Scientists and engineers in Switzerland and California have come up with a technique that can reveal the 3D design of a modern microprocessor without destroying it.
Typically today, such reverse engineering is a time-consuming process that involves painstakingly removing each of a chip’s many nanometers-thick interconnect layers and mapping them using a hierarchy of different imaging techniques, from optical microscopy for the larger features to electron microscopy for the tiniest features.
The inventors of the new technique, called ptychographic X-ray laminography, say it could be used by integrated circuit designers to verify that manufactured chips match their designs, or by government agencies concerned about “kill switches” or hardware trojans that could have secretly been added to ICs they depend on.
“It’s the only approach to non-destructive reverse engineering of electronic chips—[and] not just reverse engineering but assurance that chips are manufactured according to design,” says Anthony F. J. Levi, professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of Southern California, who led the California side of the team. “You can identify the foundry, aspects of the design, who did the design. It’s like a fingerprint.”