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DARPA Seeks To Secure Data With Electronics That Dissolve On Command 163

Posted by timothy
from the get-out-of-the-phone-booth dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Electronic devices are built to last, which make them very reliable. However, if during a hostile situation such a device has to be left behind or gets dropped, it will continue to function and could end up giving the enemy an advantage. With that in mind, DARPA has set about creating electronics that work for as long as necessary, but can be destroyed at a moment's notice. The project is called Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR). Its main aim is to develop so-called transient electronics that are capable of dissolving completely, or at the very least to the point where they no longer function. Destroying a VAPR device should be as easy as sending a signal to it or placing the device within certain conditions e.g. extreme heat or cold, that triggers the rapid destruction process."
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DARPA Seeks To Secure Data With Electronics That Dissolve On Command

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I would be interested to know why its a "destroy on command" instead of a "sign in to keep working" strategy. Seems like it would be simpler to just have the electronics degrade if not being used by an authorized user.

    • by tverbeek (457094) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:04PM (#42726869) Homepage
      That would hand The Enemy an easy method of sabotage. All he would need to do to cripple your gear is to try to use it (like some idiot locking out your account by trying to guess the password... but in this case it's hardware and it's irreversible). Or if it's based on time elapsed since the authorized user was using it, just keep you away from it for that long. If you want the authorized user to be the one to determine when the gear should (and should not) be sacrificed, it has to be "destroy on command".
      • by schneidafunk (795759) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:35PM (#42727371)
        "Antipersonnel landmines used by the United States, with the exception of those now warehoused for use in Korea, do not have long-term residual effects because they are self-destructing and/or self-deactivating"

        Reference here [nae.edu]
        • by steelfood (895457)

          Yeah, if the fail-safe is working as intended. I'm not saying every mine suffers this problem, just that if enough are deployed, there's bound to be a few.

      • by clickety6 (141178)

        it has to be "destroy on command".

        Troy? Yeah, it's me! I'm on mission, They gave us these new VAPR Pads. Yeah, Troy, they're great. Now I'm here surrounded by all these rice fields looking for the enemy. No, rice fields.... you know, paddies, Troy.

        *PAD*DESTROY*

        Troy? Hello? Are you there? Why's this bit come off in my hand?

        • by Wolfrider (856)

          Deployed soldier: " Now what was that password again... " ( 5 tries later ) " DAMMIT it melted! Scheisse, all over my shoes... Somebody call Central and have them airdrop another unit, we didn't get the message again... "

      • That would hand The Enemy an easy method of sabotage.

        Only if the designer and/or user of the equipment is rather stupid.

        If you want the authorized user to be the one to determine when the gear should (and should not) be sacrificed, it has to be "destroy on command".

        It's pretty easy to think of circumstances where you would want it destroyed for anyone except the intended user. Sensitive document transport, various black ops activities, etc. If you are a spy you might very well want your electronics to dissolve unless someone knows the correct password.

      • by Bomazi (1875554)

        The idea is that you have exclusive physical access to the hardware, until you decide to abandon it. If an enemy can separate you from the hardware or access it before you make this decision, you have other problems.

        There are plenty of other reasons not to want a system that nags you at regular interval.

      • by poetmatt (793785)

        in either situation, the whole concept is a failure. What's to guarantee that a: a destroy on command function works, or b: a "only allow authenticated" works? What's to guarantee that either one can be bypassed if someone has the physical device, or forgets to do the "destroy on command"?

        This is a sign of people watching too much mission impossible and thinking it's a good thing. They should focus on basic security improvements, not try to go fancy with crap that doesn't even work.

        • by Lashat (1041424)

          Easy to do. RFID tag is implanted in the user if it travels beyond the designated distance BOOM. Dead user...eh....wait..

          In version 2.0, the ...

        • by tibman (623933)

          The handheld crypto computer i used had a software self-destruct. You pressed the red key three times and it was dead. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AN/CYZ-10 [wikipedia.org]
          As far as equipment, each truck had a thermite grenade by the radio. Pull pin, place on radio, walk away.

      • by mysidia (191772)

        If you want the authorized user to be the one to determine when the gear should (and should not) be sacrificed, it has to be "destroy on command".

        Who says the authorized user should? If the equipment needs protection because it can give an enemy an advantage, and it falls into enemy hands, then it should be rendered useless.

        That would hand The Enemy an easy method of sabotage. All he would need to do to cripple your gear is to try to use it

        Or destroy it with explosives...

        It IS in the hands of you

    • Very easy...just add Alka Selzer. Plop plop fizz fizz...there goes my data!~
  • by flowerp (512865) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @11:58AM (#42726783)

    I heard Boeing has some batteries that meet these requirements.

