USA Air Force’s Mini Crypto Chip Keeps Data Out Of Enemy Hands

When Airmen are active in the field, securing a line of communication is essential to keep sensitive intelligence away from enemy forces. To help navigate this digital world, the U.S. Air Force has created the new Mini Crypto chip to fortify communications and data between military systems.

“We think (Mini Crypto chip) will really help forward-deployed warfighters secure sensors, or communications devices, in areas where risk of interception is high, and still protect sensitive data, without burdening folks on the front lines with extra equipment or steps to safeguard the encryption device,” says Heidi Beason, the Mini Crypto program manager at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Cryptologic and Cyber System Division, Joint Base-San Antonio, Texas.

At its core, the chip is an independent encryption engine that is small, lightweight, and creates its own session-based “key.” It has a power requirement of 400 milliwatts, “meaning it can be installed on equipment carried by one-person parties operating as scouts and forward air controllers.”

Once a session key is established between the sender and receiver, the key is used to read messages after the encryption process. The key management system boosts data protection and ticks off the National Security Agency check list, which is the highest standards for encryption.

“Communications devices all have a processor, where a message is formatted for transmission,” says Mini Crypto Deputy Program Manager Christopher Edsall.

“In the case of a computer, it’s the (central processing unit). Mini Crypto is located after the processing center, but before the transmission center, which is usually a radio. Another Mini Crypto chip is installed at the receiver end, after the receiving antennae, but before the CPU. The second Mini Crypto chip decrypts the received message as it comes through the radio where the unencrypted message is processed, and then it is displayed or heard,” Edsall adds.

The chip’s encryption creates a resource-intensive decryption process, according to Edsall. If the enemy does manage to make the data readable, the amount of time taken forfeits the information’s usefulness.

According to Beason, two years of program development led to the Mini Crypto chip design we see today. After a quick turnaround of concept, development, and testing, the device is now ready for production.

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