NMSU engineers’ research focused on protecting government computer systems


WRITER: lfresque
CONTACT: Paul Furth , 575-646-8574, pfurth

At a time when computer security is a concern for everyone, it is a top priority for our government. A group of New Mexico State University College of Engineering researchers is working with Sandia National Laboratories to ensure the modern computer systems they develop are protected by devising a scheme that will continuously spy on their own computer systems. If abnormal behavior is detected, the NMSU security scheme will shut the computer system down before anything malicious occurs.

To prevent security issues with their computer hardware, the government uses its own secure foundry to fabricate integrated circuits, also known as computer chips; but its technology is outdated.

“The idea is to use the government’s old technology to spy on integrated circuits fabricated using very new technology,” said Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Paul Furth. “If we design a computer system with any of today’s commercially available state-of-the art integrated circuits, we need to know what they are doing versus what they are supposed to be doing. It’s possible a commercially available integrated circuit could be infected with a Trojan Horse that at any time could launch malicious actions or give unauthorized access to the affected computer system.”

Furth, along with graduate students Aditya Patil and Manaswini Gangineni, are working on the hardware side of the process. Their approach involves designing circuits to monitor a commercial off-the-shelf Bluetooth wireless communications integrated circuit to measure the rate at which the computer chip consumes and transmits power. The advantage is that Bluetooth technology is inexpensive, uses little energy and transmits data at fast rates. The disadvantage is that a computer chip fabricated at a commercial foundry could be infected with malware, so the Bluetooth chip must be continuously monitored.

“We selected a modern computer chip that was developed in the last few years by Cypress Semiconductor. The challenge is using slow, old technology to monitor fast, new technology,” said Furth.

They are developing supervisory circuits to monitor the operation of the Bluetooth chip using low-frequency circuits that could be produced by the government at their secure foundry.

“The analogy is the electric meter at your home. It measures how much power is going into your home at any instant in time. For example, someone could use the electric meter to detect when the dishwasher or the washing machine are turned on,” explained Furth.

Now the signal-processing folks take over, extracting all of the relevant output information and analyzing what happens in normal operation. Associate Professor Laura Boucheron, Assistant Professor Abdel-Hameed Badawy and graduate student Abdelrahman Elkanishy are training the system to learn and classify what comprises normal operation. When unexpected behavior occurs, the Bluetooth chip will be shut down.

This project is approaching its second year, during which the digital signal processor and monitoring circuits will be integrated with the Bluetooth chip to detect anomalies as they occur, in real-time. The team will test the functionality of their process for delivery to Sandia.

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