Tehranipoor Receives NSF CAREER Award

Modern society is utterly dependent upon integrated circuits (ICs), or chips, which provide the brains for virtually everything electronic, from cell phones, microwave ovens and automobiles to radars, computers and the Joint Strike Fighter jet. Yet ICs are extraordinarily vulnerable to intentional tampering. Armed with a newly awarded $400,000 five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Dr. Mohammad Tehranipoor is intent upon developing techniques for identifying chips that have been deliberately compromised.

graphicAn assistant professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Dr. Tehranipoor will use the funding to support his research aimed at detecting and localizing so-called hardware “Trojans” in ICs. Named after the Trojan horse the Greeks used in their infiltration and defeat of Troy, a hardware Trojan, he explained, is a small piece of circuit designed either to disable and/or destroy a system at some future time – referred to as a “time bomb” – or to leak confidential information covertly to the enemy.

Dr. Tehranipoor said that, for economic reasons, most ICs and microprocessors are produced, designed and fabricated overseas, rendering them increasingly vulnerable to malicious activities and raising serious concerns regarding possible threats to military systems, financial infrastructures, transportation security and even household appliances. The task of pretesting chips is enormous, and although they typically undergo hundreds of millions of logic gate tests, not every chip, and not every function, is tested. Instead, tests focus on determining basemark metrics such as how much power a chip consumes, what layout structures are inherent in the chip, and how well a chip performs the specific application functions needed. A maliciously hidden circuitry that produces no disruption in the chip’s normal functions will not necessarily be detected using these tests.

Verifying the trustworthiness of an integrated circuit, called IC authentication, is a very complex problem since there is no knowledge about the type, size, and location of the Trojans. Dr. Tehranipoor’s research centers on the types of cyber-assaults in which the attacker is assumed to maliciously alter the design before or during fabrication – a type of alteration that is extremely difficult to detect. His efforts focus on the development of methods for the detection of design- and fabrication-level malicious alterations, and methods that reveal deliberate tampering that affects chip reliability, such as changing the chip’s functionality at critical times while it is operating in mission mode. Dr. Tehranipoor has developed a post-manufacturing step to validate that the chip performs as it was originally intended. He is also developing novel design-for-hardware-trust techniques that can significantly help improve the detection of Trojans when using power/delay-based side channel analysis methods.

Dr. Tehranipoor believes his IC authentication technique will be of significant interest to a broad array of users, including many so-called “fabless” semiconductor companies, which outsource device fabrication. Moreover, his authentication method will give ordinary citizens greater confidence in the security of electronic healthcare records, defense weapons and computing platforms for intelligence, weather forecasting and transportation.

Dr. Tehranipoor, who joined UConn in 2006, received the 2008 IEEE Computer Society Meritorious Service Award for his contributions toward effectively planning a number of IEEE workshops and symposia in 2007 and 2008. He has garnered a number of Best Paper awards and is a frequent invited speaker based on his work involving secure integrated circuits, design for testability, and signal and power integrity in nanometer designs. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Texas – Dallas in 2004. Dr. Tehranipoor’s CAREER Award is the 19th among current engineering faculty members at UConn.