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Aravinda Prasad Sistla named ACM Fellow

Professor Aravinda P Sistla was recently recognized by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for his contributions to the field of computer science. On January 19, he was named a 2021 ACM Fellow, an honor bestowed on the top 1 percent of ACM members, for his work in the areas of verifying concurrent programs, probabilistic systems, security, and database systems.

His research underpins the systems used by tech giants Microsoft and Intel for checking the accuracy of software and hardware systems. His advances in the field of security thwarts unauthorized access of computer systems. And he was also an early pioneer in the field of moving objects databases, the technology that allows users to search for nearby coffeeshops with their cellphones, for example.

Concurrent programs, or concurrent operations, allow computers to work quickly and efficiently. Computers can process multiple functions simultaneously, whether accessing data from a website or monitoring mouse clicks. But the software that can run on what’s known as multiple threads can open the door for bugs to creep in.

While having to reboot a personal laptop when a bug sneaks in is annoying, it’s not a catastrophe. But errors in safety critical systems, such as avionics and nuclear reactor controls, can have catastrophic effects. For example, software bugs in Boeing 737 Max planes led to crashes of two flights, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

“To detect possible bugs in the concurrent software, I was involved in developing a revolutionary new approach called model checking, which is a completely automated approach,” Sistla said. “Major technology companies such as Microsoft and Intel developed tools based on these ideas for debugging and developing correct software and hardware systems.”

Sistla also developed techniques for detecting security flaws in the form of authorization failures in computer systems that may allow unauthorized users to gain access to critical resources and information, such as credit card numbers. Some of his work transforms existing software to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.

Sistla recently began working on checking privacy claims of privacy-preserving mechanisms, known as differential privacy, that employ probabilistic methods that inject randomization, or noise, into data so that users can gain useful information from the private data without knowing it’s exact values.

His work on moving object data bases began in the 1990s, a few years after he joined UIC, and was conducted with fellow UIC Professor Ouri Wolfson. Through their work, they were able to pose and answer various queries that would tell them if a person had passed through a particular area. That work is the basis of today’s location-based services on smartphones and computers.

Sistla continues to his work on verifying software to root out errors, to improve security and make computer systems safer.

“Computers and software systems are used in all of modern society,” he said. “Transportation, the medical fields, energy — errors in these areas have serious implications.”