Could someone break an ASIC?

If an ASIC is a fully customized, app-specific CPU, is possible to reverse engineer it?

I'd imagine the answer in general is no, since to me the only way to do this would be to keep firing inputs at the ASIC and see what it outputs. And if you don't have clear documentation as to what the ASIC expects as valid input, and what its various outputs imply, the ASIC is essentially a mysterious black box.

Are there advanced methods, tools, etc. that can be used to "crack" an ASIC?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ There are lots of techniques for reverse engineering ASICS. Down to the level of etching away layers of the chip with strong acid and using an electron microscope to examine the physical structure. There is a whole reverse engineering stackexchange that might be better able to help with more details. \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    May 13, 2015 at 18:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ ICs can have their potting removed and the actual transistors can be inspected in many cases, using x-rays and microscopes. Check out this page sparkfun.com/news/384 and the articles leading up to it, where Sparkfun encounters a batch of counterfeit atmel chips. \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2015 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ ASICS are sort of like immutable binary code (truly immutable). A clever person might be able to develop a compromise based on knowledge of how it works, especially if it contains flaws. But in general, reverse engineering would be done by physical inspection and copying. So if security (rather than IP protection) is what you are concerned about, then I wouldn't worry. In theory, someone could add a HW backdoor to an ASIC. But now you are at the NSA/DARPA level of paranoia, worrying about whether your design is deliberately compromised at the ASIC fab level by a hostile country. \$\endgroup\$
    – user57037
    May 13, 2015 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Chinese have been doing it for decades, not easy to do, but certainly possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dean
    May 14, 2015 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ visual6502.org is to some extent dedicated to using the above mentioned techniques to reverse engineer existing silicon \$\endgroup\$
    – old_timer
    May 14, 2015 at 20:04

3 Answers 3


It is quite possible to reverse engineer an ASIC and there really isn't much you can do about it. Basically the main way you do it is physically by removing each layer of the ASIC and using a specialized computer program to recover the schematic. It is very difficult to understand all the functions of the ASIC and you can obfuscate it in various ways but there isn't anything you can really do to prevent it. Randomly sending inputs and seeing what would happen would not be very fruitful (although it can be done effectively in limited circumstances, such as Compaq's reverse engineering of IBM's BIOS chip).

One of the leading companies that does this type work is called Chipworks. Reverse engineering a chip is one of the main ways a company can tell (and get evidence) that a competitor has violated their patented IP.


There are a bunch of companies specializing in reverse engineering ICs, such as Chipworks and Intelligent Services in Ottawa Canada, UBM TechInsights, also in the Ottawa area, Zeptobars in the Russian Federation etc. so yes it is possible. There are a number in Canada, partly because one of the earliest pioneers Mosaid (now called Conversant) was located there. I'm sure China and other countries have them, not all necessarily aimed at patent protection and ethical reverse engineering.

Some of the techniques are public, and I'm sure others are carefully guarded trade secrets. Here is a useful paper from Chipworks entitled The State-of-the-Art in IC Reverse Engineering.


There are methods to crack everything. Security is making your opponents job more difficult, you can never make it impossible. The art is to make it too costly for your opponent compared to the profit he can get from it.

" It seems more important to me, as a developer, to defend the ASICs designs"

Of course that is important. 'your' chip wouldn't be the first for which mysterious Chinese copies appear on the (black) market.

Any chip can be reverse-engineerd with suitabble instrumentation and enough time and money by decoposing it layer for layer. You could compare that to reverse-engineering the source code of Windows from a windows installation.


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