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Has the World's First Unhackable Chip Arrived?

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NYU Abu Dhabi's purportedly unhackable chip.

New York University Abu Dhabi researchers have created what they are calling an unhackable microchip; unveiled to hackers in December 2018, nobody has found the key to breaking into it since then.

Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi

Ozgur Sinanoglu is obsessed with computer chips — a passion born at age 10 when his father brought home a Commodore 64. Now 42 and the associate dean of engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi, Sinanoglu claims that he and his colleagues have designed an unhackable chip. Given last year's Meltdown and Spectre — security flaws that researchers are calling catastrophic because they could affect nearly every computer chip manufactured in the past 20 years — producing a chip capable of repelling attacks would restore peace of mind to everyone from government agencies to private companies. 

Sinanoglu, director of the Design for Excellence Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, is not the first to make the claim. Because chips combined in central processing units (CPUs) are essentially the brains of computers, savvy engineers around the world have come up with all manner of tricks to keep hackers at bay. And most designs ultimately join the ranks of "good effort, but not good enough." In 2010, former U.S. Army computer specialist Christopher Tarnovsky hacked into Infineon's allegedly unhackable SLE66 CL PE chip used in PCs, gaming consoles and e-cards. Granted, he used a $70,000 electron microscope, tiny conductive needles and acid to siphon off critical data, but the point was made: not unhackable.

What sets Sinanoglu apart — besides his roughly 20 issued or pending patents — are his heavyweight backers, from the National Science Foundation to the U.S. Department of Defense, which is supporting his research through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Boasting a 15-page résumé of academic accomplishments, the Turkish engineer is most concerned with chips fabricated in foundries, or "fabs," where designers can't monitor the manufacturing process. When chips are fabricated at these third-party facilities, can we really trust the end result? No, Sinanoglu asserts, making it critical that we add defenses to make them resistant to theft or tampering by those seeking financial gain, so-called hacktivists or nefarious state actors.

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