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In another question I asked about ways one might obfuscate the design of a system, to prevent unauthorized cloning. One suggestion was that IC manufacturers are often willing to put custom labels on their chips. The idea is interesting, but my quantities are low enough that this would not be cost-effective. How might one remove or otherwise render unreadable the labels on ICs?

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Keep in mind that anything you do to increase your cost will increase your sell price, which gives a even bigger margin for the cloners to make money, making it more likely the product will be cloned. –  Olin Lathrop Feb 18 at 16:21
    
@OlinLathrop True, but the cloners can sell it cheaper than we can under any circumstances. At our volumes, everything is hand-built. It's amazing what undercutting you can do when labor is practically free. –  Stephen Collings Feb 18 at 16:40
    
@StephenCollings It doesn't help when the exact same parts are available to competitors for a fraction of the price, and lower quality for even less. –  Spehro Pefhany Feb 18 at 16:54
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If the cloners can sell it a large amount cheaper, then you need better manufacturing. –  Olin Lathrop Feb 18 at 18:32
    
Automation is not practical at our volumes, and we're not willing to off-shore the manufacturing. –  Stephen Collings Feb 18 at 18:35
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5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Grinding or other abrasives is the only reliable method. I think I've seen machines that will do this for DIP components.

A dedicated reverse-engineering person can probably guess the part from the pinout, surrounding circuit, and package or simply have the epoxy removed and look at the identification numbers on the die under a microscope, so it only goes so far.

In my (somewhat) humble opinion, hiding the numbers on chips is kind of a red flag that the product is really easy to clone, has nothing proprietary in it, and is being sold for a very healthy margin, but perhaps that's just me. You won't find top tier manufacturers doing it.

You could always incorporate one of these chips.

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I'm impressed, your description of our product is pretty much perfect. –  Stephen Collings Feb 18 at 16:42
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Don't forget that many chips have identification on the bottom side too. –  jippie Feb 18 at 19:02
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A little sandpaper will take the laser-etched marking off most ICs. (The laser markings are hard to read in the best of circumstances, so it doesn't take much scuffing to render it illegible.)

That said, if your IC is at all popular, it won't obscure much. The supply pin locations are one giveaway, and the rest of the circuit (unless it's really novel) give a pretty clear indication to an experienced observer.

On the other hand, you just need to make it more of a pain to reverse-engineer than to redesign from scratch.

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The last point is a good one - especially because re-design will likely only be a re-implementation to an established requirement. Sometimes just figuring out what it should do consumes a lot more development time than actually implementing any particular one the various functionalities it is given on the way to being an actual product. –  Chris Stratton Feb 18 at 17:03
    
I hate to say this, but misleading statements in the specifications and descriptions may be helpful. Of course you have to be careful not to mislead your customers to their detriment or there may be consequences. –  Spehro Pefhany Feb 18 at 17:50
    
Not sure if it is good for long term reliability, but you can power many chips through the protective clamping diodes on the IO pins. That'll obfuscate at least the power pins. –  jippie Feb 18 at 19:06
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Include a few of these chips to throw people off your trail. –  Adam Davis Feb 18 at 19:34
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In small quantities, the markings can be removed with a rotary tool (like a Dremel tool) or sanded. I've seen people do it even with a relatively straightforward circuit: a purely analog microphone preamp. The circuit had about 4x ICs in SOIC-8.

By itself, removing the IC markings would deter simplistic attackers, and there are quite a few of them. Combined with other obfuscations (protected firmware code, for instance) it will help deter or slow down more attackers.

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It is not difficult to search component libraries looking for part of the same style and size with matching power and ground pins. A simple product with little added value is exactly the kind of thing a cloner can make money at. The only way I know of to make a design hard to copy is to add value to it that isn't easily reproducible or is patentable and/or to iterate the product faster than the cloners can keep up.

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Google the phrase "ic remarking" to find many suppliers of this service.

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