Each year, Intel recognizes a small group of university researchers whose work advances modern computing and exhibits fundamental insights, industry relevance, and technical complexity. The company recently announced its 2022 honorees, and topping the list was Ramesh Karri, an NYU Tandon Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-founder and co-chair of NYU’s Center for Cybersecurity.
Karri is known for his seminal work in ensuring that the global hardware supply chain is as secure as possible – an especially great concern in an age when chips are being manufactured at supplier foundries far from where they are designed, giving bad actors ample opportunity to install malicious “Trojan horse” circuits or to pirate intellectual property. Vulnerabilities in the chain threaten not only personal computers and smartphones but automotive systems, major utilities, the aerospace industry, nuclear facilities, and industrial equipment.
Intel cited a project in which Karri and his team focused on boosting system-on-a-chip survivability. “In the world of software, if a vulnerability is discovered, it’s easy to provide a patch,” Karri explains. “It’s different with hardware; you must detect any vulnerability before the chip is actually fabricated.” To mitigate that situation, Karri is building innovative “Patching Blocks” architecture, which leverages field-programmable gate arrays to address in-field device survivability by monitoring security bugs and performing corrective actions. He and his colleagues also proposed a systemic approach that guides designers in maximizing “patchability.”
Karri’s Intel “Outstanding Researcher” honor is just the latest in a long list of accomplishments: a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), he is widely acknowledged for bringing the need for strong hardware security to the attention of the industry. In 2002 he and his colleagues generated the first research on attack-resilient chip architecture, demonstrating before anyone else that integrated circuits’ test and debug ports could be used by hackers. Since then, he pioneered the technique of microchip camouflaging, a tactic to prevent reverse engineering; delivered the first set of invited IEEE tutorials in hardware security in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America; presented the first research paper on split manufacturing, a means of thwarting counterfeiting by an untrusted foundry by dividing a chip’s blueprint into several components and distributing each to a different fabricator; explored the vulnerabilities in digital microfluidic biochips, which are used by researchers and medical professionals for diagnostics, DNA sequencing, and environmental monitoring; and more.
Jason Fung, Intel’s Director of Offensive Security Research & Academic Research Engagement also praised Karri for his ongoing commitment in advising and mentoring security researchers within both academia and industry. Some of his most influential work with aspiring cyber professionals comes during the annual Cyber Security Awareness Week (CSAW) games at Tandon, now the most comprehensive set of cyber challenges for students around the globe. Among the most hotly anticipated parts of the event is the Embedded Security Challenge, which Karri founded in 2008. The oldest hardware security competition in the world, the Challenge requires contestants to exploit the weaknesses of a target system, assess the effectiveness of their hardware security techniques, identify vulnerabilities, and implement effective defense mechanisms.
Research developed during the contest has propelled the entire field of hardware trust, and several students who have participated have gone on to make important contributions to the field. (The challenge was foundational in the establishment of a National Science Foundation-supported network called Trust-Hub, an open and collaborative digital clearinghouse and community-building site where researchers exchange papers, hardware platforms, source codes, and tools.)
“I congratulate Professor Karri on his well-deserved Intel recognition,” said Dean Jelena Kovačević. “This latest honor highlights the importance of his research, which has cemented NYU Tandon as a world leader in the vital realm of hardware security.”