Ozgur Sinanoglu (PhD '05), Cybersecurity Trailblazer
San Diego, Calif., December 14, 2019-- In Ozgur Sinanoglu’s Design for Excellence lab at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, a major development in cybersecurity has emerged. The Jacobs School alumnus and his team of eight researchers have made news over the last couple of years with their strides to create a chip that can stand up to a variety of threats and attempts to violate its security. A first-of-its kind chip that would be unhackable.
At New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), Sinanoglu, who is also the associate dean of engineering, is blending his foundations in teaching and research that were formed and fine-tuned across the globe in UC San Diego’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
|"Directly prepared" for opportunity|
As a computer science Ph.D. student, Sinanoglu says he was able to take courses from great faculty, was able to help those professors as a teaching assistant and had the opportunity to work in a research lab side-by-side with talented PhD students. And he was supervised by a one-of-a-kind professor, Alex Orailoglu.
“The courses I took were very challenging and some of them helped me build a solid foundation that still serves me well today in my research program,” said Sinanoglu, who won the IBM PhD Fellowship Award in 2001 and 2002, and the department's PhD Dissertation Award in 2005.
As a teaching assistant, he gained “not only precious teaching experience but also self-confidence that I have benefitted so much from,” he recalls. “And by working in a research lab with brilliant graduate students and interacting with them, I gained a good understanding of what a great research lab should look like.”
From Orailoglu, his PhD advisor, Sinanoglu gained a variety of technical and non-technical skills.
“He’s a very demanding professor. He’s kind of a perfectionist,” Sinanoglu remembers.
After one presentation, Orailoglu offered Sinanoglu the following advice: “Great technical discussion, but I’m bored.”
Sinanoglu, while taken aback, said he was forced to write and present concepts and material in a way that would be interesting to the reader or audience.
As a result he says he ended up becoming a well-rounded PhD graduate.
“I now know how I should supervise my PhD students thanks to this experience,” he says. “It’s very important for those who go through their PhD and become a professor to gain these skills.”
By the time the opportunity arose that allowed Sinanoglu to both teach and manage a lab, he says he was ready for the challenge thanks to the Department of Computer Science.
“I was directly prepared for that kind of position,” said Sinanoglu.
An unhackable discovery
After earning his PhD, he remained in the San Diego area for a couple of years working for Qualcomm as a senior chip designer. Sinanoglu, a Turkish native, ultimately decided he needed to be closer to home so he relocated to the Middle East and joined academia at Kuwait University.
Then in 2010, Sinanoglu landed his dream job. He joined NYUAD as an assistant professor and set up the Design for Excellence lab. He was one of the earliest faculty members to join the campus described as a “comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East operated abroad by a major American research university.”
“This is the place for me and it was the best decision I’ve made,” said Sinanoglu, who was drawn to the mix of liberal arts-style teaching in small classes with a significant focus on and support for research.
On the teaching front, he found the interactive nature of some of the courses he took at UC San Diego “served as a good model for me in developing courses to teach at NYU. By being a teaching assistant for courses taught by great faculty I learned how to organize lectures and labs, of course, and how to deliver it in the most effective way,” he recalls.
With the research aspect, he says he “knew exactly what was needed for setting up a research lab because I had been in one of the best during my time at UC San Diego.”
Sinanoglu jumped in and with his team of engineers began a seven- to eight year-long effort to design, develop and refine a chip that would be unhackable. His lab leads developments on cybersecurity and creating securer and safer computer systems for designers and manufacturers of IT technology, and also everyday consumers of technology.
In 2017, he talked to The National, a Middle East publication, about the team’s progress.
“This is the first prototype for a chip that has security features built in at the hardware level,” he told the publication. “The purpose of this chip is a proof-of-concept to show that we can take any chip design, apply our software on the design to lock [it], and create trustworthy locked chips that are resilient to hardware-level threats such as counterfeiting, piracy, reverse-engineering and tampering.”
The new chip ensured a secure platform from start to finish in the hardware.
“If the hardware is compromised, you can have the strongest operating system but you can’t talk about a trustworthy system,” Sinanoglu told The National.
Sinanoglu also set up a platform allowing potential hackers to attempt to break in, because “crowd-sourcing is the best way to test your security,” the publication reported.
Sinanoglu and his team improved on their original solution and went on to design a more secure version of their chip recently. In refining the chip, the engineers stripped out security-critical logic and left no structural traces. The subtractive version of their chip was unveiled in December 2018 and since then, no one has found the key, Sinanoglu told the news magazine OZY in a story on him and his lab earlier this year.
In 2018, Sinanoglu was awarded a three-year grant from Intel Corporation to support similar yet unrelated research into new ways of securely testing and configuring chips by third-party companies.
A NYUAD news story announcing the grant described how Sinanoglu’s research “allows tech companies to obscure security critical data, such as the chip’s serial ID, by using a secret key preloaded onto the chip. Once hidden, a third-party company can test and configure each chip before being sold to customers, yet with no access to the chip’s security critical data.”
And with support from the United States, including the National Science Foundation and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the United Arab Emirates government as well as industry, Sinanoglu and his researchers are making big strides in making our cyberworld more safe and secure.
Jacobs School of Engineering