How to Stop Counterfeit Semiconductors

Wednesday, Dec 31, 2014, 3:30pm

by David Isaacs, Vice President, Government Affairs

Imagine if the complex electronics on a U.S. nuclear submarine were compromised by counterfeit microchips, or semiconductors. It might sound like the plot of an action film, but this story came dangerously close to being a reality.

Earlier this year, a man named Peter Picone admitted that he sent counterfeit semiconductors to the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Connecticut, where the chips were intended for use in nuclear submarines. Picone pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit military goods. Fortunately, the counterfeit chips were identified before they found their way into critical military systems. Should this happen again in the future, we might not be so fortunate.


How counterfeiting works

Here’s how semiconductor counterfeiting works: Counterfeiters “harvest” semiconductor components from old circuit boards then re-mark them to indicate they are new or that they have better performance than the original components. These counterfeit semiconductors, which are unreliable and may be indistinguishable from authentic semiconductors, are then sold through a network of international brokers and can end up in critical consumer, industrial, medical, and military devices, potentially undermining our public safety and national security.

What can we do to stop counterfeiting?

The threat of counterfeit semiconductors can be greatly reduced by taking one simple, straightforward action: buying semiconductor products either directly from Original Component Manufacturers (OCMs) or their authorized distributors or resellers. SIA has long emphasized the importance of buying from authorized sources, and this was the chief recommendation of SIA’s Anti-counterfeiting whitepaper.

The white paper identifies numerous known incidents of counterfeit semiconductors causing or potentially causing health, safety, and security issues, including:

  • Medical devices: A counterfeit semiconductor component was identified in an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), resulting in a defibrillator over-voltage condition. Failure to detect and address this issue could have resulted in improper electrical shocks being applied to heart attack victims, thus jeopardizing their lives.
  • Household appliances: A counterfeit semiconductor component caused a fire in the control circuitry in a vacuum cleaner for residential use. This fire was successfully contained, but it had the potential to result in major property damage or even loss of life.
  • Air travel: A counterfeit semiconductor failed in a power supply used for airport landing lights. This did not result in any reported airline take-off or landing incidents, but the potential for such incidents was obvious.

A recently finalized Department of Defense (DoD) rule takes an important step in the right direction by implementing needed safeguards in the procurement of semiconductors and other electronic parts used by our military. Non-military purchasers of semiconductor products should follow DoD’s lead and prioritize purchases from authorized sources.

Working together and using the SIA white paper as a roadmap, we can stem the tide of counterfeit semiconductor products and help ensure the safety of technologies that are vital to America’s economic and national security.