Students accepting awards at Hack@DAC. | Image: Photo courtesy of Michael Quinn

The computer science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering departments at Texas A&M University came together to promote computer engineering education and practical applications for students.

A team of four electrical and computer engineering graduate students known as the Hackin’ Aggies have qualified for 2018 Hack@DAC finals, a hardware-security competition for students and industry experts. The team is led by computer science and engineering associate professor of practice, Michael Quinn. Dr. Jeyavijayan Rajendran, electrical and computer engineering assistant professor, is a member of the event’s organizing committee.

Having placed first in the initial phase of the competition, the Hackin’ Aggies competed in the final competition at the Design Automation Conference in San Francisco, California, June 24-28, where they ended up tying for first place. The team is comprised of captain, Sheena Goel; Bhavani Bedre Shankar, Saumil Gogri and Zhiyang Ong.

“Sheena, Bhavani and Saumil have all taken and excelled in my verification class and brought excellent verification skills and expertise to the team, while Zhiyang brings design skills and security architecture expertise to the team,” Quinn said. “Sheena has been the teaching assistant for my verification classes the past two semesters, so she was the obvious choice to lead the team and has done a fantastic job in that role.”

The focus of this year’s competition centers on the trustworthiness of System-on-Chips (SoCs), which are circuits that integrate all components of a computer or other electronic systems. The safety of these can be undermined by security bugs in third-party IP addresses (3PIPs) and vulnerabilities emerging from their integration. When exploited, a bug may cause system failure or create a backdoor for an attacker to gain remote access and leak secrets from the system.

“Competitions present a great opportunity for students to augment their classroom experience by tackling practical challenges in a stimulating environment,” said Dr. Dilma Da Silva, computer science department head. “This was one more example of faculty members from the two departments joining forces to better serve our computer engineering students.”

In February, the Hackin’ Aggies received their first SoC design and its simulation-based verification environment, along with a few minimal design specification documents and the competition rules document. They had until the end of April to find and document as many bugs and security-related issues as possible.

The goal of this competition is to develop strategies and computer-aided tools for assessing trustworthiness of SoCs that use 3PIPs. During the contest, teams act like a real-life security validation team. Given an SoC with known vulnerabilities, the teams compete to find and report the bugs, while earning points. Student and industry teams were invited to register.