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Fight IC piracy with OTP memory

Posted: 16 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:OTP memory for anti-piracy? low cost anti-piracy solution? IC security?

Buenzli: Anti-piracy solutions have become increasingly critical in the IC industry.

Antipiracy solutions have become increasingly important in the semiconductor industry. The United States Department of Commerce estimated that in 2006, intellectual-property theft cost U.S. companies nearly $250 billion in lost sales and contributed to the loss of 750,000 jobs.

Historically, however, antipiracy solutions have been expensive and difficult to implement. Separate solutions can be priced at more than $100,000, which excludes the royalty fee. Implementing them may also increase design size.

One emerging solution is to use non-volatile, one-time-programmable (OTP) memory to implement antipiracy solutions on semiconductors. This effective, simple and low-cost approach uses a random number generator to create a unique identification number from a large pool.

For example, let's consider a 10-digit serial number that provides 10 billion possible combinations. During configuration, the identification number would be stored in the on-chip OTP memory. Each memory block would be given a different number that would then serve as a unique designation for the IC. This number would be stored in a highly secure database of valid identification numbers that only key parties could access. Let's assume that 10 million numbers were assigned to a specific lot of ICs. It would be prohibitively work-intensive for pirates to guess the valid identification number successfully.

As with any antipiracy solution, there would still be a small probability (1/1,000) that a pirate could guess the valid identification number. If a manufacturer found this error rate unacceptable, a larger number pool could be created.

If a device came under suspicion as a possibly pirated unit, the unique identification number could be retrieved. The identification number would then be checked against the database of valid serial numbers. If the numbers did not match, then piracy would be confirmed.

Another OTP antipiracy scheme provides additional design security, ensuring that only selected individuals will be able to retrieve the identification number. A developer who wants to retrieve the identification number from the IC enters a predetermined code. If the correct code is not provided, the identification number cannot be accessed.

Antifuse memories that are easily implemented in standard logic CMOS and require no additional or post-processing steps are a good fit for antipiracy applications. To maximize reliability, the memory should generate and confine the voltage entirely within the memory cell, guaranteeing that only the programmed cells see the high voltage. Thus, the reliability of unprogrammed cells or other devices on an IC will not be affected. OTP memory also avoids the data retention issues associated with floating-gate designs. Thus, IC makers that are looking to implement antipiracy protection should consider OTP memory.

- Charles Buenzli
VP and Chief Operating Officer
Novocell Semiconductor Inc.

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