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      Apple iPhones, too. Just ask anybody who's dropped one.

      • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:40PM (#42727455)
        If you dropped it, you weren't holding it right.
      • by catmistake (814204) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @03:52PM (#42730347) Journal
        Have you ever tried installing Windows... and just let the machine sit there, never using it? Even with no one ever using it, over time, the installation still rots. Even if you never used it, in a few short months, it will be unusable anyway. I think far and away the vendor that matches the requirements best is Microsoft. Although admittedly, the strategy of deploying something that is already broken (call it auto-self-destruct rather than merely self-destruct) seems to overshoot DARPA's goal.
        • Have you ever tried installing Windows... and just let the machine sit there, never using it?

          Yes, for an employee who was transferred off site and never used her system.

          Even if you never used it, in a few short months, it will be unusable anyway.

          Err, no. The system sat there for over 9 months of non-use. Works just fine even today. Of course once someone started using it for real it needed about an hour and a half of updating, but still running on the original OS install after sitting for a while not being used.

    • The whole idea is ridiculous. It's simply impossible.


      ---
      "This message will self-destruct in five seconds."
      • The whole idea is ridiculous. It's simply impossible.

        Nonsense. We already have this. All you have to do is let the black smoke out.

        • Just kidding ("this message will self-destruct...").

          Those thermite / hard drive slag units seem intriguing, though. I wonder if I could rig up the same kind of thing.

          Probably not in my laptop. No room.
  • by tverbeek (457094) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @11:59AM (#42726797) Homepage
    "Electronic devices are built to last...." Sorry, but you just lost me, right there.
    • Electronic devices are built to last until you actually put them to use."

      Are you un-lost yet?

    • by antdude (79039)

      Ditto with the newer stuff. Old stuff like CRT TVs, VCRs, etc. do last a long time. I still have and use them!

      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        Ditto with the newer stuff. Old stuff like CRT TVs, VCRs, etc. do last a long time. I still have and use them!

        There are two reasons why "stuff doesn't last like it used to".

        1) Survivors last. Old stuff the died out years ago are probably all thrown in the trash. Potentially a good chunk of the stuff that "still works" today was probably already thrown out by everyone else as they broke and they upgraded. No one remembers the stuff they junked, and the ones that still work are fondly remembered by those who

        • it cost way more because of it

          I can attest to this. The previous TV I owned was a 35" Panasonic tube TV I bought in 1995. I paid about $1100 or so at the time. I just bought a 46" Samsung LED LCD 3D TV, and it was under $1000. And considering adjusting for inflation rates and such, that is a lot cheaper than what I paid for my old TV. $1100 was a lot of dough in the Clinton years...

          However, my previous TV lasted 17 years and I have no doubt that the new one won't last anywhere near that long.

          • by antdude (79039)

            To me, those new big HDTVs aren't even that cheap. I also hate changing and upgrading so often.

  • They were the top vapor developers for *years*. They've got the talent do this correctly.

    Paul
  • You could just as Asus to build them. I don't know anyone who received a functioning model until they'd sent it back at least twice.

  • Nuke it from orbit, its the only way to be sure.

    Looks like a flaw in the triggering code that allowed the other team to trigger the self-destruct could be a very costly mistake.

    • Looks like a flaw in the triggering code that allowed the other team to trigger the self-destruct could be a very costly mistake.

      TFA is bugging out on my work computer, but I think "battlefield" is the wrong theater to be thinking of for this kind of stuff. The intended use should be for the diplomatic corps. At an embassy in a hostile country, you want your data to be destroyable at a moment's notice. They have superpowered incinerators ready to burn all their documents should something go wrong. This would be an extra layer of security for all their electronic data storage. And the "other team" isn't going to trigger the self-

      • TFA is about battlefield electronics. Embassies have been using things like thermite-encased hard drives for a very long time already. But the GP raises an interesting question about what happens when an enemy has the ability to press a button and turn all your most critical battlefield C&C gear into slag.
        • But the GP raises an interesting question about what happens when an enemy has the ability to press a button and turn all your most critical battlefield C&C gear into slag.

          If it truly is that easy to do then you deserve to lose the battle. Just because something can be destroyed easily doesn't mean it has to be easy for anyone to destroy it.

          • That's the "our encryption is unbreakable" argument. Let me know how that works out for you.
            • That's the "our encryption is unbreakable" argument. Let me know how that works out for you.

              Exactly how do you propose The Enemy figure out the right key for each device? You can easily have a unique destruct code for each device which is vaguely close to a one time pad setup. The only way for The Enemy to destroy the device is to either A) get the code from The Good Guys or B) crack the encryption. If the device has a self destruct timer (or accelerometer or geo-locator or...) and the encryption is sufficiently robust it could be very difficult to crack in a sufficiently short time even with

      • They have superpowered incinerators ready to burn all their documents should something go wrong.
        ...
        And the "other team" isn't going to trigger the self-destruct, because they want to see the data, not destroy it.

