A chip against hacker attacks: we discover post-quantum cryptography

The recent hacker attack launched against the CED of the Lazio Region has opened a deep wound on the issue of IT security in Italy. Fortunately, after almost a week of work, also thanks to the help of the FBI, the Italian authorities were able to restore the situation, safeguarding the data. What remains, however, of this terrible experience, is the feeling of anguish and fear that kept everyone in suspense for days. Not to mention the delays and inconveniences caused to the booking system for vaccines against Covid-19. One wonders if all this could have been avoided and, above all, if in the future we will be able to protect ourselves from other similar attacks. At the Technical University of Munich (TUM) a team of researchers has developed an innovative chip capable of defending us against hacker attacks .

Hacker attacks, the weapon of mass destruction of the future

We have to get used to the idea, in fact, that hacker attacks like the one suffered by the Lazio CED will become more and more common in the near future . The consequences that can derive from such situations could be devastating if we do not think of solutions to contain them. More and more services travel on the net and, in the next era of the IoT (internet of things) where everything will be connected, it will become increasingly important to safeguard the vulnerability of our data .

The new frontier of cyber-security: post-quantum cryptography

With the development of quantum computers, some quantum-computing techniques are becoming increasingly popular also in the field of cyber-security. TUM researchers, led by prof. Georg Sigl, have developed the first chip prototype able to counteract hacker attacks in an extremely efficient way. It is a chip made ad hoc for the use of algorithms based on post-quantum cryptography (or post-quantum cryptography, in English) . Post-quantum cryptography is a new approach to cryptography, the discipline that defines algorithms for encrypting information. Currently, studies focus on six different approaches:

  • Lattice-based cryptography . These are the lattice-based algorithms, currently considered the most promising in the field of post-quantum cryptography;
  • Multivariate cryptography . These are post-quantum cryptographic algorithms based on solving multivariate systems of equations;
  • Hash-based cryptography . Generic cryptographic algorithms based on hash functions;
  • Code-based cryptography . These algorithms are based on error correcting codes;
  • Supersingualr elliptic curve isogeny cryptography . It is a post-quantum encryption technique that uses a secret key;
  • Simmetric key quantum resistance . This approach underpins algorithms that use symmetric cryptographic keys.
The chip developed by TUM researchers uses post-quantum encryption techniques, thanks to which it is possible to create increasingly effective cyber-security algorithms against hacker attacks.
The chip developed by TUM researchers uses post-quantum encryption techniques, thanks to which it is possible to create increasingly effective cyber-security algorithms against hacker attacks.

ASIC technology

The chip developed by TUM was designed ad hoc to resist the most dangerous hacker attacks, such as ransomware. This is an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC). This type of electronic components are used exclusively to run suitable calculation or processing applications of the "special purpose" type , ie specific to perform only some functions. This means that these devices are optimized to be able to achieve very high performance.

The chip that can withstand hacker attacks

TUM researchers started with an existing open source ASIC chip based on standard RISC-V architecture, which they then modified. The result is this particular chip, which can be used against powerful hacker attacks. Thanks to appropriate modifications developed by the group, the chip is able to perform quantum computing operations, which give it high computing power . In doing so, therefore, it can be programmed with sophisticated post-quantum cryptographic algorithms.

Ours is the first post-quantum cryptographic chip based entirely on a hardware / software co-design approach

prof. Georg Sigl

Commented prof. Georg Sigl, project manager. The chip, in fact, also incorporates a hardware accelerator specially designed to make computations even faster and support latex-based post-quantum encryption algorithms . The team also claims that it can also implement SIKE at about 21 times faster speed than chips that implement software-only encryption algorithms. The SIKE is an algorithm always based on post-quantum cryptography but much more promising than the latex-based ones. These characteristics give the chip a very valid weapon to defend against the most dangerous hacker attacks.

The chip made by TUM researchers capable of defending us against hacker attacks. Source: Astrid Eckert / TUM.
The chip made by the TUM researchers. Source: Astrid Eckert / TUM.

The hardware Trojan, a new threat to defend against

It doesn't stop there, the component developed by TUM researchers also incorporates four hardware Trojans that work differently from each other. The hardware Trojan is hackers' new weapon of mass destruction. Compared to the conventional Trojan horse, which acts at the software level, it is a virus that uses a particular hardware circuitry to attack. The most dangerous aspect of these viruses is that they are capable of evading any post-quantum encryption algorithm . This means that it will become increasingly important to orient cyber-security research in this direction to understand how to defend against similar attacks in the future.

A chip that can learn to defend itself against hacker attacks on its own

The device created at TUM therefore presents itself as one of the most advanced solutions from the point of view of cyber-security. Researchers have created the first chip capable of running post-quantum encryption algorithms to protect against hacker attacks. Various tests will begin in the coming months, useful for testing their actual capabilities. The tests, at the end of which the chip will be destroyed, will be oriented to understand how much it is able to resist against the hardware Trojan . In addition, they will also serve to develop new methods of machine learning to give the chip an artificial intelligence capable of improving its own defense capabilities. Meanwhile, in the hope that this extraordinary invention can become very promising for the future, we must continue to invest in cyber-security and learn to defend ourselves from hacker attacks that will be increasingly frequent and dangerous.

The article A chip against hacker attacks: We discover post-quantum cryptography comes from Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .