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Crypto fits sensor nets, RFID tags

Posted: 16 May 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt? EE Times? Certicom Corp.? elliptic curve cryptography? sensor networks?

Certicom Corp. recently rolled out software and a hardware core to bring its elliptic curve cryptography architecture to constrained environments such as sensor networks and active RFID tags.

The approach will let small computing nodes with tiny memory and power budgets handle complex tasks, such as authentication, key exchange and digital signatures that are key for quickly enrolling new mobile nodes in a network. The products are a new low-end avenue for Certicom, which commercializes elliptical curve cryptography (ECC) for a range of systems.

"Sensor networks are in an early-adopter phase, and we want to offer implementers a way to get it right from the beginning, so security issues don't stifle adoption," said Wendy Moore-Bayley, director of marketing for Certicom.

The new security features could be crucial for large networks in factories or hospitals that might someday deploy hundreds or thousands of sensor nodes, many of them mobile. For instance, hospital patients might wear various sensors that could be read by instruments in an ambulance or any hospital room as the patient is moved. Under new regulations, all medical data, including the data read by such sensors, must be kept secure.

ECC security could also be used on active RFID systems including electronic passports, which typically use point-to-point networks as opposed to the mesh nets used by sensors.

Certicom has been co-developing its product with Crossbow, a startup vendor of sensor nets. One user is expected to deploy a large sensor network using embedded ECC security as early as this year.

Certicom's ECC offering provides an alternative to symmetric cryptography approaches, such as AES or DES, which cannot support functions like authentication, as well as to other asymmetric crypto alternatives, such as RSA security. RSA typically requires 1,000-3,000bits/key, compared with 160-224bits/key for ECC, said Mitch Blaser, product manager for Certicom's sensor net product. The difference in key size translates into lower memory, processing and power requirements, he added.

The Certicom product includes its Microcontroller Edition software, available now on the 8bit Atmel AVR processor and being ported to Texas Instruments' 16bit TI MSP430. MCE consists of about 10KBytes of code to handle algorithms for key exchange, authentication, digital signatures and other crypto functions.

A 7,200-gate core, defined in a 130nm process and available as Verilog HDL, processes the low-level math needed for the operations. Certicom has not struck any deals with chipmakers yet, but it hopes chip companies will adopt the core for use in standard products or ASIC libraries for system-chip customers.

Certicom will charge an up-front licensing fee for the technology as well as a royalty based on a split of the value-added security provided for a given application. The company would not disclose specific costs, which are based on negotiations.

The product comes at a time when a number of startups and established companies are chasing sensor networks and RFID as important emerging technologies. Texas Instruments recently acquired sensor-network chipmaker Chipcon as well as a related software startup. Other chipmakers, including Atmel, Freescale and Renesas, are putting together their own vertically integrated solutions, a factor that might drive further consolidation among sensor network startups, said Blaser.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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