Fuming nitric acid, robots and fraud: chasing counterfeit chips

Fuming nitric acid, robots and fraud: chasing counterfeit chips

Summary: Silicon chips are small, expensive and come from far away. They're also sometimes difficult to get hold of: the chip makers have to guess well ahead of time what will sell, and an unexpected interest in one particular part can quickly exhaust supplies and push prices way up.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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Silicon chips are small, expensive and come from far away. They're also sometimes difficult to get hold of: the chip makers have to guess well ahead of time what will sell, and an unexpected interest in one particular part can quickly exhaust supplies and push prices way up.

All this is a tempting recipe for fraudsters, especially in parts of the world where it is perhaps easier to get hold of some unofficial time on chip-making machinery than in Silicon Valley's heavily controlled environment. The results can be varied, from out-of-spec parts marked up as fully working to complete fabrications with fake labelling. The end result can be equally mixed - the customer might end up with an expensive collection of useless bits. At worst, the parts seem to pass testing and end up in shipped products that consequently fail. That's not what you want, especially in miltary or security products.

One company that recently copped a batch of hooky silicon was Sparkfun, a 90-strong group of silicon adventurers in Boulder, Colorado, who specialise in getting cool tech into the hands of experimenters, hobbyists and inventors. They have a particular interest in robotics, but if it involves making electrons jump through hoops, they'll be there for you. The company looks like the sort of place where any geek with solder in their veins would give their left probe to work, and if this isn't the sort of outfit that helps spark the next revolution in great gadgets then there is no hope for the human race.

It's also the sort of place to which you really don't want to send a shipment of no-good naughty gubbins. If you do, they won't just sit there and write it off, or request a credit note from the suppliers via the legal department. No sirree. They'll roll up their sleeves (OK, don an XKCD tee-shirt) and get to work finding out exactly what happened.

And then they'll write it up - as they are doing in their lavishly illustrated blog following delivery of 1500 micro-controllers that turned out to be anything but. Actually, it turns out that rolling up your sleeves is the worst thing to do, as finding out what happened involves bathing the knock-off chips in fuming nitric acid, shooting the critters full of X-rays, and generally getting post-medieval on their tush. As they point out, this is not entirely compatible with DIY, even of the extreme sort. They happen to have, as befits their status as suppliers to the cognoscenti, plenty of pals who do this for a living and have scary chemicals and very high energy photon makers to hand.

You'll have to read their post for the full story; gripping if you've been exposed to the electronics bug before, yet entertaining enough to be a great tale even if you don't know your op-amp from your optotransistor. The investigation is ongoing, and they've got far enough to date to identify who made the silicon concerned -- which doesn't mean that the company identified produced the final packaged chip, but is a step forward in finding out who did.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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