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Program Update, Research

Information Controls Fellowship First Round Wrap-Up

Fellows advance research on repressive internet censorship, surveillance

With OTF now accepting applications for a new class of our Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP), it is time to highlight OTF’s recently completed inaugural class of fellows. These fellows have been hard at work over the past year completing new advances in researching information controls and presenting their findings through reports, papers, presentations, and tool launches.

Below we detail just some of the accomplishments of these fellows.

Senior Fellows

  • Jason Q. Ng worked with the Citizen Lab to study content control on WeChat – a chat and social platform with over 650 million monthly active users making it the most popular chat app in China and third overall in the world. His study was the first research project to identify types of content being censored on WeChat’s public accounts platform, which provides microblogging features. The report found evidence of automatic review filters and revealed that censored content included post related to politics, corruption, and rumors. Jason also authored a piece, “China’s Rumor Mill,” in Foreign Affairs discussing the findings. He also collaborated with ICFP fellow Jeffrey Knockel and others at the Citizen Lab on projects on information controls and Chinese social media.

  • Ben Zevenbergen was hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute to cultivate greater discussion on the ethical, legal and policy issues of networked systems research. This included a paper exploring the ethics of a new censorship measurement tool. Ben also created a dedicated website, co-authored a paper on analyzing how different disciplines involved in Internet research approach ethical dilemmas and hosted the Workshop on Ethics in Networked Systems Research at the 2015 ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) and a panel at the 2015 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute. Ben intends to release guidelines resulting from this work in the spring.

  • Will Scott worked with the University of Washington to release Activist.js, a tool that improves censorship resiliency for website owners. Once integrated into a website, any user who can access the site once will be able to access it again even if it is being censored. Activist.js is live and includes a wordpress plugin for the millions of websites relying on the platform. Will presented his project at CascadiaJS. He also focused on censorship measurement detection, discussing open proxies at the Chaos Communication Camp and the state of Internet censorship at the Chaos Communication Congress.

  • Bill Marczak collaborated with the Citizen Lab to document the proliferation of commercial spyware and its use by states around the world. Through network scanning methods he uncovered evidence of 32 countries where at least one government entity is likely using the FinFisher commercial spyware suite. He also investigated the use of the Hacking Team commercial spyware Remote Control System in South Korea. Bill was also part of a team including three OTF ICFP host organizations (The Citizen Lab, Princeton University, and UC Berkeley) that analyzed the Great Cannon – a new cyber weapon identified as co-located with the so-called “Great Firewall” on China’s national backbone. The Great Cannon was used to launch large scale distributed-denial-of-service against servers operated by advocacy group GreatFire that were used to circumvent Internet filtering in China and against the popular code repository service GitHub. Bill presented these findings at the 2015 USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI).

  • Jeffrey Knockel collaborated with the Citizen Lab to document censorship on popular applications in China and develop new methods for side channel network measurements. Most recently, Jeffrey co-authored a report revealing significant security vulnerabilities in the popular Baidu browser. Prior to that, Jeffrey also worked extensively to highlight Chinese censorship methods, including on popular social video platforms. He reversed engineered the four most popular social video platforms in China (with more than 1 billion registered users combined) to show how keyword censorship operates on them. In one platform (YY) he also found keyword surveillance. The findings show inconsistencies in the implementation of censorship and the keyword lists used to trigger censorship events between the platforms.. These results provide evidence that there is no monolithic set of rules that govern how information controls are implemented in China. The research collected a dataset of 17,547 unique keywords from the four platforms used to trigger censorship, which is the largest dataset of censorship keywords currently available. Jeff presented his findings at the 2015 USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI). The paper’s co-authors included Jason Q. Ng. Jeff also worked on developing network side channel techniques for measuring Internet censorship. This work raises open ethical questions that Jeff and his co-authors address in a paper published at the at Workshop on Ethics in Networked Systems Research.

  • Enrico Calandro was hosted by Research ICT Africa to investigate African users awareness and experience of censorship, surveillance, and internet safety and security, in order to assess levels of trust and mistrust of the internet in three African countries: South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Enrico also spent considerable energy on Internet governance and policy issues. He participated in a panel at the Internet Governance Forum and presented his research at the Africa Internet Summit in Tunis on institutional arrangements for Internet governance in Africa. He also discussed his findings with many organisations working in the internet governance domain including ISOC, AfriNIC, and NEPAD Agency. Enrico also submitted an analysis of the draft cybercrime bill being debated in South Africa, published a piece on the need for UN initiatives on global connectivity to better focus on digital rights and offered an African perspective on Internet governance.

    Seasonal Fellows

  • Ben Jones worked with Princeton on their Censored Planet project with the aim of identifying safe means of measuring Internet censorship at scale. He created a method to use open DNS resolvers to get a snapshot of DNS censorship across the entire world. Ben also developed risk mitigation techniques for individual users resulting in a paper that was presented at the Workshop on Ethics in Networked Systems Research , among others.

  • Enrique Piraces was hosted by the Citizen Lab to perform the initial work to create a methodological framework and toolset for the collection, preservation, and sharing of information about the impact of technology on the privacy, safety and security of users with particular emphasis on human rights defenders and journalists. Enrique released an initial version of Chrome browser plugin to allow for easy submission of malware or phishing samples deriving from a gmail account. He also created an initial version of the framework.

  • Abbas Razaghpanah collaborated with the Citizen Lab to continue development of ICLab, a collaborative effort between ICFP hosts Stony Brook University, Citizen Lab, and Princeton University. ICLab aims to provide a platform to enable rigorous and repeatable measurements of online information controls. Abbas made significant improvements to the client software by improving security, stability and measurement collection resulting in a wealth of new network vantage points around the world. The testing platform was used by the Citizen Lab in documenting Internet censorship during the 2015 conflict in Yemen.

  • Moses Karanja worked with the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law at Strathmore University to compare the nature, form, and threats in Internet freedom from national security agencies in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Moses has produced a report compiling the research performed. He also moderated a session on cyber security and jurisdiction in Africa at the Africa Cyber Security Summit and gave a presentation on Cyber Security and Human Rights in Kenya at the Kenya Internet Governance Forum.

All of the inaugural fellows were able to convene at the 2015 Citizen Lab Summer Institute (CLSI) which brought together a diverse range of researchers and practitioners. The event included sessions focusing on how censorship, circumvention, and surveillance have changed over the past year and new information controls research. OTF convened a dinner for the information controls fellows providing an opportunity for in person discussions to advance cross fellow collaboration.

These fellows have significantly advanced critical areas of research around Internet freedom. We sincerely appreciate the hard work and marked progress brought about by this inaugural class. OTF has already begun supporting a second round of fellows that are tackling a variety of compelling projects.

Please help OTF continue to support high quality fellows by circulating our open window for 2016 information control fellowship applicants.