Motivating this latest hair-brained scheme is a number of recent embarrassing episodes that have seen US forces accidentally ‘leave’ computer equipment behind, giving up valuable information to enemy forces. One of the most infamous examples of this was during the secret operation to take out Osama Bin Laden, where due to an almighty cock-up special forces troops were forced to abandon a “stealth” helicopter in the Al Qaeda chief’s backyard.
Last year, DARPA proclaimed a new program called “Vanishing Programmable Resources”, aimed at making all of the military’s hi-tech gadgets and computers vanish into thin air should they fall into the wrong hands.
Admittedly, making entire helicopters disappear into dust is probably a little ambitious, but DARPA seems to believe that the technology exists to at least make sure America’s enemies can’t use anything that gets left behind against its own forces. And so does IBM, which has just been handed a $3.4 million contract to build computer chips that can be self-destructed by remote control.
The idea is actually quite simple – IBM intends to ‘blow up’ its chips by building a fuse into them. Should a laptop containing America’s secret plans of world domination even be left behind, all they have to do is ignite the fuse by remote, and this will shatter a thin sliver of glass substrate that forms the base of the chip – as soon as the glass pops, the silicon complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) chip will also (hopefully) be destroyed as well.
“IBM plans to utilize the property of strained glass substrates to shatter as the driving force to reduce attached CMOS chips into Si and SiO2 powder,” reads the government tender.
“A trigger, such as a fuse or a reactive metal layer will be used to initiate shattering, in at least one location, on the glass substrate. An external RF signal will be required for this process to be initiated. IBM will explore various schemes to enhance glass shattering and techniques to transfer this into the attached Si CMOS devices.”
But DARPA isn’t only interested in blowing up its computers. Just last month, it dished out a $4.5 million contract to BAE, which is to build ‘dissolving sensors’ for military equipment.
These kinds of technologies are necessary, because the current recourse of just blowing things up (if there’s time) simply doesn’t work. In the case of the Osama hit squad, US Navy Seals were forced to destroy the abandoned Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with explosives rather than let Pakistan get their hands on it – but unfortunately the explosion didn’t completely destroy it, and it’s rumored that Chinese spies were later allowed a peek at the wreckage before it was eventually given back to the US.