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Hardware Lockdown Initiative Cracks Down On Cloning, Counterfeiting

Cisco joins seven other vendors in new Hardware Intrinsic Security (HIS) effort
Several hardware vendors including Cisco Systems have banded together to push for the adoption of built-in protections to prevent counterfeiting and cloning of their hardware products.

The new Hardware Intrinsic Security (HIS) Initiative -- which also includes imec, Irdeto, Intrinsic-ID, NXP Semiconductors, SiVenture, TSMC, and Virage Logic -- aims to promote and facilitate a new method of locking down hardware intellectual property. To date, smart card vendors, such as NXP Semiconductors, and set-top box vendors have begun incorporating HIS technology, which is based on a method developed by Intrinsic-ID, into their products to protect them from cloning.

Cloning and counterfeiting hardware is big business: According to KPMG, 10 percent of all electronics sold today are fake.

"The underlying technology [for HIS] is a fingerprinting [approach]," says Daniel Schobben, CEO of Intrinsic-ID, one of the charter members of the initiative, as well as the creator of the HIS hardware-hardening method. Most hardware devices today store their encryption key in memory, but when the device is powered down, the key remains there -- and vulnerable, he says.

"We derive the key from properties of the device, which is more secure," Schobben says. "The keys are not stored in the device."

Knock-off hardware has been a thorn in Cisco's side. A joint operation of the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Control announced earlier this month resulted in the bust of a counterfeit Cisco hardware ring that seized phony Cisco routers, switches, network cards, secure communications devices, and labels worth more than $145 million. Nine suspects are awaiting trial, and another eight are awaiting sentencing.

Cisco wasn't available for an interview by this posting, but Jan Schlossberg, with Cisco's intellectual property, protection and compliance group, issued this statement: "Counterfeit electronics devices and systems can wreak havoc on revenues and brand reputations. As a part of our ongoing effort to ensure Cisco brand protection, we have joined the HIS Initiative to engage our ecosystem on the adoption of HIS solutions."

HIS is considered a low-cost security option for locking down hardware from pirates. Rather than trying to better conceal the key, it just doesn't store it at all. Instead it relies on the unique electronic fingerprint in each semiconductor device.

The group says HIS eliminates engineering costs of traditional key storage methods and speeds time to market because it uses standard process components.

The HIS Initiative formed to educate the industry on this technology and to smooth the way for its adoption, according to the group. Schobben says he expects commercial products to roll out with the new protections built in.

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