ChaoLogix: Integrated Security

Startup focuses on stopping side-channel attacks at the front end of the design process; tools can be integrated into existing EDA flows.


Semiconductor Engineering sat down with ChaoLogix’s chairman and CEO, Brian Kelly, and Chowdary Yanamadala, senior vice president of business development, to talk about the company’s approach to securing semiconductors from side-channel attacks.

SE: Given that the term “data security” has almost as many definition as there are braches, let start with a basic question: What does data security mean to you and the segment you are involved in.

Kelly: From a hardware point of view, it is the security of the overall infrastructure. For me, personally, it is the ability to fully utilize modern technology without worrying about being compromised by the financial or personal side.

Yanamadala: With the proliferation of devices out there, data is now being distributed and consumed in a distributed manner. Under this model, I see data security having two major issues—maintaining the authenticity of the data and protecting the secrecy of this data. The authenticity will be addressed by authentication, and there are several ways to do that. Keeping the data secret, however, is another matter. Keeping data from individuals who are not authorized to view it is best done in the hardware, by preventing it from being leaked.

SE: Why are side channel attacks (SCA) so dangerous?

Yanamadala: Because they remove the necessity to physically attack the chip. SCA has changed that game completely. SCAs have increased significantly because the equipment to do this has become cheaper and much more sophisticated. This made it fairly easy to mount an SCA. SCAs can come in a variety of ways—power analysis, EM analysis, or timing are all ways to leak data, and the SCAs can be very successful at capturing it. For these reasons, SCA is a very potent threat to data security.

Kelly: Today, there is a lot of money spent on securing networks, on cryptography and secure communications. But side channel attacks have the potential to make all of that irrelevant. SCAs have the ability to bypass 90% of what we commonly think is security. With a $2,000 piece of equipment, if the chip itself isn’t hardened against SCAs, the attacker can obtain any data they want, regardless of the cryptography. That is a very powerful statement as to why SCA are so dangerous.

Yanamadala: No matter how mathematically strong the cryptography is, SCA takes advantage of the implementation flaws, not the mathematical flaws.

SE: There are so many Band-Aid approaches to security out there today. Can you elaborate on some of them and why they really shouldn’t be used?

Yanamadala: The Band-Aid approach is a term used to sometimes describe how the industry is dealing with the problem. The industry uses a variety of approaches, many proprietary or customary, to deal with SCA. There are lots of specific measures that are applied to address SCAs but almost all of them are attack-specific and do not address SCAs across that board. Rather they just address the particular symptoms – a patch here, a patch there, and that makes for a plethora of different, problem-specific solutions we call the Band-Aid approach. One of the big problems with that is, eventually, you have so many different solutions that managing them in itself becomes a problem.

Kelly: One thing that is sorely missing in the industry is implementing security from the outset. That is where we feel the impetus should be. That is why our approach enables the manufacturer to incorporate security at the beginning of the design stage, in a coherent manner all the way though. That wards off getting to the end of the process, and then have to worry about security. And, it doesn’t matter what type of chip it is or what the function of it is. We can build in EM and power attack resistance from concept to implementation, across platforms. So there are no patch solutions necessary.

SE: How does this approach work?

Yanamadala: Because the approach to security is so fragmented across the industry, the current solutions tend to be very complex. There is a need for simplicity that comes from the fact that, instead of having dozens of measures layered across the chip, the industry is in need of a solution that can address the security issue at the source. That is the vector we are pursuing. A simple solution that can be all things to all device, no matter what type of security you are trying to provide. It also makes the management of the security easier, as well as reduced device costs.

Kelly: A simplified explanation would be along the lines of taking an EM or power signature and trying to hide it. The objective is to create the needle in a haystack metaphor, only you want to create that for the attacker. We want to develop a way to hide the needle so it is as close to impossible as possible to thwart an SCA. There are a couple of ways to do that. You can either add more hay or shrink the needle. Overall, it is much less complex to shrink that needle than to enlarge the haystack.

SE: Chaologix focuses on getting security in at the onset, so incorporating it into the fabric seems like a logical approach. How do you see that working?

Yanamadala: Most of today solutions are implemented using digital logic. And most of this logic is implemented using standard cell libraries. And these standard cells make up the fabric of the digital design. When there is an SCA, the data is what is being leaked out of these cells that make up the fabric. So it makes sense to address security challenges at the building block level. So, as was mentioned earlier, that is the ideal place to implement the security — weaving it into the fabric design. That also makes it easier to implement and brings it to market faster, as opposed to adding hay once the product is finished, to protect it.

Kelly: One of the directions we have taken is to develop a tool that can be incorporated directly into the Cadence or Synopsys system and becomes part of the design platform. That is one aspect of it. But a bit harder piece of this is to get the chip manufacturers to realize that security is a necessary part of the design phase. Up to now there has been a lot of focus on improving chip performance, speed, functionality, etc., then at the end of the day most manufacturers turn to the security angle and try to add it there. However, the key to really weaving it into the design process is to ask that security question at every stage of development, rather than at the end, as an afterthought. If that can be accomplished, then the tools become available to weave security into the design process.

SE: What is the theory behind your ChaoSecure technology?

Yanamadala: The idea is to take standard cells and make them secure. What that means is that in a standard cell library there is a lot of variation in the power level when a circuit or gate switches. That activity is what the hacker is looking for. So what we are trying to do is make the power signature as identical as possible when switching from low to high and vise-versa so there is no variance in the power signature that the attacker can identify. That way the data that is being handled is not leaked in any recognizable way. Therefore, the power signature of the gates looks the same, no matter what is transpiring.

Kelly: In the big picture, the concept is to kick the focus away from hiding and reduce the signal to making it non-descript. We do that by decoupling the power signature from the function of the chip. So even if something is uncovered, the exact function of whatever is happening cannot be discerned. Metaphorically speaking, we are treating the actual illness rather than the symptoms. So the power signature is what contains the data, and by addressing the illness hiding the symptoms becomes moot.

SE: So overall, how is the industry accepting this approach?

Yanamadala: Overall, the industry seems to be excited about this avenue. What gets the most interest is the simplicity of the solution we have developed. The fact that this solution is directed at the source, and not a layer at the end, brings permanence to the device, which means it has longevity in field. That is becoming very important to many chip manufacturers since there are the things that are missing in many of today’s solutions. Overall, it brings simplicity, cost effectiveness, permanence, and longevity to the chip industry. And, now there is a growing awareness of security so the timing is ideal.

Kelly: That last point is key. We are coming to the market with a product that incorporates security, simplifies the security process, and ties it into the overall design. There is an awakening in the industry that such a shift needs to happen. It is becoming increasingly significant, across the board, especially in the face of the IoT and the fact that even the most basic chip will be interconnected into networks that will be full of vulnerabilities. That is forcing everyone to think about getting security in at the onset. A simplified solution can work from the simplest application to the most complex. And finally there is nothing mutually exclusive about such a solution. In fact, this solution can be integrated with other solutions for an exponential increase in security, where desired.

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