There’s a common cliche in spy films parodied over time where an agent receives information from someone by way of a device or letter and then once the agent receives that knowledge, the device gets put on ‘self-destruct’ mode. As is often the way with fictional technologies, reality has played catch up and the self-destructing chip now exists thanks to Xerox PARC.
First reported by IDG, instead of exploding or catching on fire, the chip shatters itself into tiny bits that could never be assembled again. Made out of a compound similar to Gorilla Glass, the chip was demoed at a DARPA event last Thursday. Xerox PARC worked with DARPA on what they call their “vanishing programmable resources project.”
This chip can be very useful for people looking to give each other highly confidential information, as characters in movies such as Mission Impossible do. But in the real world, demand for secure data transfer isn’t limited to international spies.
Companies concerned about corporate espionage, hackers, whistleblowers, activists, and journalists all have good reasons to seek out a way to transfer information without a trace. Indeed, in a time where post-Snowden NSA revelations have shaken the public and terrorists have finally caught up on proper cryptography, the market is ripe for Xerox PARC’s new device.
The question is whether the intelligence community is okay with the public possessing the tool.
In March, the Harvard Kennedy School Review published a piece by Hugo Zylberberg entitled “The Return of the Crypto Wars,” which mentions that people in the information age still feel like they have a “right to privacy.” But in the 21st Century climate, where daily lives are conducted in front of a computer and a good amount of communication is digital, there’s always the possibility that someone is watching. It’s that possibility that the intelligence community hopes continues into the future.
“Letting intelligence agencies have it their way – introducing vulnerabilities and backdoors on existent good cryptographic tools – is a disaster waiting to happen, both in terms of cyber theft and in terms of policing,” Zylberberg wrote in his piece.
Technology like the Xerox PARC chip could possibly be used to undermine the intelligence community’s efforts to combat global and domestic terrorism. It is the ultimate tool to get information to someone, and then have it disappear completely.
According to the IDG article, a small resistor heats up to a breaking point, which causes the glass to shatter. That heat remains in those small pieces, as the bits shatter into even smaller bits. The specific chip demoed had its self-destruction triggered by a bright light. According to the article, it could be built for various methods of triggering.
Whatever was on the chip, whether it be an encryption key, important business information, or a message from a whistleblower, it is lost, forever.