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NXP embeds security into silicon

From Target to Yahoo to Ashley Madison, major corporate names are getting hacked, and the public knows it. When companies look at the opportunity to connect more devices to the internet of things, the subject of security invariably arises.

“Security, that’s the greatest concern of all,” said Michael Dell, founder of the 33-year-old company that bears his name. Just a few miles away from Dell’s Texas headquarters, the engineers at NXP Semiconductor are working hard to embed security into chips that can control everything from robots to autonomous cars.

NXP bought Freescale in 2015, and then agreed last year to be acquired by Qualcomm. For the former Freescale engineers, none of these changes are shifting the focus away from embedded security.

“What we believe is that the root of trust needs to be provided at the hardware level,” said Ravi Malhotra, senior software product marketing manager at NXP. “So the hardware, the silicon, needs to insure that nobody is able to tamper with the software that’s running on top of it.”

Malhotra and his team look at chip designs the way other people might look at a diagram of a city block, with areas designated for buildings, roads and trees. NXP’s block diagrams include the digital equivalent of fences and walls, designed to partition the different applications running on the chip.

“Any application that’s running on the ARM cores has a dedicated set of resources, whether it’s network ports, whether it’s access to the crypto engine, whether it’s files that are stored on a disk,” explained Malhotra. “Everything is strongly partitioned, and that partition is actually enforced by all these blocks which are in the hardware.”

Malhotra said these security features can be implemented in software, but NXP builds them into the hardware since even the lowest level of software is vulnerable to attack. He said that hacks can come in several different forms: network attacks, application software that infiltrates the trusted system software, or even physical attacks in which a hacker removes a chip that has been added to a board to secure it. NXP wants to guard against all these threats by building its secure platform into the silicon.

By next year, NXP’s embedded security solutions will be part of Qualcomm if everything goes according to plan. The California chipmaker has already faced questions about the security of its flagship chipsets, and the company has said it wants to combine its connectivity portfolio with NXP’s security expertise.

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