MIT’s new secure, low power chip helps create the “Internet of Secure Things”

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

More cyber criminals are choosing to target Internet of Things devices than ever before because they are easy to gain access to and exploit at scale, MIT’s new chip hopes to reverse that trend.

 

From data breaches to weaponised devices, the Internet of Things (IOT), which holds so much promise, has long been plagued with security issues, and even though organisations like ARM, whose processors are ubiquitous in many of today’s IOT products, have in the past called for companies to come together and tackle the issue, the sad fact of the matter is that years down the line we’re, arguably, still no closer to helping create the “Internet of Secure Things.”

 

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In one way this is thanks to a lack of standards, other than those recently pushed out by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which are designed to cover the security of Implanted Medical Devices, and in another, and perhaps more pertinently, it’s because most hardware manufacturers embed security as a mere after thought.

Unfortunately though it’s also true that building a low power network of connected devices will remain challenging while encryption is so compute and energy intensive.

Sensitive data transactions are usually protected by something called public-key cryptography, a type of encryption that allows computers to transfer information securely between one another without first needing to establish a secret encryption key, but the software responsible for executing these protocols is normally both memory and energy intensive, and the battery-life trade off between the need to encrypt information, and at the same time keep sensors powered up and running, even though we’re now starting to see sensors that don’t need batteries, has long been a burden for manufacturers in the space.

Now though all that could be about to change thanks to a team of researchers at MIT who’ve developed a computer chip that’s hard wired to execute public-key encryption.

The new chip uses just a tiny fraction of power, just one four hundredth, compared with software execution, and just a tenth of the amount of memory of traditional software based encryption systems, and, better still, it executes the encryption process 500 times faster.

 

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The chip uses a technique called Elliptic Curve Encryption which uses mathematical functions to secure transactions. Previously, chips have been hardwired to handle specific elliptic curves or families of curves, but MIT’s latest chip has been developed to work with any elliptic curve.

“Cryptographers are coming up with curves with different properties, and they use different primes,” said Utsav Banerjee, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and lead author on the paper.

“There is a lot of debate regarding which curve is secure and which curve to use, and there are multiple governments with different standards coming up that talk about different curves. With this chip, we can support all of them, and hopefully, when new curves come along in the future, we can support them as well.”

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