Hacking His Way to the Grand Finals

Jeyavijayan Rajendran is used to winning.

Last year, he placed third in IT Security in the Kaspersky American Cup at NYU-Poly; secured the Myron M. Rosenthal Award for Best MS Academic Achievement in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and walked away with Best Student Paper Award in the IEEE International Conference on VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) Design, among other honors. And the second-year doctoral candidate advanced to the final round of the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Student Research Competition.

Rajendran's work on encryption-based security of integrated circuits puts him and NYU-Poly at the forefront of microchip security at a time when the United States faces a veritable flood of “mystery meat” microchips and other hardware that are typically manufactured abroad. At issue are chips pre-loaded by the manufacturer with malware that can be operated remotely to steal data, perform espionage and compromise systems.

The U.S. military is now deeply immersed in unraveling this microchip knot partly because the Pentagon doesn’t control who creates the thousands of chips that go into everything from radar systems to stealth fighters. Even civilian manufacturers have this problem. The semiconductor industry loses an estimated $4 billion per year due to piracy and malware.

Rajendran’s project, "Securing Integrated Circuits through Logic Encryption," focuses on ways to expose weaknesses in hardware encryption defenses and then fix them. "While there were many efforts in concealing hardware designs through logic obfuscation, we proposed the first attack on these techniques and also came up with defense techniques to thwart our proposed attack," he says. "We used the principles from a different hardware field which focuses on screening hardware for defects."

Rajendran, who studies under Professor Ramesh Karri, says his project borrows from technology used for testing manufacturer defects in microchips, and applies it to testing the strength of security encryption.

"I basically took those techniques and applied them to create an attack platform for testing security. It's a way to 'attack' a system first by teasing out the 'recipe' from the code that was added to conceal it,” he says. “In the attacker's role, I can see the weak links: I can see which part is difficult to subvert, and which is easy.”

Rajendran was one of 20 students from around the world selected during the first round of the competition sponsored by Microsoft Research. He progressed through two more rounds to become one of three winners selected in San Francisco. He now advances to the Grand Finals in June 2013.