When Marvell, a Silicon Valley chipmaker, learned that it had discovered one of its chips in a Russian surveillance drone seized in 2016, it launched an investigation into how that had happened.
The chip, which costs less than $2, was supplied to an Asian distributor in 2009. Then, they sold it to another Asian broker, who went out of business later.
It reappeared in a drone recovered in Lithuania years later.
According to executives and analysts, Marvell's experience is just one of many examples of chipmakers' inability to identify where many of their lower-end products end up. This experience might hinder the implementation of new US sanctions to prevent the supply of US technology to Russia.
While higher-end sophisticated chips that may build supercomputers are sold directly to enterprises, they commonly sell lower-cost commodity chips that may only regulate the electricity through numerous resellers before ending up in a gadget.
According to TechInsights' chip economist Dan Hutcheson, the global semiconductor industry will ship 578 billion chips this year, with 64 percent of those being commodity chips.
According to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics organization, Russia accounted for less than 0.1 percent of worldwide semiconductor purchases before the sanctions. Still, new Western restrictions highlight the threat in human terms.
"All those drones we've seen were not armed," said Damien Spleeters, deputy head of operations at the Conflict Armament Research group, which discovered the chips in the drones supported by the European Union and Germany.
In addition to Intel, NXP, Analog Devices, Samsung Electronics, the Conflict Armament Research report that prompted Marvell's tracking work also found chips from Intel, NXP, Analog Devices, Samsung Electronics, Texas Instruments, and STMicroelectronics in Russian drones.
Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. NXP and Analog Devices said they abide by the restrictions; Intel, as opposed to its products in human rights violations, and Samsung, said it does not create chips for military usage.
Drones, guided missiles, helicopters, fighter jets, vehicles, and electronic warfare devices require chips, and experts say they frequently utilize older, well-tested chips. Due to new US sanctions, even the bare chips will also be sent to blocklisted Russian businesses.
According to Daniel Fisher-Owens, a specialist on chips and export control at law firm Berliner Corcoran & Rowe, the US company selling the most sensitive chips can be held liable if the chip ends up with an entity on the US banned list.
According to Lewis, the goal of the Russian sanctions is to disrupt their supply chain, which the intelligence community is working on. Finding a solution may necessitate innovative technical solutions.
It's probably a good idea to know where the chips go. In a recent interview with Reuters, Eric Schmidt, the former Google chairman, said that you could essentially put in a public-private key pair on every chip, which authenticates it and allows it to work.
Marvell claims to have an increasing number of products that allow fingerprinting and tracing, and it is working with industry partners and customers to enhance this technology. According to Tom Katsioulas, technology executive at the Global Semiconductor Alliance, the industry group's members should concentrate on developing a trusted IoT ecosystem security to tag and trace chips.
For a $2 chip, that may be far more difficult to achieve without making it unreasonably expensive. The answer could come down to industrial processes, regulations, and willpower.
Ironically, the technology to do this, the blockchain, the device IDs, has been done before for other applications. All that's required is that catalyst to bring it to fruition.
Semiconductors have a unique set of electrical properties. A conductor is a substance that conducts electricity, while an insulator is a substance that does not lead to electricity. Semiconductors are materials that have properties in the middle of the spectrum. Integrated circuits (ICs) and discrete electronic components such as diodes and transistors are made with semiconductors. Two common elemental semiconductors are silicon and germanium. Silicon is the most well-known of them. Gallium arsenide and indium antimonide are two common semiconductor compounds.
Semiconductors have become critical components in a wide range of electronic devices and the social infrastructure that supports our daily lives.