MIT creates energy-efficient chips for Internet of Things device encryption

Feb. 14, 2018

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed processors capable of providing encryption to low-power devices.

The Internet of Things (IoT), including embedded industrial sensors, smart lighting, and monitoring systems, can be invaluable for the enterprise.

These devices tend to have minimal power demands, can operate on Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWAN), and have entered the enterprise, industrial scene, and consumer realm rapidly over the past few years.

However, when there is little power to draw upon, security can sometimes be an issue as there are no resources or means to implement traditional security solutions.

Encryption, for example, is a sticking point for today’s IoT devices. While many of our online transactions and communication are protected by public-key cryptography, many IoT devices cannot support individual encryption implementations, due to a lack of power and memory.

However, the encryption challenge may have been solved by MIT researchers. A team of electrical engineers and computer scientists have developed a new chip, hardwired for public-key encryption, which consumes only 1/400 of the power standard protocols usually consumed. In addition, the processors only use 10% as much memory as once required for encryption, and the researchers say they can also execute commands up to 500 times faster.

The chip uses what is called elliptic-curve encryption. This relies on a range of mathematical functions and curves to enhance security—and MIT’s chips have been designed to handle any curvature.

The team has hard-wired the datagram transport layer security protocol, which handles the formatting and transmission of encryption, into the chip design alongside a processor which is able to handle additional elliptic-curve-based security protocols. However, this processor can be powered down when not in use to increase energy efficiency.

A custom inverter circuit also increases usable surface area by 10% while reducing energy consumption by 50%.

In September, IBM and MIT joined forces to establish a new research facility in Cambridge, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, with a focus on artificial intelligence, healthcare, and cybersecurity.

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