NYU study investigates phone-killing ‘disease’

A malicious program built into mobile devices can rapidly deteriorate the hardware, potentially rendering the device useless.

Christian Forte

A malicious program built into mobile devices can rapidly deteriorate the hardware, potentially rendering the device useless.

Alice Zhang, Staff Writer

A recent study by a group of NYU scientists brings up alarming news for technology consumers: a “digital disease” built into devices can rapidly degrade its insides.

The paper titled, “MAGIC: Malicious Aging in Circuits/Cores,” outlines the process of this digital aging and possible scenarios in which it may be used. In essence, the program puts so much stress on processors that it wears them down at an excessive rate, aging them quicker than normal.

The malicious program described in the paper accelerates the aging at such a rapid rate that, after a month, the processor’s performance in an electronic device is cut down by 10.92 percent. In worse scenarios, it can break a smartphone beyond repair. The “disease” attacks the transistors found in CMOS technology, which is commonly found in processors for computers. Arun Kanuparthi, an NYU alumnus who co-authored the paper, talked about how the hardware is put under duress with this program.

“PMOS transistors are good at sending a 1 whereas NMOS are good at sending 0’s,” Kanuparthi said. “The transistors are put under stress when they try to transmit the other value. Continuous application of stress-causing inputs messes up the timing of the entire design.”

This paper is the first-known publication about the program, so there have been no implementations into devices thus far. However, Naghmeh Karimi, a visiting professor at the Tandon School of Engineering, said there are already rumors of its usage by technology companies in order to force consumers to upgrade their phones after a new model is released.

“There are some not-yet-confirmed stories about the engagement of a few industrial companies in planned obsolescence,” Karimi said. “Attackers, though, need to have access to the gate-level netlist of the processor using reverse engineering, for example, to implement this attack.”

However, only designers can control the aging and prevent MAGIC. Ozgur Sinanoglu, an associate professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, explains that even if consumers are made aware of the situation, it is not in their power to prevent these attacks.

“The best way to protect against these and similar attacks is for chips to have built-in defenses, which designers are responsible for putting in place,” Sinanoglu said. “The end users, or consumers, typically have limited capabilities to cope with such attacks.”

This problem highlights the technology industry’s struggle to create a profit while still exercising morality. Xueyang Wang, another co-author of the paper and an NYU Tandon alumna, explained the long-term impacts of accelerated aging attacks.

“End-users must be guaranteed that companies are not designing products to fail,” Wang said. “Regulatory bodies, such as FCC for instance, must step in and oversee things. This has a nice interplay between technology, law and ethics.”

A version of this story appeared in the Monday, Oct. 26 print issue. Email Alice Zhang at [email protected].