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Bristol cryptographers to research secure processors

Press release issued: 15 July 2009

The way computer processors are designed and their security against code breaking could be transformed thanks to a grant of £800,000.

The way computer processors are designed and their security against code breaking could be transformed thanks to a grant of £800,000.

The EPSRC 4-year grant has been awarded to a collaborative research team led by Dr Daniel Page and his colleagues Dr Elisabeth Oswald and Professor Nigel Smart in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol.

Processors, which are the core components of modern computing devices, have become the centre of cryptographers’ attention due to a new class of cryptanalytic attacks. These attacks aim to extract secret information by observing physical characteristics, e.g. the power consumption, of the processor. Whilst much is known about how to conduct these attacks, much less is known about how to efficiently design processors resilient to these attacks.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Head of the Department of Computer Science, said: “This grant will enable us to build on our existing strengths and work towards establishing Bristol as a world class centre for research in secure processor architectures.”

Together with international industrial partners such as Cryptography Research Inc. (US inventor of Differential Power Analysis) and national companies such as XMOS (Bristol based semi-conductor company) and SiVenture (Maidenhead based fully accredited security testing lab) the Bristol team aims to transform the current approaches to building secure processors.

Contemporary approaches to secure processor designs either replace the underlying silicon structures, this leads to a dramatic increase in production cost per unit, or rewrite the cryptographic algorithms, this requires tailor made software for each different processor type.

The novel approach investigated in this project sits between these two extremes: it alters the micro-architecture of the processor. Consequently, such processors can be built based on conventional silicon structures and they retain the same functional characteristics as standard processors. However, their leakage characteristics are altered to prevent a large number of physical attacks.


Further information

The Cryptography Group has already gained considerable expertise in this area and is leading this research in the European Network in Excellence in Cryptology (ECRYPT) and in the Computer Aided Cryptographic Engineering (CACE) project, which are both funded by the European Commission.

Dr Daniel Page is well-known for his research into computer architectures and secure implementation of cryptographic algorithms. He is also the author of a new undergraduate textbook on computer architecture entitled, A Practical Introduction to Computer Architecture.

Dr Elisabeth Oswald is recognised for her research into physical attacks and is co-author of the book, Power Analysis Attacks.

Professor Nigel Smart’s expertise lies in the intersection of theoretical and practical cryptography. He recently received the Wolfson Merit Award for his major contributions in the area of public key cryptography.

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
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