Code Scrambling MORPHEUS Microchip Defends Against Cyberattacks

By Sean Jackson

The University of Michigan has just revealed a microchip specifically designed to baffle hackers before they even get the chance to get close to data. The microchip, named ‘MORPHEUS’ takes aim at preventing hackers from retrieving information at a microprocessor level. The chip blocks any malicious attacks on it by encrypting and subsequently scrambling its own code at approximately 20 times a second through a process called ‘churning’, which is faster than any of the fastest electronic hacking techniques currently being employed by hackers.

In an interview with the University of Michigan’s newspaper, Todd Austin, the university’s professor of computer science and developer of the system laid out the benefits, stating, “Today’s approach of eliminating security bugs is a losing game… People are constantly writing code, and as long as there is new code, there will be bugs and security vulnerabilities. With MORPHEUS, even if a hacker finds a bug, the information needed to exploit it vanishes 50 milliseconds later. It’s perhaps the closest thing to a future-proof secure system.

The project to bring MORPHEUS to life is being backed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, with the expressed goal of creating a new chip architecture that offsets current vulnerabilities with microprocessors.

Cyberattacks are becoming more frequent, and today’s cyberattacks generally come in the form of malware. Malware typically acts by manipulating permissions, injecting code, information leaks, and to create atypical states on a computer — such as memory buffer overruns, or a control-flow attack.

While this is seemingly an unending problem, given that new code and patches are generally needed to offset the potential for malware to compromise a system, MORPHEUS aims to make it near impossible. MORPHEUS attempts to make exploitation a rapidly moving target.

Austin explained this by comparing the chip to a Rubik’s Cube, stating, “Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that rearranges itself every time you blink. That’s what hackers are up against with Morpheus. It makes the computer an unsolvable puzzle.”

Engineers from U-M demonstrated the capabilities of Morpheus at the 24th AMC International Conference on Architectural Support for Programing and Operating Systems, or ASPLOS. At the conference the team demonstrated how successful the chip was in defending against common attacks that hackers employ.

Their hope was to show that MORPHEUS has the capability to protect consumer products such as PCs, tablets, and other ‘Internet of Things’ devices, especially given the diversification of electronics being utilized around households across the globe. By distributing the technology globally the team hopes this will help bolster consumer confidence that their information is safe.

While the chip has been stated to be ‘unhackable’ by many, the engineers behind the project are not inclined to call it such as to avoid sensationalism. While it is not out of the question to say that MORPHEUS makes it impossible, there is still probability that someone may find a loop-hole to exploit it. In any case, there is substantial data to say that any near-term exploits are seemingly out of the question with the current capability of hackers.

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