Major vulnerabilities discovered in high-performance computer chips could lead to widespread failures
03/08/2019 / By Edsel Cook / Comments
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Major vulnerabilities discovered in high-performance computer chips could lead to widespread failures

The computer chips that provide processing power to your computers and smart devices turn out to be nowhere as safe as their manufacturers claimed them to be. An American study found major security gaps in those chips that could put most modern electronic devices at serious risk of breaking faster and earlier than expected.

Researchers from the Washington State University (WSU) explained that the vulnerability allowed them to maliciously increase the workload of the computer chip. The extra fake work forced the chip to run faster and harder, a breakneck pace that wore out the device more quickly and shortened its expected useful lifetime. This cyber attack also damaged the communication system that the various parts of the chip used to communicate with each other.

The compromised computer chips have been in wide use for many years now. Yet lead researcher Partha Pande did not know if the problems had been there from the start or added in recent times.

Pande and her team presented their findings at a computer chip technology symposium in 2018. (Related: Humans to Merge with Machines? The Implantation and Function of Neural Lace Brain Chip Technology.)

Big security problems in the communications system of complex computer chips

Electronic devices play important roles in our daily life. They are vulnerable to malicious attacks, so researchers are looking for weaknesses and coming up with ways to protect the electronics from harm.

Big consumer electronics corporations have been accused of taking advantage of security gaps in their own products. Supposedly, the later “software updates” of these companies deliberately decrease the performance of older models of their products. Consumers are then forced to buy their latest models.


Earlier studies focused on the components of the computer chips. Researchers checked the circuits, computer memory, and processors for security problems.

The researchers decided to look at the communications system of high-performance computer chips. They were surprised to find big problems in the supposedly sophisticated system, which could be used to negatively alter the behavior of the chip.

“The communications system is the glue that holds everything together,” Pande said at the symposium. “When it starts to malfunction, the whole system is going to crumble.”

Your electronic’s computer chip can be tricked into overworking itself

Computers use at least one processor chip to perform their tasks. The more processors a device has, the better its capabilities, which is important for resource-intensive tasks like cloud computing and applications involving large amounts of data.

High-performance units are powered by a small army of processors. They can use parallel processing, where they break up a big job into several parts and assign each part to a processor.

Parallel processing shortens the processing time. However, this mode of computer operation relies on a communication system that can efficiently oversee all of its processors and memory at the same time.

Pande’s research team tested the robustness of the communications system of a widely-used high-performance computer chip. They used three different attacks that increased the workload of the chip, either by boosting the amount of crosstalk noise or increasing the stress caused by electromigration.

Based on the results of their experiment, the researchers identified the particular “vertical links” that were most likely to fail if subjected to these attacks. These links facilitate communications between processors in a stack. Their failure will disrupt ongoing parallel processing jobs and increase processing time.

“We determined how an agent can target the communication system to start malfunctions in the chip,” said Pande. “The role of the communications and the threat had not been clear to the research community before.”

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