Fletcher's New Work on Microarchitectural Security Earns the Dean's Award for Excellence in Research

5/12/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

This award from The Grainger College of Engineering further validates Illinois CS professor Chris Fletcher’s research to detect sensitive data when computed via modern processors.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

At the end of April, Illinois CS professor Chris Fletcher was named winner of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research by The Grainger College of Engineering.

Illinois CS professor Christopher Fletcher.
Chris Fletcher

Nominated by Department Head and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, Nancy M. Amato, Fletcher was granted $3,000 to use at his discretion. He was celebrated for the accomplishment at the Grainger College of Engineering Faculty Awards Ceremony.

For Fletcher, the award acknowledged a significant project conducted by his research group, which he said spanned multiple students and published papers. It’s dedicated to better understanding what sensitive data is at risk when computed via modern processors. 

The roots of the work date back to 2018, when Fletcher paired with fellow Illinois CS professors Josep Torrellas and Darko Marinov to study new defenses against the Spectre and Meltdown attacks.

Making waves publicly at that time, these attacks pried on a weakness within something called speculative execution – which processors utilize to work quickly and efficiently. 

“Speculative execution is just one type of hardware optimization in processors today, and we had spent the last couple of years working on just that problem,” Fletcher said. “Then I woke up and had a ‘mid-career’ crisis: Do we really believe that speculative execution is the only optimization capable of leaking that much privacy?”

In response, Fletcher redirected his efforts to answer the much broader question.

“Since we started, we have discovered a spate of hardware optimizations – some proposed, some actually implemented – that can leak previously-thought-to-be-safe data, and some that, in theory, might even leak all of program memory,” he said.

The greatest achievement of this most recent project, Fletcher said, was gaining a much broader working group that extended well beyond the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to expand the scope and potential of the research.

He said this group includes faculty from the University of Washington; University of Texas, Austin; Stanford University; and MIT.

Not only was he thrilled to help oversee these research developments, Fletcher also especially enjoyed seeing how his students have grown through the work.

“I am just at the stage of graduating my first students, and their trajectories are now clear and extremely impressive. Their rate-of-growth has been spectacular; much more so than when I was their age,” Fletcher said.

As he carved out his own research niche within the Architecture, Compilers, and Parallel Computing research group here at Illinois CS, Fletcher pairs it with research in Security and Privacy

The Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research, he said, affirms that colleagues here view the work as important, empowering him even further to tackle the difficult but meaningful questions he’s posing.

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This story was published May 12, 2023.