        1) Wait until "the other team" enters your superpowered incinerator to see the data.

        2) Activate your superpowered incinerator to kill two birds with one stone.

        3) Prophet! ...scratch that, I meant "Jesus" of course.

    • by berashith (222128)

      so supervillians really do include self-destruct buttons on their cool gear!

  • Obfuscated electronics design contest: solving a simple problem in a complex manner. Destruction of battlefield electronics is not a new science. A small gridwork of thermite inside the case and a small igniter. Trigger how you will.

    Don't we have better things to spend research money on?

    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      Obfuscated electronics design contest: solving a simple problem in a complex manner. Destruction of battlefield electronics is not a new science. A small gridwork of thermite inside the case and a small igniter. Trigger how you will.

      Sure, and you can also strap a few pounds of C-4 onto it. But it sounds like DARPA wants to design them to literally dissolve, i.e. a non-violent change that won't burn through the case orand kill people nearby if you aren't careful. TFA mentions medical electronics that dissolve in biofluid, so I'm assuming it's similar to that. Cases where using thermite to simply burn the board isn't an option.

      As to why, I'm not sure, but it's DARPA, their answer usually tends to be "to see if we can."

    • by ByOhTek (1181381)

      Just make sure you don't accidentally trigger it while it's on you...

      I suspect burning thermite going down your back/legs would be quite painful.

      Though if they can do it with the precision to destroy the storage unit but not the casing, that could be ok. I think the idea for dissolving electronics is "If it gets out of the case, nobody gets burning holes cut through their flesh".

  • by oodaloop (1229816) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:05PM (#42726891)
    It's just VAPRware. Actually after I see it, it's probably VAPRware too.
    • I saw blue smoke way back in the 60s. I thought this research was already done.

      • by mspohr (589790)

        I've destroyed lots of electronics during "experiments" to "improve functionality". It's really easy. Just wire something wrong or let a tool slip and it lets the blue smoke out. As we all know, electronics run on blue smoke and when you let the blue smoke out, they stop working.

        • by ByOhTek (1181381)

          Now I wish I could find a wiring web page I saw a long time ago.

          Something like:

          Always wire 5v to 5v, 3v to 3v and 12v to 12v.
          5v to ground will make baby jesus cry.
          5v to 12v will make baby jesus's head explode.

    • There are some Slashdot articles I click through just to ensure an obligatory remark is made. Good job.
  • by bmo (77928)

    Destroying a VAPR device should be as easy as sending a signal to it or placing the device within certain conditions e.g. extreme heat or cold, that triggers the rapid destruction process."

    That's easy enough.

    I just put my phone through the wash. I can assure you that it's quite dead now.

    --
    BMO

  • I have a brilliant design for electronics that stop functioning when exposed to extreme heat. I call them "electronics". I'm willing to license my technology, which is applicable to other resources too, like clothing, houses, and enemy combatants.

  • I could see this being accomplished through DNA computing, where you literally kill the device.
  • This isn't a specific DARPA program, there are two main goals, which could lead to very distinct classes of techniques:

    • - Self-destruction for electronic to avoid enemy retroengineering
    • - Electronic that disolves itself in organic fluids after medical use in situ
  • Give it a decade and the internals of every new electronic consumer device will magically dissolve when it gets to two years old.

    Planned obsolescence, indeed.

    • Reminds me of a comment I heard a few years back to the effect that the "millennium bug" [remember that?] would make things MORE reliable as the calculation to find the end of warranty period would roll over and thus the device/package/unit wouldn't know when to start failing.

      Back to the original topic, remote destruction isn't new - dissolving may be a new twist though.

  • From the things I've heard from friends and acquaintances, mobile phone manufacturers already employ this technology.

  • ..will self-destruct in five seconds.
  • by TTL0 (546351)

    Great Idea ! What could possibly go wrong ????

  • The Jolly Roger wants to tell you about a wonderful thing called the Thermite Reaction.
  • Remember how electronics used to be embedded in epoxy?

    Do the same but replace epoxy with C4. Drive one GPIO pin to a blasting cap. The electronics will be "dissolved" completely.

  • Just put a bag of iron oxide and aluminum powder next to the hard disk and stick a piece of magnesium ribbon into it.

    One match, and I guarantee no readable data will be found in the resulting puddle of slag.

    • by sjbe (173966)

      One match, and I guarantee no readable data will be found in the resulting puddle of slag.

      Perhaps they are looking for a slightly less ostentatious display of destruction in order to attract less attention.

