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2019 ICFP Wrap Up

OTF’s sixth class of Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellows is a diverse group that is comprised of civil society and social science researchers, computer scientists and engineers. With the cohort’s fellowships completed, we’d like to highlight these fellows and the accomplishments they achieved during their time as ICFP fellows.

This group completed work on a wide range of projects, including conducting research on information controls developments focused on China, Egypt, Myanmar, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. In addition, fellows advanced emerging circumvention and anonymity techniques and discovered potential privacy and censorship issues in an app used worldwide. The ICFP program provides a vehicle for individuals to engage in projects related to repressive, state-imposed internet information controls.

Below, you can find a brief description of each fellow’s area of focus, what they accomplished, and links to related materials where applicable. Over the course of their fellowships, fellows have presented their findings publicly in the form of reports, presentations, and by releasing open source code. In some cases noted below, public reports are forthcoming.

Mohamed Tita

Host organization: Stratosphere Research Laboratory at the Czech Technical University

Duration: Twelve months

The Egyptian government, like others worldwide, has dramatically escalated its censorship tactics in recent years - necessitating the exploration and development of new circumvention techniques. The project is a research and development effort focusing on the Egyptian internet censorship context while aiming on analyzing and documenting past and current efforts and interventions to create different circumvention solutions. Mohamed worked with the Stratosphere Research Laboratory at the Czech Technical University to carry out their work. The final project outputs can be found on the dedicated website fightcensorship.tech. An introduction to the project can be found here.

Phyu Phyu Kyaw

Host organization: University of Michigan

Duration: Nine months

Kyaw is an internet freedom researcher. She is exploring and investigating the surveillance and censorship strategies used by authorities in Myanmar. She wants the internet to be accessible across the country and the technology to be human rights centered.

As an Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellow, Kyaw set out to identify and analyze the various surveillance and censorship tactics currently in use by the authorities in Myanmar in an effort to shine a light into this otherwise opaque system. In doing so, she utilized a diverse combination of analytical methods including technical network measurements, interviews, and research analysis of newspaper archives, media reports, and government publications. The full-length report, The Rise of Online Censorship and Surveillance in Myanmar: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study, is available here.

Babatunde Okunoye

Host organization: Tor Project

Duration: Twelve months

As an Information Controls Fellow, Babatunde worked with the Tor Project to investigate the use of information controls circumvention tools in four African countries: Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Babatunde collaborated with the Tor Project to explore the reasons behind an apparent lack of adoption of circumvention tools, despite varying levels of censorship being prevalent in each of these country contexts. The project sheds light on the reasons behind this and seek to engage the tools directly to mitigate any issues identified. Objectives included gaining understanding of what tools are adopted during periods of heightened censorship in Africa, why they are adopted, and how they are used; understanding the reasons for the low adoption of these tools in these countries; and collecting usability feedback on these tools - providing this feedback directly back to tools' designers. Babatunde published a blog post summarizing the project and a guest blog post on the Council on Foreign Relations website. The full report can also be accessed directly. Babatunde is Research Officer at Paradigm Initiative, where he leads the production of all research output which feeds into the advocacy work of the organization in digital rights and inclusion in Africa.

Shinyoung Cho

Host organization: University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Duration: Three months

The Tor network relies on volunteers to run relays in order for it to operate. If a large percentage of relays are operating on the same network, network-level adversaries can correlate the traffic of Tor users - jeopardizing their anonymity. While the number of Tor relays in the Tor network has grown to nearly 285% over the last 10 years, the number of Autonomous Systems (AS) in the network has increased at a much slower rate. The applicant worked with UMass-Amherst to quantify which ASes are most relied on when entering and exiting the Tor network - informing the design and development of a secure exit selection algorithm that aims to minimize the probability of attacks. Shinyoung also worked with the Tor Project to explore integration.

Marios Isaakidis

Host organization: University of Waterloo

Duration: Nine months

As an Information Controls Fellow, Marios worked with the University of Waterloo to further assess the viability of a new censorship circumvention technique that supports low-latency proxying and redundant file storage, both with plausible deniability. For that, biton constructs a peer-to-peer overlay network on top of BitTorrent swarms. This mechanism has the potential to address various tactics used by modern censors, such as protocol fingerprinting, traffic analysis, Internet shutdowns, and bridge enumeration attacks. During the fellowship, a prototype implementation was developed and can be found here. Marios also released a blog post summarizing the outcomes of the project.

Pellaeon Lin

Host organization: Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Duration: Nine months

As an Information Controls Fellow, Pellaeon conducted a security, privacy and censorship audit of TikTok, a short-video sharing social media app popular among young internet users. ByteDance, a China-based technology company develops TikTok, a video-based social media platform which is the first Chinese-made social media platform that reached global popularity, crossing 2 billion accumulated downloads in April 2020. The app started in China under the name Douyin, and was released as TikTok tailored for the international market. Despite TikTok’s popularity and prominent public discussions surrounding its security and privacy, neither TikTok nor Douyin have been thoroughly studied. As an Information Controls Fellow, Pellaeon Lin worked with Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto to carry out research on the technical characteristics of TikTok and Douyin through analysis of the source codes of TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps. The full report was released in March 2021 and can be found on Citizen Lab's website, along with a FAQ.

Kris Ruijgrok

Host organization: Software Freedom Law Center

Duration: Twelve months

As a Senior Information Controls Fellow, Kris worked with the Software Freedom Law Center India to investigate the politics behind internet shutdowns in India. While India is the world’s largest democracy, year after year it also holds the dubious record of having the highest number of internet shutdowns worldwide. Through in-depth fieldwork in two Indian states where shutdowns are often issued, as well as through analysing internet shutdown data from the SFLC.in, Kris’ project examined the politics behind India’s internet shutdowns. While the Indian authorities present the shutdowns as a response to a law and order problem caused by online misinformation, Kris’ research emphasizes the shutdowns’ political dimensions and shows that they are integral part of the worrying state that India’s democracy currently is in. The findings were summarized in a blog post on the OTF website. The full paper entitled Understanding India’s Troubling Rise in Internet Shutdowns: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis can be found here.

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About the program: OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) supports examination into how governments in countries, regions, or areas of OTF’s core focus are restricting the free flow of information, impeding access to the open internet, and implementing censorship mechanisms, thereby threatening the ability of global citizens to exercise basic human rights and democracy. The program supports fellows to work within host organizations that are established centers of expertise by offering competitively paid fellowships for three, six, nine, or twelve months in duration.

Interested in becoming an ICFP fellow? OTF is currently accepting applications for its next cohort of ICFP fellows. The deadline to apply is June 30, 2021. To learn more about the program and access the application, click here.

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