DARPA seeks dielets to defend the IT supply chain

DARPA is seeking dielets to help authenticate IT components and protect the supply chain

Defense researchers are looking to stem the tide of counterfeit electronic parts invading the military supply chain by developing a tiny electronic component to authenticate other electronic components.

The component, called a dielet, is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program.

DARPA is looking for proposals from industry to develop a 100-micron-x-100-micron dielet that authenticates the provenance of electronics components. The dielets, it said in a Feb. 24 announcement, should contain a full encryption engine, sensors to detect tampering and would readily affix to today's electronic components such as microchips.

DARPA will host a SHIELD program proposers' day workshop on March 14.

The proposed component is aimed at stanching the flow of used and non-authentic counterfeit electronic components that have penetrated the defense supply chain. Over the past two years, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee study, more than 1 million suspect parts have been associated with known supply chain compromises.

DARPA wants the new technology to protect against a range of threats, including recycled, unlicensed, test-rejected or falsely marked components. It also wants to weed out clones, low-quality and secretly re-packaged copies.

Counterfeit and suspect electronic components are pervasive, targeting both expensive and inexpensive electronic parts, threatening to introduce critical weak points in weapons and defense information systems, according to DARPA. The new program looks to develop a tool to verify, without disrupting or harming the system, the trustworthiness of a protected electronic component. The dielet will be inserted into the electronic component's package at the manufacturing site or affixed to existing trusted components, without any alteration of the host component's design or reliability, said the agency.

According to DARPA, the dielet would not be connected electronically to the component it accompanies, and authenticity testing could be done anywhere with a handheld probe or with an automated one for larger volumes.

After a scan, an inexpensive appliance, like a smartphone, would upload a serial number to a central, industry-owned server. The server would then send an unencrypted challenge to the dielet, which sends back an encrypted answer and data from passive sensors—like light exposure—that could indicate tampering.

"SHIELD demands a tool that costs less than a penny per unit, yet makes counterfeiting too expensive and technically difficult to do," Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager, said in the agency statement. "The dielet will be designed to be robust in operation, yet fragile in the face of tampering. What SHIELD is seeking is a very advanced piece of hardware that will offer an on-demand authentication method never before available to the supply chain."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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