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Chen, Cetin enhancing hardware security with novel method

Cetin and Chen

A team of engineers led by Associate Professor Pai-Yen Chen and Professor Ahmet Enis Cetin are researching better methods to improve hardware security to protect against cyberattacks and reverse-engineering.

Their paper, Electromagnetically unclonable functions generated by non-Hermitian absorber-emitter, was published in September in the AAAS journal, Science Advances.

Development of cryptographic techniques that ensure data security and privacy is an urgent need, and physical unclonable functions (PUFs) are one of the most promising hardware security primitives used. This method of generating secret keys incorporates a mathematical model that pinpoints what is known as self-dual spectral singularity, or coherent perfect absorber-laser (CPAL) points, which are the least likely result from within a range of numbers.

These random, unique digital fingerprints can be generated from radiofrequency, analog integrated circuits and even optical devices, and can be used as a general- purpose cryptographic random number generator for applications in identification, authentication, and anti-counterfeiting. This can be useful for products including medications and foods, to create anti-forgery labels,  credit card protections, and secure communications.

Unlike a conventional cryptographic approach, which uses a single stored key and costly non-volatile memories, PUFs work by implementing challenge-response authentication. For a given PUF, a specific input, known as a “challenge”, will generate an output “response” that is unique to the specific PUF and therefore unclonable.

Silicon-based PUFs, which exploit the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing process, are the most common PUFs, but they may be vulnerable to attacks, due to the limited number of variations in their manufacturing. Besides, PUFs could be relatively big in size (on a chip).

“It is imperative to develop low-cost PUFs with outstandingly lower predictability and higher resilience against machine-learning-assisted attacks, to facilitate their practice as hardware security primitives,” Chen said.

The UIC team used the non-Hermitian electromagnetic metasurface or its equivalent circuit to generate PUF keys embedded in the scattering response. Their technique is wavelength scalable in radio frequency, teraheartz, infrared, and optical systems, paving a promising avenue toward applications of cryptography and encryption.

By amplifying the entropy sourced from manufacturing variances at the self-dual CPAL points, more unique, random PUFs can be created. These electromagnetic PUFs can be more robust against machine learning-assisted attacks.

“We tried the hardest attempts including the AI-based attacks to break it but the PUF is very robust,” Cetin said.

“Even small but inevitable process variations in manufacturing may produce very different output responses from device to device,” Chen said. “Although such a property may be seen as a foe for sensing purposes, on the contrary, it may find useful applications in generating high-quality PUF keys.”

The paper’s authors, in addition to Cetin and Chen, include Minye Yang, Zhilu Ye, Hongyi Pan, and Mohamed Farhat.

Yang, Ye, and Pan are all former UIC students, earning their doctoral degrees in 2023. Yang and Ye are assistant professors at Xi’an Jiaotong University in Xi’an, China. Pan is a clinical research associate at Northwestern University. Farhat is with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.