Researcher Awarded Career Grant for Chip Security Strategies
March 28, 2017
Dr. Jeyavijayan Rajendran
A five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help a UT Dallas researcher determine the best way to design integrated computer chips so they are secure against theft, malware and piracy.
Dr. Jeyavijayan Rajendran, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, received an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award of $499,999 for his work in protecting hardware from supply chain attacks. The CAREER program provides support for junior faculty who have demonstrated outstanding research and teaching skills.
Rajendran said outsourcing of integrated computer chips (IC) to unsecure overseas manufacturers has led to significant security issues.
“There are a lot of reported attacks on integrated circuits. We are seeing counterfeit products, malicious circuits that are placed into chips, and reverse engineering where thieves steal design secrets,” Rajendran said.
As an example, he said attackers can insert malicious components into the integrated circuits and use them to take control of a system. He said infiltrators can turn off systems at will, leak secret information or change functionality on the fly. These attacks cost the semiconductor industry billions of dollars annually. They undermine national security and put critical infrastructure in danger.
The diversity of the semiconductor industry exacerbates the supply-chain insecurity. Semiconductor companies have different business models, exposing them to different types of attacks. For example, Intel has its own foundry, while Apple and other companies do not.
“Though part of the problem is that designers have no control over their design in this distributed supply chain, a more important issue is that current IC design tools do not consider security as a design metric,” Rajendran said.
To guard against such attacks, researchers have developed solutions that cover a particular issue on a particular type of circuit. But there has not yet been a holistic solution created that can be used by any manufacturer to protect against any type of attack. That is what Rajendran is working to develop.
“We cannot develop different solutions for these companies; that's not how the semiconductor industry works. It has to be one suite of tools that everyone uses,” he said. “Remember that these solutions may not be compatible with each other. For example, if we mix one solution with another, what happens is that they may make the solutions insecure.”
Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of Computer Science and executive director of the Cyber Security Research Institute, said Rajendran’s award is significant for the second-year faculty member.
“His research in hardware security is critical and really enhances our current research and education programs in cybersecurity at UT Dallas.”
“Within a year of joining the cybersecurity team at UT Dallas, Dr. Rajendran submitted his NSF CAREER proposal and won the award the first time. Such success is rare. His research in hardware security is critical and really enhances our current research and education programs in cybersecurity at UT Dallas,” Thuraisingham said.
Rajendran already has published some preliminary research on the topic and has delivered talks at the U.S. Department of Defense. He said chip security is significant when talking about U.S. defense and the protection of critical infrastructure.
An important component of his NSF grant is the outreach program that is focused on teachers, high school students and undergraduates.
“There is a lot of opportunity for careers in the cybersecurity field. And the hardware side of cybersecurity is even more in need of researchers and experts because it requires knowledge in both the hardware and software domains. I look forward to engaging teachers and students in the type of work that I am doing,” Rajendran said.
He said he participated in similar outreach programs when he was a grad student at New York University, so he knows how effective they can be.
Rajendran said he was thrilled to receive the NSF grant
“It affirms that the work that you are doing is important, and that the research should continue,” he said.