Future Tech

ASML could brick Taiwan's chipmaking machines in case of uninvited guests

Tan KW
Publish date: Wed, 22 May 2024, 04:27 AM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Chipmaking equipment supplier ASML reportedly has the means to remotely disable its advanced machinery in the hands of TSMC, should China invade Taiwan.

Tensions are high between mainland China and Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a rogue province that it has threatened to reclaim by force.

This is a major concern as a large proportion of the world's advanced chip manufacturing capacity is found there, and the US in particular is keen to prevent China from having the ability to produce advanced chips for military purposes.

Netherlands-based ASML is said to have reassured the Dutch government that it can remotely disable its most advanced chipmaking machines should such an invasion happen, at least according to Bloomberg, which cites anonymous sources claimed to be familiar with the matter.

ASML is currently the only company able to supply photolithography tools that use extreme ultraviolet (EUV) wavelengths, which are employed in the manufacture of cutting edge chips. At the behest of the US, the Dutch government does not permit it to supply customers in China, restrictions that were extended last year to also cover some of its deep ultraviolet (DUV) kit.

TSMC, the largest semiconductor contract manufacturer in the world, is one of ASML's chief customers.

It isn't clear how ASML could remotely disable equipment sitting in a factory in Taiwan, but it is understood that the huge and complex photolithography machines require regular servicing and maintenance to keep them running. According to Bloomberg, the company could, as part of a software update applied during maintenance, remotely force a shutdown, which would act as a kill switch.

ASML declined to comment on the question of a "kill switch," but confirmed to The Register that its equipment requires high maintenance to keep it operational, as does most of the machinery in a semiconductor plant.

TSMC chairman Mark Liu hinted at this in an interview with CNN in 2022, where he said that "nobody can control TSMC by force" because its facilities are a highly sophisticated operation that depend on a real-time connection with the outside world, with Europe, Japan, and the US.

Andrew Buss, IDC Senior Research Director in EMEA, agreed that ASML's chipmaking machines would not keep running for long without constant attention.

"These advanced machines are installed and run in co-operation with customers given their complexity and overall size, and just keeping them going requires ongoing active engagement, so they would likely not last long without manufacturers' support anyhow," he said.

ASML regularly updates software remotely, and could therefore shut down the machines this way if necessary, Richard Gordon, former vice president for Semiconductors & Electronics at Gartner told The Register.

"It is widely thought that, given the complexity of the equipment (setup, calibration, maintenance, etc.), it would be difficult to run it for long without ASML support on site (in the event of a Chinese invasion) so why bother disabling it?" he said.

"That said, a kill switch wouldn't prevent the equipment falling into Chinese hands for reverse engineering purposes (something they are very good at), which is why you hear talk of disabling or booby trapping the equipment," Gordon added.

Buss concurred, saying "these machines contain sensitive regulated technology licensed by organizations such as the US Department of Defense, so it would not surprise me at all to find that the machines have been licensed for export only on condition of having a 'kill switch' type functionality exactly for this scenario."

US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo recently said it would be "absolutely devastating" if China were to invade Taiwan and seize control of TSMC.

"I'm not commenting on whether that's going to happen, how it's going to happen, or if it's going to happen, but what I can tell you is right now the United States buys 92 percent of its leading-edge chips from TSMC in Taiwan," Raimondo told the House Committee on Appropriations.

Current tensions have not been helped by Taiwan's newly elected President Lai Ching-te, who delivered an inauguration speech that China regarded as provocative. Lai called on Beijing to "face the reality of the Republic of China's [Taiwan's] existence," and to "cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan."

Back in 2022, a US Army War College paper proposed that Taiwan should deter China by planning to completely destroy its semiconductor manufacturing capability in the event of an invasion by Xi Jinping's armed forces. ®

 

https://www.theregister.com//2024/05/21/asml_kill_switch/

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