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DARPA Wants Self-Destructible Computer Chips

by Mike Hoffman on February 3, 2014

smartphone1The Pentagon wants its top research arm to give troops the same kind of self-destructing devices Ethan Hunt had in the movie series Mission Impossible

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency didn’t necessarily specify the famous 5-second timeline, but military leaders wants to develop semiconductors and computer chips that will turn to dust via a remote signal or at a specific time.

Called the Vanishing Programmable Resources, DARPA announced the program on Jan. 28 issuing a $3.5 million award to IBM to study the possibilities of developing “strained glass substrates” that would crumble into powder on command, according to the DARPA announcement.

Troops carry a host of mobile technologies into combat to include GPS transponders, smartphones and countless other devices. Military leaders are worried what happens when those devices — many of which have sensitive operational information — fall into enemy hands.

“These electronics have become necessary for operations, but it is almost impossible to track and recover every device. At the end of operations, these electronics are often found scattered across the battlefield and might be captured by the enemy and repurposed or studied to compromise DoD’s strategic technological advantage,” DARPA officials said in a statement.

DARPA will host a Proposers’ Day on Feb. 14 in Arlington,  Va., to see what technologies potentially already exist, according to a DARPA announcement. The deadline to sign up is Feb. 8.

“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” said Alicia Jackson, the DARPA program manager for VPR. “DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature.”

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy February 3, 2014 at 5:30 pm

its about time.

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rtsy February 3, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Lets hope no one can hack it….

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hibeam February 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm

This is silly. Why do the chips need to crumble into dust? Erase the onboard firmware and block reprogramming. By the time the Iranians figure out how to bypass that kill switch we will be planting corn on Mars.

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Vstress February 4, 2014 at 1:58 am

There is already off-the-shelf free software to recover "deleted" memory from devices. I have recovered my own Hard-drives that were corrupted.

Ok… yes, you might not get perfect data… but you might get half a document here and there!

When it comes to electronic devices, there are plenty of people willing to part with cash to recover information too.

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Jeff February 4, 2014 at 7:49 am

It probably wouldn't be that hard to really erase deleted memory – the quick and dirty way things are deleted that are recoverable is just by erasing the index to them and leaving them on the storage device. If you wrote over them with random bits or all 0's or something I don't think it would be easily recoverable.

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blight_ February 4, 2014 at 8:48 am

Recovering bits stored to tape or disc is one thing, but shredding the firmware is another. Obviously they could go in with JTAG if the firmware is messed up, but knowing what to flash to the firmware to restore functionality would be a can of worms.

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Kim Scholer February 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

When making a criminal investigation of some sort involving a computer, police technicians very often able to find evidence that the accused thought he or she had deleted. In the military situation described above, it may not even be possible to erase data, if the computer in question is lost or captured.

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Guest February 5, 2014 at 11:11 pm

Works for IPads.
Something else could be done to prevent lost assets from falling into enemy hands. Use biometrics to key the device to the user or implant a proximity chip in the user. No biometric or prox chip, the device executes a destructive routine. Simple. Cheap.

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NathanS February 3, 2014 at 8:44 pm

If they want an example of a consumer electronics that fries itself, they're welcome to my HP laptop.

Jokes aside, the biggest problem with making something destructible, is also making it durable under normal field use.

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Nadnerbus February 4, 2014 at 12:03 am

I recommend they contact Chief Quimby.

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oblat11 February 4, 2014 at 2:06 am

Just shows that our mlitary is back in the steam age.
Nobody cares about wiped flash chips 3 generations behind what is available on the comercial market.
But the contractors want to a more lucrative built in obsolecence system and this commerical chips that last forever are a problem

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blight_ February 4, 2014 at 7:58 am

Excellent point; and as commercial hardware becomes more ruggedized for outdoor/sport usage, it'll approach military spec eventually, at least for applications that don't require being shot out of a cannon.

The most expensive chips are the ones that go into GPS-guided shells…luckily those rarely survive in a form amenable to reverse-engineering.

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Big-B February 4, 2014 at 3:25 am

The information about his new darpa project will selfdestruct in 5…4…3…

sorry couldnt resist ;-)

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blight_ February 4, 2014 at 7:56 am

EEPROM all over again.

