Smart Microchip

Wednesday, 26 March, 2003

A self-timed microchip has been developed by scientists in the UK to make smartcards more secure.

The SPA chip - developed by the Amulet group in Manchester University - dispenses with the global clock normally used in synchronous digital systems and instead relies on local interaction between circuit modules.

This results in lower power consumption than comparable synchronous designs and also in reduced correlation between circuit activity and electromagnetic and current emissions, making self-timed logic particularly applicable in secure systems such as smartcards.

The chip includes a self-timed implementation of the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor, a novel on-chip interconnection system known as Chain, as well as standard memories and peripherals. Containing in excess of 12 million transistors, the chip was fabricated on a 0.18 micron CMOS process

Results of preliminary experiments on the chip suggest that it makes a significant contribution to reducing information leakage from the chip. This type of leakage has been used to 'break into' smartcards in the past, allowing secret information such as bank and credit card PINs to be retrieved.

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