Articles from "Microelectronics News"

Fraunhofer Group for Microelectronics

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27.09.2010 Category: Issue 35, Safety and Security, Fraunhofer ENAS, From the institutes

Using a near-field scanner to guard against fraud

The smaller the components in electronic circuits become, the more susceptible they are to malfunctions. This is because components located too closely together can interfere with one another. A near-field scanner can detect weak fields such as these with precision, providing bank card users with better protection from fraudsters.


A near-field scanner determines the electromagnetic field of an individual chip on the board. Fig.: Fraunhofer ENAS
A near-field scanner determines the electromagnetic field of an individual chip on the board. Fig.: Fraunhofer ENAS

Their tininess is both their strength and their weakness. Whether in cellphones, cars or computers, electronic components are getting smaller and more powerful all the time. The smaller they are, the faster they can switch and the less energy they need for each switching operation. But as their energy consumption shrinks, so does the signal-to-noise ratio. “Circuits become more vulnerable with each generation”, explains Thomas Mager from the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nanosystems ENAS in Paderborn. “Just a few years ago, several volts were needed to upset the transistors in a processor. Now, however, a few hundred millivolts can be enough to disrupt millions of transistors.” This means that designers of electronic circuits have to think more and more about electromagnetic compatibility. It is no longer enough to protect larger electronic devices such as cellphones and MP3 players from external interference or to protect the surroundings from electromagnetic emissions from the devices themselves; consideration now needs to be given to the behavior of every component on the circuit board.

A near-field scanner can detect weaknesses

Fraunhofer ENAS, working with its project partners Continental and Infineon Technologies, has developed a measuring system to detect weak electric and magnetic fields down to hundredths of a millimeter. The system determines if there are any areas emitting an unusually high level of electromagnetic radiation and how components may be interfering with one another. The near-field scanner can be used to measure individual chips and processors, but also whole laptops, cellphones or vehicle control devices. The scanner determines which fields are being emitted by the test object.

The cards are stacked against fraudsters

“We are also working, together with our French project partner cea-leti, on applying directed electromagnetic fields to the test object. This allows us to test which areas react sensitively to external fields”, says Mager. This makes the system of interest to the developers of smartcards. Fraudsters subject chip cards to lasers or voltage or current pulses to try to get a reaction from the card. The current draw can also give them information about the internal condition of the card. The information they gather in this way can give them an insight into how the card functions, allowing them to extract confidential information from the bank card. The field patterns being emitted might also give clues about the chip card, revealing the PIN, for example. The near-field scanner makes the fields emitted by the card visible in time and space, highlights the card’s weaknesses and helps card developers to protect their products better from fraud.


Thomas Mager
Phone +49 5251 60-5631
Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nanosystems ENAS
Warburgerstrasse 100
33098 Paderborn