Computer scientist Owen Arden wins NSF CAREER Award

Owen Arden
Owen Arden (Photo by K. Skemp)

Owen Arden, assistant professor of computer science in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Arden’s project, “Building secure decentralized applications with trusted hardware and blockchains,” will explore a language-based approach to building inherently secure decentralized applications.

The CAREER award provides $510,000 over five years. During this time, Arden plans to create a platform for new systems and new research that he and other investigators can use to promote security in an increasingly decentralized environment.

In a decentralized system, there is no single entity that everyone trusts to make decisions on behalf of all parties. Collaborating across such systems is challenging. If the collaborating parties don’t inherently trust one another, and there is no central entity that enforces the rules, then how do parties safely execute transactions? How do they collaborate on projects and computations? How can they safely communicate and exchange things like money and information?

New tools and approaches such as trusted hardware and blockchain mechanisms provide some level of security, but they aren’t perfect.

“These new mechanisms are promising, but neither can protect all three pillars of information security by themselves,” Arden said. Confidentiality, integrity, and availability are considered the three pillars of information security management.

Arden’s proposal addresses how to integrate mechanisms like trusted hardware and blockchains with a secure programming language to build inherently secure applications. These applications are secure by construction because the security relies on the semantics of the language and not on the skills of application developers. All valid programs written in such a language are secure by design.

Specifically, Arden will continue his previous work on FLAME, a programming language that offers more precise abstractions for expressing security intent in decentralized systems. This gives developers assurance that their programs are both secure and realizable without requiring them to design and implement complex security protocols. Arden will also develop DECENT, a decentralized runtime platform for executing decentralized applications, backed by trusted hardware and blockchain mechanisms to ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

The CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.

Arden has made key contributions to language-based approaches to security. He received his Ph.D. in 2017 from Cornell University and joined the faculty of the Baskin School of Engineering in fall 2017.