No place like home when it comes to keeping UAE safe from cyber attack

The cyber security centre at New York University Abu Dhabi is strengthening the security of electronic chips used in a city's critical infrastructure.

Ozgur Sinanoglu is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NYUAD. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The UAE is hardening its critical infrastructure against hacking with plans to test the security of electronic chips used to operate everything from a city’s power grid to phones, satellites, aviation, and medical and military applications.

Earlier this year, cybersecurity experts and materials engineers warned that defects could be introduced in manufacturing these components, compromising their efficiency and safety.

The UAE owns the semi-conductor manufacturing company Global Foundries, which has a fabrication facility in New York which benefited from a multi-billion dollar investment last year. However, making these outside the UAE means there could be a security risk in the supply chain.

Now New York University Abu Dhabi is moving forward with a plan to test these components.

“Someone may alter the design or insert something malicious into the final chip,” said Ozgur Sinanoglu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NYUAD. “We need to make sure no trojans are inserted inside the chip, and my research addresses these kind of problems.”

NYUAD has created a test bed in its laboratory at the Saadiyat Island campus, allowing students to hack devices and create defences, said Michail Maniatakos, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“The devices control some kind of industrial process, whether a nuclear factory or a whole city’s power, and we’d like to see the effect of hacking into the process and what can happen to a city,” he said.

The team mapped the UAE and New York power grids for simulation. They also plan to map the UAE’s transport networks, including cameras, toll gates and traffic lights. Mapping can take between a week and six months.

“The attackers are always a step ahead. For every defence you implement, they’ll come up with a new attack,” said Prof Maniatakos.

“So to win the game, you have to attack it first before someone else does it for you. This needs a proper security mindset that is heavily needed here.”

The university is working with the US government to better protect its army, and Global Foundries, owned by Mubadala, to make chips with built-in defence systems.

“We’re about to finish the first secure version and the chip will hopefully be fabricated in the next month for the first time in the UAE,” Mr Sinanoglu said.

“It’s a lot of research but we have the opportunity for the first time to create something real. The threats are out there and this affects everybody equally.”

Experts said the project is vital for cyber security in the UAE.

“It proves again that Abu Dhabi is leading the region in advanced research and development projects across all sectors to now include defence, space and security innovations,” said Matthew Cochran, chairman of the Defence Marketing Services Council in Abu Dhabi.

Cyber security for the so-called “internet of things” – the increased connectedness of physical devices through the internet – could still be improved, he said.

“We must protect ourselves from those that would do our society harm via hacked and inserted kill switches that could make our everyday equipment useless,” said Mr Cochran.