Grad students awarded prestigious fellowship to secure embedded systems
Twenty years ago, most people didn’t own a cell phone, let alone a phone that could connect to the Internet, take photos or memorize voice recordings. The computer chips in these old phones, or other devices such as appliances, cars or even power plants, weren’t attractive targets to cyber intruders; however, as these devices have advanced, they have become a prime target for malicious attacks.
Two Illinois computer science Ph.D. students are studying ways to improve the security of these real-time embedded systems and were recently selected for the prestigious Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship (QInF).
QInF is open to students at 15 top U.S. electrical engineering and computer science schools. In 2013, 138 proposals were submitted and eight teams were awarded fellowships, along with two honorable mention teams.
“The great thing about this award is that some of the research Qualcomm has been doing is very similar to what we proposed and we didn’t know that beforehand,” Yoon said. “We heard from them when we presented and that’s important because if this big company is doing these things that means what we’re doing has quite a big impact.”
Yoon and Abdi Taghi Abad’s work focuses on the security of real-time embedded systems. They are looking at how to make computers, which are embedded into devices such as automobiles, airplanes and even cell phones, secure and safe. Illinois Information Trust Institute’s Research Scientist Sibin Mohan, as well as computer science professors Lui Sha and Marco Caccamo, lead Yoon and Abdi Taghi Abad, respectively, this research effort.
“Embedded systems are all around us, from mobile phones to modern automobiles, from aircraft to smart homes, satellites to power grids,” Mohan said. “Every year, billions of embedded processors are sold for these and other operations. As a result, any security breaches or vulnerabilities in such systems can have a catastrophic impact.”
One or two decades ago, these systems were usually isolated and were not connected to networks or each other, so there were few security concerns. The problem lies in that these systems are becoming more vulnerable, as they gain more functionality and connectivity, Mohan said.
“Nowadays mobile phones can connect to cars, power grid components have becomes ‘smarter’ where they can be monitored/controlled over the Internet,” he said. “Hence attackers are also able to find methods to penetrate such systems and cause problems.”
According to Mohan, traditional security techniques don’t always translate easily into this realm because most embedded systems lack the processing power or energy to implement extensive security protocols.
Yoon and Abdi Taghi Abad’s proposal looks to develop new and innovative means to protect these embedded systems by inspecting their normal daily behaviors and looking for deviations. They intend to use minor processor architecture modifications to implement this and, hence, detect attacks.
“Normally, embedded systems have very predictable behavior because it’s doing a similar job over and over and there isn’t much variance in the behavior,” Abdi Taghi Abad said.
The detection technique they are planning to create will track, for example, the normal system behaviors including execution timing, memory access and I/O usage patterns. This will allow them to detect differences from legitimate behavior and declare whether or not an attack has occurred.
The fellowship will officially begin in August and will last through August 2014. They will be mentored by Dr. Mihai Christodorescu, as well as Dr. Rajarshi Gupta, who both work at Qualcomm Research Silicon Valley.
“Winning this fellowship will provide Man-Ki and Fardin access to Qualcomm researchers that work on the cutting edge problems and issues,” Mohan said. “They can, hopefully, get to work on real-world data sets and architectures that will make the research efforts stronger. It also provides high visibility due to the competitive nature of the fellowship and by the very fact that Qualcomm itself publicizes the awards.”
Both students look forward to collaborating with researchers who are in touch with industry and working to complement the research already happening at Qualcomm.
“Now that we have some mentors in industry who are really making products, it helps us go in the right directions and improves the impact that we can make,” Abdi Taghi Abad said.