Maverick earns second place at Association of Computing Machinery competition

Haotian Zhang, a doctoral student in computer science at The University of Texas at Arlington, earned second place in the annual Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Student Research Competition Grand Finals.

Jiang Ming (left) and Haotian Zhang.
Jiang Ming (left) and Haotian Zhang.

The prestigious competition is the culmination of 25 first-round contests with entrants from around the world. Each contest took place at a flagship conference of a computer science discipline under the ACM umbrella. More than 274 computer science students presented their research at those contests, with 25 first-place winners invited to compete in the grand finals.

This year’s finalists included students from MIT, the Imperial College of London, Purdue University, the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley.

“To take second place at this competition is very encouraging,” Zhang said. “The positive feedback I received from others about my work and the comments from the judges are helpful as I continue with my research.”

To qualify for the grand finals, Zhang and his faculty advisor, Jiang Ming, won the 2021 Programming Language Design and Implementation conference competition with their project, “Smaller and More Secure: Static Debloating of MIPS Firmware Shared Libraries.”

The research focuses on removing unused code from software to reduce the attacking surface that bad actors can use to access systems and install malware. Software developers use third-party libraries of code that often contain massive features and dozens of algorithms. The released version of the software may use only one or two algorithms from that library, but the unused code is still included. That code may contain security vulnerabilities and makes the firmware larger, which changes hardware requirements and makes the system more expensive.

“We are working to provide a detailed analysis of the software to find dependencies outside the scope of the software,” Zhang said. “We have been able to find very accurate boundaries between used code and unused code, which makes it easy to remove the unused code in software, firmware and embedded systems and to harden systems against attackers.”

Zhang’s performance on an international level is a feather in UTA’s cap, says Hong Jiang, chair of UTA’s Computer Science and Engineering Department.

“This is hugely significant not only for Haotian and Dr. Ming, but also for UTA and the Computer Science and Engineering Department,” Jiang said. “The ACM Grand Finals is by far the highest ranked and most comprehensive computer science student competition in the world, and I am very proud that one of our students performed so well.”

– Written by Jeremy Agor, College of Engineering

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