Amit Sahai, UCLA professor of computer science at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been awarded a $2.8 million grant over four years from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm. The grant will support Sahai’s work to develop the foundations for encrypted software that is capable of keeping its source code a secret from users behind a tangled barrier of ultra-hard mathematics. The technique is known as “program obfuscation” or “software obfuscation.”

The grant was awarded by the DARPA SafeWare Program, which aims to drive fundamental advances in the theory of program obfuscation and to develop highly efficient and widely applicable program obfuscation methods with mathematically proven security properties. The funding will support Sahai’s efforts to refine obfuscation and evaluate other systems of equations that obfuscation methods could be based on.

“The obfuscation schemes we have now are efficient in a theoretical sense, but they are extremely impractical,” Sahai said. “We need to devise fundamentally new techniques to transform the efficiency of protected programs.”

DARPA is looking for obfuscation methods that will still be fully effective even if fully understood by an adversary, as well as for methods that do not require special hardware or equipment. Sahai’s UCLA project is open-ended: Rather than striving to reach specific technical targets, the emphasis will be on further developing the fundamental mathematics for software obfuscation.

Sahai has conducted pioneering research in the emerging field of obfuscation, most notably a milestone breakthrough in 2013 that spurred current efforts in the area.

In addition to paving the way for efficient practical obfuscation, Sahai’s research for DARPA project will support research exploring the new system of equations that underpin obfuscation to determine exactly how difficult they are to solve, and search for other systems of equations that can also be be used for protecting secrets in software.

Sahai is the director of the Center for Encrypted Functionalities, established at UCLA in 2014 with a Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace FRONTIER Award from the National Science Foundation. The center includes principal investigators at UCLA and four other universities, along with researchers at other organizations.