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NYUAD in potential computer chip security breakthrough

Abu Dhabi-based university develops logic-locked chip that represent significant development in securing technology hardware

The NYUAD developed logic locked chip.
The NYUAD developed logic locked chip.

A new chip-based security technology developed in the UAE promises fool-proof guarantee against tampering.

Researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) Design for Excellence (Dfx) lab say they have developed ‘logic-locked’ computer chips that are secured by a secret key so that only authorised users may utilise them, making them immune to reverse-engineering,

Most “smart” electronic devices contain a chip, from cell phones and computers to airplanes and medical devices, turning chip security into a subject of priority amid the broadening debate surrounding measures for cyber defence. 

The new technology differs from traditional security features, typically implemented at the software or system levels. The team at NYUAD has achieved a major breakthrough by implementing security at the lowest possible level, the hardware level, said NYUAD associate dean of engineering for academic affairs, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and head of Dfx Ozgur Sinanoglu. “This is quite important because if the hardware is compromised, there is no software or system security fix,” Sinanoglu added.

The chip can be unlocked only by loading the secret binary key on its memory. Without it, the chip will not work. Only when the secret key has been loaded will the microprocessor unit inside execute the program loaded on its memory.

NYUAD’s Dfx research team designed two different chips over the past year, utilising commercial and in-house developed software tools to help them build a baseline chip as well as their logic-locked chip. These are microcontroller chips with mainly an ARM microprocessor unit; they allow you to load a software program onto their memory, which they may then execute, allowing users to design a computational system or computer around them. The team at NYUAD are now pursuing a platform that will enable the research community to validate the security of their new solution through extensive red-team blue-team testing. 

The security industry is slowly developing solutions, but they are early solutions that are not as of yet so secure, Sinanoglu observed. Academia on the other hand is quite ahead in the game, with various research groups working on this area. “Our solution is the first one that is provably secure, based on mathematical security definitions and security proofs as well as implemented on a real chip.”

“Our goal is to make all electronics truly trustworthy. We are now in a position where we can take any chip design and transform it into one that is secure at the hardware level, which means we can work with design companies to help them produce protected computer chips,” Sinanoglu added.

The paper containing the research conducted by NYUAD’s Dfx team into logic-locking technology will be presented in November at this year’s edition of the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (ACM CCS 2017), a leading global cyber security conference.