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Electromigration occurs when a high current density drives atomic motion from the cathode to the anode end of a conductor, such as a metal interconnect line in an integrated circuit. While electromigration eventually causes macroscopic damage, in the form of voids and hillocks, the earliest stage of the process when the stress in individual micron-sized grains is still building up is largely unexplored. Using synchrotron-based x-ray microdiffraction during an in-situ electromigration experiment, we have discovered an early prefailure mode of plastic deformation involving preferential dislocation generation and motion and the formation of a subgrain structure within individual grains of a passivated Al (Cu) interconnect. This behavior occurs long before macroscopic damage (hillocks and voids) is observed. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.