An Infrastructure and Mindset to Boost Research

As director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Design-for-Excellence Lab, Ozgur Sinanoglu is at the cutting edge of cyber-security research. When he joined the University in 2010, his research focused on electronics, specifically how to avoid manufacturing defects on chips to make them more reliable. But access to state-of-the-art facilities gave Sinanoglu the opportunity for his research to take a twist. 

"I joined NYU Abu Dhabi because I saw it as an opportunity to grow professionally and boost my research program," Sinanoglu recalls. "I knew this would be the right place to extend my research as this University had the right infrastructure and mindset. I had access to state of the art facilities, I was able to put together a fantastic team, and could hire professional chip designers for my lab. With this group of people, we were able to develop ideas, and turn them into prototypes. My whole research problem changed to look at how people try to make chips fail or do malicious things, and how to prevent that. It became much more fun and interesting."

With his team, Sinanoglu researches the security of chips — something vital to both governments and businesses trying to prevent loss of intellectual property. "Our research is about finding ways to design chips so that you can hide some of the critical structural information about the chip from third-party chip manufacturers, while enabling the fabrication of chips. We call this hardware design obfuscation."

At a hardware level this means his team add circuitry to a chip that expects a secret key. Someone trusted with the secret key can activate the chip to restore its functionality, but at the time of fabrication, the secret key is missing.

We call the chip we created the logic-locked chip. It’s our biggest breakthrough to date. It’s the first of its kind.

Ozgur Sinanoglu, associate dean of engineering

They made the chip open source and challenged the entire research community to retrieve its secret key. "Two years on, it’s still not been broken," he smiles. The Design-for-Excellence Lab is part of the Center for Cyber Security — Sinanoglu is currently the lead principal investigator of this center as well — a place he describes as a "multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary center" including faculty from engineering, sciences, and social sciences.

"Sometimes there are problems that need to be looked at from different angles, with different perspectives requiring expertise from multiple faculties," he explains. "It can help certain projects if there’s collaboration between multiple labs."

Though Sinanoglu acknowledges there have been challenges through the course of his research, he believes it would have been difficult to achieve what he and his team have elsewhere. "I was able to get my ideas patented. I was able to apply and get prestigious funding from places like the US Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Intel. I was able to put together a research team that could not only produce great publications, but also create chip prototypes. From a professional point of view, and from my research point of view, what else could you ask for?"

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