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Hardware is a part of every electronic device you use. Whether it’s a sensor in your car or a chip that controls the temperature within your house, it is vital that the systems that we rely on so heavily remain uncompromised.

Until recently, cyber attacks were primarily targeted toward software, but they have now shifted toward the deeper layers of hardware, which poses new challenges to defenders. Instead of simply ensuring that the software is robustly secure, researchers now have to find ways to creatively secure the underlying hardware as well.

This is the primary focus of Dr. Jeyavijayan “JV” Rajendran, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University.

I am looking at every electronic system that is out there. If there is an electronic system out there, my work will be on securing it.

Dr. JV Rajendran

Typically, hardware designers build the hardware design and then send it to a fabrication facility, or foundry, in another part of the world where the design will be manufactured. As a result, the threat of hardware trojans, or malicious components, being inserted into the hardware becomes a concern. Hardware designers typically worry about power, performance, and reliability. Rajendran wants them to make security a priority as well.

“I want them to think, ‘okay if we have to do this in the design, how does it impact security?’ That’s the mindset that I want to build in the next generation of hardware engineers,” Rajendran said.

It is important to be proactive about the type of attacks that can happen in a foundry and to consider the security of these designs in the presence of untrusted entities in the supply chain.

“Think about viruses that attack electric power grids, our nation’s infrastructure, smart grid and mission control systems,” Rajendran said. “They aren’t actually hardware attacks, but software affecting the systems. If the hardware itself is affected, then it creates a lot of problems.”

Rajendran first started studying hardware security while earning his Ph.D. at New York University. Though his initial research project was not on security, he helped organize the hardware security competition, Embedded Security Challenge. More importantly, Rajendran said he realized he enjoyed the topic which ultimately led to this research.

Because hardware is in every electronic system, hardware security requires collaboration from experts in a variety of fields.

“Connecting the dots that spans across different fields is the most interesting as well as the most difficult aspect of this work,” Rajendran said. “It’s like constantly discovering the connections between different things and exploring the area. Hardware security field is very new. Everywhere we see, we turn around and there is a new problem that keeps us going.”