Technology & Innovation
day one project

A National Secure Electronics Initiative

10.13.20 | 3 min read | Text by Eric Breckenfeld


Semiconductor integrated circuits (ICs) will continue to play an increasingly significant role in society as smart phones, internet-of-things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, 5G communications, and other vastly interconnected technologies redefine many facets of daily life in the United States. The interconnectedness of these technologies presents novel opportunities for adversaries to exploit these systems for financial or strategic gain. The present geopolitical difficulties between China and the US, coupled with supply chain interruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have made concerns about the robustness of the IC supply chain especially germane. In particular, China’s enormous investment in expanding its production capacity of advanced ICs is of grave concern. Against this landscape, there is an exciting opportunity for the next administration to develop a sophisticated American IC security infrastructure by launching a National Secure Electronics Initiative (NSEI). The NSEI will set a goal of achieving levels of security for electronic hardware in defense and commercial sectors at the design, manufacturing, and deployment stages with quantifiable strength comparable to the protections available at the software and data level, such as the Advanced Encryption Standards (AES).

Through NSEI, the next administration will ensure that not only defense, but also municipal and commercial supply chain processes, data, toolsets, key personnel, and facilities are secured against penetration by external threats or subversion by internal threats. The NSEI will integrate defense efforts and advancements with the commercial and municipal sectors by developing a more robust innovation pipeline through investments in early stage research, working across industry, government, and academia to develop a comprehensive set of security metrics, and fully leveraging the resources and expertise of other government agencies beyond those tied to defense. Making the United States a pioneer of such efforts would also represent a significant value add for domestic design and manufacture of electronic devices.

To reach these goals, the federal government should undertake a comprehensive agenda, led by the White House via the NSEI, to greatly expand existing efforts in the secure microelectronics space, such as the DoD Trusted and Assured Microelectronics (T&AM) program, and extend those efforts to better include the commercial and municipal sectors in addition to defense. The NSEI should complement but not depend upon other potential parallel efforts in this space. For example, two pieces of legislation, the CHIPS for America Act and American Foundries Act of 2020, have recommended the expansion of onshore capacity in advanced node ICs. The Semiconductor Industry Association has made similar recommendations and provided estimates for the potential impact of either $20B or $50B worth of federal investment in this space. The technologies developed under the NSEI would improve electronic security regardless of where the devices were manufactured, but would benefit from an expansion in domestic capacity. This is critical because although an increase in US manufacturing of advanced ICs is desirable on its own merits, the security of defense, consumer, and municipal electronics should not hinge on such developments.

Accomplishing the goals outlined below will secure the nation’s place at the forefront of global microelectronics security. The consequences of inaction may lead to more powerful cyber-attacks (e.g. rising attacks on health or financial infrastructure, military hardware subversion by adversarial states) on personal data, infrastructure, or vulnerable defense targets.