Today, I was thinking about what is behind the relentless surge in counterfeiting beyond the obvious motivation of greed.
I couldn't help but think about the intellectual drive and challenge that made hacking, which was initially an insider sport, evolve into the very real and present threat of cyberterrorism. I doubt if the first hackers even considered that they were developing the foundational skillsets for undermining national security.
The spirit behind the hacking community was more intellectual "one-upmanship" than to do any real harm. How many computers could be attacked with a signature virus was a game of numbers that drew admiration from fellow hackers using cryptic monikers.
Many of the hackers knew each other only by their "cybersleuth" names. Hacking was more of a scientific art form than a malicious undertaking. Even though harm was done and criminal activity eventually profited from this art form, the original hackers became famous within their own circles and because of their advanced skills with computers, eventually became employees of companies trying to protect themselves against hackers trying to penetrate firewalls. Consider the same genesis as a possibility behind counterfeiting.
Pride of authorship?
Imagine the initial counterfeiter's pride as he has managed to reverse engineer and duplicate an Intel processor requiring millions of transistors with multilayer interconnects. The first working wafer out of the illicit foundry operation must been a source of great pride and a cause for jubilant celebration.
The skill set for such a cloning process must have been extensive with several dozen engineers and scientists involved. Now, Pandora's Box was opened and the core capabilities used to clone something as complex as a microprocessor could be used across a wide variety of semiconductor components. Dopant implant equipment, epitaxial deposition gear, diffusion ovens and chambers, lithographic photography, X-ray, masks making equipment, and numerous other types of specialized wafer production and slicing mechanisms would leave a pretty big footprint that could be followed from initial procurement to final placement.
In other words, one way to track the counterfeiters is to follow the production equipment from purchase to destination. But, I hear you say, because that supply chain is muddled by second- and third-generation purchasing sequences involving used equipment, the original or used equipment cannot be tracked beyond the original purchaser. So here is a suggestion how we might better hit the counterfeiters where it hurts.
Suggestion: Have legitimate foundries identify and register their
fabrication equipment serial numbers in a universal database using RFID technology.
Have all legitimate foundries identify and register their fabrication equipment serial numbers in a universal database. The serial numbers are embedded into RFID modules that are both encrypted and protected by self-destruct and alert mechanisms if tampered with.
At the time of wafer fabrication, the equipment used for fab also signs itself onto an electronic traveler as the wafers go through the various stages of processing. With the final RFID write operation being assigned at final test and packaging. The traveler is then assigned a lot number cross reference whereby every wafer and every die can be traced back to the equipment that was part of the process of manufacture.
I readily admit this is a gross oversimplification of a solution, but my contention is that if we want to get to the source of the counterfeiting problem, we have to be able to determine if the foundry was legitimate or not. If all foundries signed into the national database and kept their equipment status current, then with a simple RFID cross check against process/equipment travelers, it would be possible to quickly identify bogus chips.
Start with the seeds
As to the "art" of counterfeiting, I don't think these artists will be putting down their brushes anytime soon. But, if you consider that one way we can help combat the influx of conflict minerals is by identifying and certifying smelters around the world, why can't we do the same with semiconductor production equipment?
If we add GPS tracking for major pieces of equipment, we could track the movement and final destination of used equipment. Now logistics management takes over to identify and qualify or disqualify the new foundry. RFID info is updated or removed and the supply chain is just that much more secure.
As I said, it may be a gross oversimplification and I will accept all criticism for this suggestion, but if you want to get at the root of the counterfeiting problem, then you have to start at the seed level. Without the seed, no root can come into being. In like fashion, without the equipment, no wafers can grow.
What do you think?