  • Easy - Make the heart of the system an FPGA, and in the scenario of the device being lost / obtained / dropped either:

    (a) Erase the FPGA prom and reset - this would cause the FPGA to lose its configuration data, and no longer function without a rebuild
    or
    (b) Assuming that they are using bitstream encryption, delete or burn out the key - again, the device would no longer program.

  • by VAXcat (674775) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:30PM (#42727277)
    Back in the early 60s, there was still a vast amount of military electronics surplus available from WWI and the Korean wars. This cornucopia of gear was the delight of all of us young radio and electronics enthusiasts. The amateur radio press of the time warned that occasionally equipment would turn up that still had thermite scuttling charges in place - apparently some bits of gear were sensitive enough that they included thermite bombs built in that could be easily triggered when capture was imminent. I never personally saw any, but saw pictures in the journals of the time. So, anyway, this is hardly a new idea
  • Mr. Phelps, your mission, should you decide to accept it...

  • As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

    *poof*

    • Fun fact--in the original pilot and several episodes in the first season (including some after the tape had been introduced), the message was on a self-incinerating *vinyl record*.

  • What a wonderful anti-theft strategy!!! Laptop or iPhone stolen? Just logon, click the button and let the satellite send the self-destruct signal...
  • by Hentes (2461350)

    Use general purpose electronics and store everything important in RAM. Virtualise if necessary.

  • I believe thermite has been around since about 1900.

    This iPhone will selfdestruct in 10 seconds...

  • Somehow I see this being circumvented by users. Just like other means of security such as annoying passwords can be defeated by users and a simple posted note, I am sure users afraid of continually loosing there data at any time will backup whatever they are doing to something that doesn't self destruct if you knock it the wrong way or whatever.

  • IBM could not be reached for comment.

  • If this technology is realized and becomes cheap, any bets on whether or not it becomes the standard for consumer electronics?

    After all, it's the ultimate kill switch. Whether it's government agencies looking to disable citizens' tech devices for whatever spurious 'justification' they make up, or corporations arbitrarily and absolutely enforcing 'planned obsolescence', I predict that very bad things will be done with this if it ever becomes sufficiently cost-effective to be mass-produced.

  • I think Boeing already has such technology in their Dreamliners.
  • Aside from L. Ron Hubbard being cuckoo for Coca Puffs, he had a similar idea for dissolving circuits in his novel Battlefield Earth. He wrote some great Science Fiction, however I do not endorse Scientology, Dianetics or any of his other cult ideologies.
  • I remember in the book Battlefield Earth, the invaders had protected their technology by making a dummy circuit with traditional methods, but etching the actual circuit at a molecular level to make it invisible. When the system detected that it was being tampered with or opened without the proper methods, it blew the dummy circuit to look like it was booby-trapped, and then wiped out the actual circuit to eliminate all the traces. Anyone who didn't know how to properly work around the tamper would end up wi
  • Heard a variation on this story more than 20 years ago...

    The HCF [wikipedia.org] instruction was built into the motorola 6800.

  • And for alla you Mission Impossible fans, that's *not* my reaction.

    Chief: Max, when the password prompt comes up, you've got three chances to get it right, otherwise it will self destruct.
    Max: Right, chief, here's a bad password (types) here's a second bad password (types) Now I'll type the correct one...
    Cheif: Max, what's happened?
    Max: I must have mistyped the good password....

    And I can see the folks who use the coffee cup holder on their computer doing this....

  • Mines that would 'expire' so they will not fire after a set time would be a step forward (pun intended).
  • The civilian opportunities for this sound great. When compelled to give up a password or your devices are otherwise being examined without your permission, the same function used to protect private data.

    Q: What's your password?
    A: Phe!ps
    Q: What's that smoke smell?

  • Lt. [Redacted] : "Where's the abort button?!"
    Sound of deep throated rumbling in the background
    Sgt. [Redacted] : "It melted, sir"
    Lt. [Redacted] : "WHAT?! Why on God's green Earth would it MELT?!"
    Fighting to be heard over what is obviously the sound of an rocket lifting off
    Sgt. [Redacted] : "It's a safety feature, sir. To preserve the integrity of the mission."
    Lt. [Redacted] : "FERCRYIN' OUT LOUD!! WE'RE STILL IN THE LAUNCH T..."
    BZZZT!*~

  • placing the device within certain conditions e.g. extreme heat or cold, that triggers the rapid destruction process.

    Extreme heat already destroys electronics

    A little bonfire or some thermite or black powder should be very effective, unless the electronics were intentionally designed to withstand extreme heat....

  • I was thinking proximity detections... if it is too far away from an RFID on the person, then self-destruct (as opposed to some cars which just lock).

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