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Viq February 4, 2014 at 8:54 am

"At the end of operations, these electronics are often found scattered across the battlefield and might be captured by the enemy…"

It's unlikely that the activiation of the chip-frying feature will work 100% of the time. The device could fail to get the signal activating the cooker, or any number of other things could go wrong. As the above quote from the article states, after the wreckage of battle, a lot of devices may be recovered by the enemy. They only need to obtain one working one to gain the benefit. So while frying chips may provide us a bit more security, we shouldn't rely on it.

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GA Miller February 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Perhaps have a few drones fly over and send a self destruct signal to all of those devices scattered on the battlefield. Too, make the troops more responsible for these devices by docking their pay and leave time and retard their promotion if they fail return these sensitive devices.

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GA Miller February 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Perhaps have a few drones fly over and send a self destruct signal to all of those devices scattered on the battlefield. Too, make the troops more responsible for these devices by docking their pay and leave time and retard their promotion if they fail return these sensitive devices.

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G. Miller February 4, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Perhaps have a few drones fly over and send a self destruct signal to all of those devices scattered on the battlefield. Too, make the troops more responsible for these devices by docking their pay and leave time and retard their promotion if they fail return these sensitive devices. Mil

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MSGTAvionicsPuke February 4, 2014 at 9:23 am

Some folks here are missing the point, it is not as much about the data as it is reverse engineering. It's pretty hard to reverse engineer a circuit board when half of the components no longer exist and you have no idea what their ohm rating is, capacitance, etc. this reverse engineering of the technology is much more of a threat than changing the firmware or information which can easily be done preventing use in the near term, but not in the long term scheme of things. Look how much our classified technology gets into the wrong hands by enemy combatants and unscrupulous businesses, even our own supposed allies like Israel.

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blight_ February 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Fair enough. You can learn quite a bit from hardware that falls in your lap, even if someone has taken an axe to it. We learned a lot about Luftwaffe direction-finding from the salvage from shot-down aircraft, and conversely they probably learned quite a bit about how our direction-finding worked from shooting down pathfinder B-17's.

This new worry about self-destructable computer chips suggests the military is again worrying about nation-states that are more than capable of doing this, instead of Ahmed the ANFO-layer.

Also, doing something like this would've been immensely helpful during the Iranian Revolution.

F-14's? Check. Missiles? Check. Helicopters and tanks? Radars and microwave platforms? Check.

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W. Whittenberg February 4, 2014 at 9:25 am

How about a small amount of Thermite inside the device, just enough to melt the electronics?

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tmb2 February 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I'd hate to be the private who found the sweet spot to drop it and set it off on accident!

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Adam February 4, 2014 at 9:37 am

How about in addition to the self destruct, we put a locator on them to find out where (and to whom) our things are going. At worst you can track equipment back to a village, and at best find out which enemy they're being shipped to!

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J Spence February 6, 2014 at 8:20 pm

The Smartest answer of the Day !!

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Zaq12wsx February 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

This is not a new problem. The US already has many effective solutions. DARPA is just looking for another solution that might work better and cost less.

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blight_ February 4, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Of course, if the self-destruct mechanism can be induced from afar then we're totally screwed. And it may not even require an external force to do it; more likely than not the traitor is from within.

Once we have remotely-destroyable electronics, the secret as to how to make them work cannot be revealed: and as we've learned, plenty of people willing to sell the country out for a dollar.

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BlackOwl18E February 4, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Anyone remember that episode of 24 in season 6 where Jack Bauer fooled that German agent by trading him a chip for a terrorist and then the chip exploded inside his phone when they got the terrorist?

Seems like the same purpose here.

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seymour01 February 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Called the Vanishing Programmable Resources,"…aahhh…the infamous VPR, also known as VaporWare. Just about any tech company has been selling VaporWare in many forms for many years.

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stpaulchuck February 5, 2014 at 9:17 pm

aww come on now, I saw this back in the 60's. Mr. Phelps always wound up with a smoking communicator device after the briefing

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James Long February 6, 2014 at 9:34 am

They should specify that Apple chips be used in all their equipment. Apple makes the majority of self-destructing chips.

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blight_ February 6, 2014 at 10:23 am

Not a fan of ARM?

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SJE February 6, 2014 at 11:56 am

Why not ask LockMart, they seem to be very adept at making self destructing components

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Rob C. February 10, 2014 at 11:54 am

Hopefully a balance for this comes out. I think one of bigger problems is technology can be out maneuvered with the pace of progress and innovation on both our and whoever the opposition is. Heck, we may find our guys in the field having their own devices self-destructing, because hackers managed to get into them making US troops vulnerable in the field. I hope DARPA thinks about that problem before they field devices that can take themselves out.

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