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TSMC's Lithography Machines Have a Remote Kill Switch in Case China Invades

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Over the past few years, there's been a lot of speculation about what would happen to TSMC's semiconductor fabs in the event of an invasion by the Chinese military. TSMC makes the world's most advanced chips at its Taiwan facilities, so the prospect of those fabs being taken over or controlled by a hostile force is not a pleasant scenario to consider. However, now it's been revealed for the first time that the machines have remote kill switches, which would render them idle in the case of Chinese aggression.

This revelation about TSMC's machines comes from Bloomberg reporters, who say they spoke with several people "familiar with the matter." Dutch company ASML makes the machines TSMC uses and has built a kill switch directly into the hardware TSMC uses. The report says US officials approached ASML with concerns about Chinese aggression against TSMC, and ASML has assured them it can disable the machines remotely if necessary. The Dutch company has also been running simulated shutdowns on its machines to understand better how such a scenario would play out in the real world and what risks it included.

The report says ASML's extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines include a shutdown mode because they regularly need to be turned off to be serviced or updated. ASML can trigger this mode in the Netherlands to function as a kill switch if necessary (probably not the best time for a Windows 11 update to occur). It's not made explicitly for TSMC and is included in all its EUV machines, of which TSMC is the world's biggest customer. ASML is currently prohibited from selling these machines to China.

In August 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which caused China to accuse the West of escalating tensions. During that trip, TSMC's Chairman said in an interview that if China invaded the tiny island, its fabs would become "not operable," so perhaps this remote shutoff capability was what he was referring to at the time.

Although a complete shutdown of TSMC might be preferable to Chinese control of the facilities, the impact of such a move would still be "devastating," according to the US Commerce Secretary. A shutdown would also not prevent China from possibly dismantling and reverse-engineering the machines, which could be why a former US National Security Advisor stated the US would destroy the fabs if an invasion occurred. "I can’t imagine they’d be intact" following Chinese aggression, the former official said.

By: DocMemory
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