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Communications of the ACM


Secure-System Designers Strive to STEM Data Leaks

ChipWhisperer platform board

A board built on the ChipWhisperer platform can recover secret keys from microcontroller-based targets in minutes.

Credit: Dalhousie University

Chip and system designers are engaged in a cat-and-mouse battle against hackers to try to prevent information leaking from their circuits that can be used to reveal supposedly secure cryptographic keys and other secrets.

Traditionally, such side-channel attacks have relied on expensive bench-top instruments such as digital-storage oscilloscopes, but the development of an open-source platform dubbed ChipWhisperer based on affordable programmable integrated circuits (ICs) has widened the potential user base, as well as making it easier for designers to assess the vulnerability of their own designs. The latest addition to the Chip Whisperer platform developed by Colin O'Flynn, a doctoral student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and colleague Zhizhang Chen is based on a $90 board that is able to recover secret keys from simple microcontroller-based targets in a matter of minutes, although it is by no means an automated process.


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