Missing Protection Against Hardware Reverse Engineering Using Integrated Circuit (IC) Imaging Techniques

Information stored in hardware may be recovered by an attacker with the capability to capture and analyze images of the integrated circuit using techniques such as scanning electron microscopy.


The physical structure of a device, viewed at high enough magnification, can reveal the information stored inside. Typical steps in IC reverse engineering involve removing the chip packaging (decapsulation) then using various imaging techniques ranging from high resolution x-ray microscopy to invasive techniques involving removing IC layers and imaging each layer using a scanning electron microscope.

The goal of such activities is to recover secret keys, unique device identifiers, and proprietary code and circuit designs embedded in hardware that the attacker has been unsuccessful at accessing through other means. These secrets may be stored in non-volatile memory or in the circuit netlist. Memory technologies such as masked ROM allow easier to extraction of secrets than One-time Programmable (OTP) memory.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

Consider an SoC design that embeds a secret key in read-only memory (ROM). The key is baked into the design logic and may not be modified after fabrication causing the key to be identical for all devices. An attacker in possession of the IC can decapsulate and delayer the device. After imaging the layers, computer vision algorithms or manual inspection of the circuit features locate the ROM and reveal the value of the key bits as encoded in the visible circuit structure of the ROM.

See Also

Cross-Cutting Problems

Weaknesses in this category can arise in multiple areas of hardware design or can apply to a wide cross-section of components.

Manufacturing and Life Cycle Management Concerns

Weaknesses in this category are root-caused to defects that arise in the semiconductor-manufacturing process or during the life cycle and supply chain.

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