Advertisement

Finding counterfeits

June 06, 2011

Jack Ganssle-June 06, 2011

Embedded systems will help in the war against counterfeit products.

The aircraft industry is fighting counterfeit parts. A critical bolt, for instance, may have to be expensively certified to meet a particular standard, driving it’s cost far beyond that seemingly-equivalent Home Depot fastener. The temptation to sell the commodity part for premium prices drives a significant underground economy in counterfeit parts.

Gucci bags and other fashion items, too, are often knocked off in third world countries and sold for far more than they are worth. US customs has long waged a mostly losing war against these products.

The electronics industry is hardly immune. Parts that fail temperature testing or that otherwise don’t meet exacting specs are sometimes re-branded as premium devices and resold. For example, an article in Medical Electronics Design recently discusses counterfeit chips melted off old boards and remarked and sold as new.

What is interesting is the use of scanning electron microscopes to differentiate the good from the counterfeit. Unfortunately, this is destructive, slow, and simply impossible when screening large quantities of parts.

Green Hills has recently started a business unit whose objective is to deploy crypto technologies throughout the industry, which aligns well with their deep focus on embedded security issues. The stated aim is to “deliver complete end-to-end security solutions for devices in all current and emerging markets.”

One of many application areas is in detecting counterfeit chips.

The idea is to encode an encrypted unique serial number in each IC; a tool can then query the part, presumably after it’s soldered on the board, for the code. That’s verified against a database, and the serial number is then made unavailable. One can imagine the use of a standard JTAG connection to provide the required communications link.

A similar approach could be used for a wide variety of products. Embed an RFID controller in that Gucci bag; just like checking out of the supermarket a quick swipe could insure that the bag is legitimate. One wonders how long it will be before those aircraft bolts include a bit of intelligence to prove their provenance.

The RTOS market is quite mature, offering few opportunities for vendors to differentiate themselves. Green Hills has done an astonishing job of using security in various forms to distance themselves from the rest of the pack. They rightly, in my opinion, see security as one of the most important looming issues in embedded space, and have created a range of products, and now business units, to address what will be a huge issue.

Few embedded folks worry much about security. After all, an electric toothbrush hardly seems to be an attack vector. But sooner or later that device will get a wi-fi link and become an unexpected entry point into a network.

Gingivitis may soon be the least of our dental worries.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

Loading comments...