MIT engineers have developed a new kind of RFID chip that’s nearly impossible to hack

mit unhackable rfid chips scan

You might not realize it, but radio frequency identification (RFID) tech is everywhere these days. From the cards in your wallet, to inventory control in warehouses, it’s the technology that works behind the scenes to power the world around you. RFID has brought efficiency to complicated industries and makes our tiny devices and everyday carry items speak to each other. But RFID technology has also been very vulnerable to security attacks and information hackers – until now. A team of researchers from MIT and Texas Instruments have developed a new kind of RFID chip that they believe is virtually impossible to hack.

The new RFID chip is composed of ferroelectric crystals, which are made up of molecules arranged in a lattice pattern across three dimensions. Thanks to this unique structure, when you apply electricity to the lattice, each cell can be polarized as either positive or negative, representing the value of a bit of information. Because the cells retain their polarization when the electric field is removed, the chips can store data even when they’re powered off. Texas Instruments developed a series of 3.3-volt capacitors for the chip’s energy source, and 1.5-volt cells for data storage.

Side-channel attacks have been one common way hackers steal information from unsuspecting RFID chips. These attacks work by analyzing memory access and power usage patterns when a device is encrypting or decrypting information. That way, the hacker can determine the encryption key and run discreet algorithms to leak tiny amounts of information repeatedly, until a secret or a string of numbers is completely extracted.

In response to side-channel attack vulnerability, RFID chips introduced randomized secret keys. But historically, power glitch attacks have been used to beat these variable key developments in RFID technology. If chips are designed to randomly generate new secret keys regularly, cutting the power at precisely the right time lets hackers test a single key thousands of times. The new chip features an internal power supply that is physically connected to the chip’s circuitry. In combination with nonvolatile memory cells that continue to securely store data even when a device loses power, the RFID chip avoids power glitch attacks completely.

“In the age of ubiquitous connectivity, security is one of the paramount challenges we face,” said Texas Instruments Chief Technology Officer, Ahmad Bahai. With several working prototypes completed and a series successful of tests and experiments to prove the security of the new tech, these RFID chips may soon be integrated into the devices we know and love.