University center to research ways to protect electronic systems from sabotage

Led by the University of Cincinnati, the new center will work with government and industry to conduct research on how to defend electronics and embedded systems from sabotage, hacking, and spying.

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We face a variety of technological threats and hazards as individuals, as members of organizations, and as citizens of a country. But one particularly alarming threat is the ability of hackers to infiltrate and sabotage the underlying hardware embedded into the electronic systems that we use as a society. Projects have been launched worldwide to study how to best thwart attempts to undermine such technology. Now, the University of Cincinnati is teaming up with various partners to investigate new ways to defend embedded systems from outside attack.

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As described in a news item from the University of Cincinnati, the goal of the new research center sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to help companies, consumers, and the military protect their electronic devices from hacking or tampering. The NSF will fund the center with a starting grant of $4.5 million, which will go toward UC and the other participating universities: The University of Virginia, the University of Connecticut, Northeastern University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of California, Davis.

To conduct the research, the center with work with the NSF, the U.S. Department of Defense, and such companies as Verizon, Edaptive Computing, Booz Allen Hamilton, and engineering firm Wyle. So far, the center has attracted the interest of 70 different organizations, 26 of which have already signed up and will contribute annual fees as high as $50,000 to lend their expertise toward the project.

One item on the agenda is finding a way to ensure the authenticity of computer chips. The use of counterfeit chips in embedded systems is a danger as it could lead to failures in aviation, communications, and weapons equipment.

"The issue most important to industry is information technology protection," UC engineering professor John 'Marty' Emmert said in the news report. "Part of our mission will be to develop techniques to avoid circuit counterfeiting."

The effort will be a difficult one as flaws can be intentionally introduced into hardware systems at any stage in their development. The hope is that the combined brain trust of all the project participants can create and construct the right solutions.

"There are enormous challenges associated with the design, protection, and resilience of electronic hardware and embedded systems," James Lambert, a University of Virginia professor who represents one of the center's academic partners, said in the news report. "Vulnerabilities to cyberattacks can be introduced during design, manufacturing, or any stage of the product life cycle. By working with industry and government partners to understand what the real issues are and to ask the right questions, we are helping to address security, assurance, and trust across all stages."

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