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Protecting Electronics from Sabotage, Hacking, and Spying

A new University of Cincinnati project is examining ways to protect electronics and embedded systems from sabotage, hacking, and spying.

In a world where the use of counterfeit circuits could lead to catastrophic failures in aviation, communications, or weapons systems, the University of Cincinnati (UC) has paired up with the National Science Foundation to examine ways to protect electronics from sabotage, hacking, and spying.

According to the university, its new Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust will be the university’s latest industry-university cooperative research center. The center will work with the NSF, the U.S. Department of Defense, and industry leaders to conduct research designed to thwart outside attacks.

“Building consumer trust in technology is central to our work,” UC engineering professor John “Marty” Emmert said in a UC announcement for the new project. The NSF will fund the center with an initial $4.5 million grant for UC and its academic partners, which include the University of Virginia, the University of Connecticut, Northeastern University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of California, Davis.

A $323 Billion Global Problem

In 2018, counterfeit goods caused roughly $323 billion in damage to the global economy, according to Visual Capitalist. These fake products, which pretend to be genuine by using similar design and packaging elements, aren’t just damaging to the reputations of real brands— they also lead to massive issues for consumers, including the possibility of injury or death.

More than 25% of consumers have unwillingly purchased non-genuine goods online—and according to a test by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, it was found that two of every five brand name products they bought online (through third-party retailers) were counterfeits.

The issue of fake goods is not only surprisingly widespread in the online era,” Visual Capitalist reports, “but the imitation of legitimate brands can also be a catalyst for more serious problems.”

According to UC, the center will work with private companies, government agencies, and nonprofits that will contribute annual membership fees of up to $50,000 to investigate their unique vulnerabilities. So far, UC says 26 industry and military members have signed up, including Verizon, Edaptive Computing, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Wyle.

“We face a variety of technological threats and hazards as individuals, as members of organizations, and as citizens of a country. But one particularly alarming threat is the ability of hackers to infiltrate and sabotage the underlying hardware embedded into the electronic systems that we use as a society,” TechRepublic’s Lance Whitney writes in his coverage of the new initiative. “Projects have been launched worldwide to study how to best thwart attempts to undermine such technology.”

Harnessing Collective Expertise

From lab space in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, the center will harness UC’s collective expertise across disciplines in collaboration with other universities.

For example, it will put particularly emphasis on ensuring the authenticity of computer chips.

“The issue most important to industry is information technology protection,” Emmert said in the announcement. “Part of our mission will be to develop techniques to avoid circuit counterfeiting.”

To date, 70 companies have expressed interest in participating in the UC initiative and 26 of them have signed agreements. “Vulnerabilities to cyberattacks can be introduced during design, manufacturing, or any stage of the product life cycle,” James Lambert, a University of Virginia professor, said in the UC announcement. “By working with industry and government partners to understand what the real issues are and to ask the right questions, we are helping to address security, assurance, and trust across all stages.”

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