DARPA’s VAPR program: ‘Like Snapchat for hardware’

DARPA's VAPR program wants to turn components like this into dust. (Wikimedia Commons)

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When spies receive a super-secret communication in movies from “Mission: Impossible” to “Inspector Gadget,” they’re always warned: “This message will self destruct.”

Now, a group of researchers want to apply that extra layer of protection to modern-day electronics sending those covert messages.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources Program — known as VAPR — aims to give people the ability to destroy hardware in information systems once they reach their end of life. It’s created a way to load microchips onto a piece of Gorilla Glass that has been altered to shatter, thus destroying all hardware aboard, upon a remote command.

Pae Wu, a DARPA technical consultant, said VAPR team is trying to “eliminate the problem of object leave-behind,” making sure that once a system is at end-of-life it cannot be reconstructed or data cannot be siphoned before it’s disposed of.

“Some people have been referring to it as the hardware version of Snapchat,” Wu told FedScoop Thursday at DARPA’s “Wait What?” Conference.

Researchers have found a way to bond microchips onto substrates — the layers of coating within the glass — which are then placed onto treated glass specifically built to be reduced to dust on command.

“When you look at the cross layer of the glass, the outermost layer is compressively strained, so all the forces are pointing inwards. The inner core is tensile, so the forces are pointing outwards. So if you compromise that outer layer, it’ll release that tensile strain and the whole thing will shatter,” Wu said.

Once shattered, there is no hope of reconstruction. The substrates are reduced to particles no bigger than 150 microns. Baggies full of shattered chips on display at the conference looked as if they were full of glitter.

Teams from the Palo Alto Research Center, which is working on the project, demonstrated how they could smash chips with lasers. It may be hard to see in the video below, but once the laser hits the chip, it shatters and pops, not unlike when someone smashes their iPhone screen when it’s dropped.

Greg Whiting with PARC told FedScoop the laser did not provide the energy to break the glass, but served as a logical signal to tell the glass to shatter.

“We separate the trigger from the actual method of triggering,” Whiting told FedScoop. “You can pick any method of trigger signaling that should be possible. The energy to trigger is coming from a resistive heater on the device. The signal to tell that resistive heater to heat up can come from anything. It could be a coil, a chip, an RF signal that could be connected to anything from a chemical sensor or a Web application.”

DARPA researchers said there are other benefits aside from the security that comes with self-destructive materials. Materials used in the chips could be made to decompose or be recycled, while devices that eventually be used inside the body may aid in continuous health monitoring and treatment in the future.

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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Department, Departments, VAPR