produce its own random identification number, which would be generated during an activation phase. Chips would not function until activated, and activation would take place in a manner somewhat similar to that seen with many applications in use today.

The manufacturer of the chip would need to initiate the activation routine where the chip would contact the owner or licensee of the chip's intellectual property and transmit the chip's ID number. The owner or licensee would then calculate a key to unlock the chip and transmit it back to the manufacturer.

"If someone was really bent on forging and had a hundred million dollars to spend, they could reverse-engineer the entire chip by taking it apart. But the point of piracy is to avoid such costs," Markov said. "The goal of a practical system like ours is not to make something impossible, but to ensure that buying a license and producing the chip legally is cheaper than forgery."

The group's white paper, "EPIC: Ending Piracy of Integrated Circuits," is available online in PDF format. Markov will present the group's proposal at the Design Automation and Test in Europe conference, to be held in Germany on March 13, 2008.