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Why we should design computer chips to self-destruct

Devices that self-destruct have been seen for years on TV and in the movies, most notably in The Man from U.N.C.L.E and ‘Mission: Impossible’. Fiction has now become fact thanks to engineers at PARC, formerly known as Xerox PARC, who have developed a chip that can be triggered to explode into irreparable pieces.

The new technology was unveiled at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) “Wait, What?” event in St. Louis and is a component of the agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources project.

The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment.

With the continuing evolution of digital technology, which is dependent upon increasingly accessible data, concerns regarding the protection of personal information and obscurity have also been growing. Some experts say that self-destructing or transient technology may play a key role in securing sensitive data.

Concerns over data breaches and compromised privacy are rising in many industries, including healthcare, retail and the military.

“Information retrieval technologies have allowed us to arrange and rearrange access to a dizzying set of public records and personal information,” wrote Christopher Kotfila, a research assistant at The Research Foundation for the State University of New York, in the Association for Information Science and Technology bulletin. But “while many benefits have come from the power of relevance-based search engines, one of the costs has been a loss of obscurity.”

PARC’s new computer chips promise to allow electronics to last only as long as they are needed. Using silicon computer wafers attached to Gorilla Glass (the tough material used for smartphone displays) the self-destructing chip will shatter when heated in one spot. Demonstrators triggered the chip’s self-destruct circuit using a photo-diode activated by a laser light, but according to materials scientist Gregory Whiting this function could be triggered remotely by anything from Wi-Fi to a radio frequency signal.

An exciting application is the chip’s potential use to store an encryption key. The destruction of the computer chip could assure complete and instant destruction of the key, which could either be part of a routine process or reserved for use if the key falls into the wrong hands.