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Announcing OTF’s Newest Class of Information Controls Fellows

Sixth cohort of ICFP fellows to research potential or existing circumvention techniques; the use of circumvention tools during censorship events; mitigating potential security vulnerabilities in access and privacy tools; identifying the specific tools used in individual countries for information controls; and more

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) has selected nine individuals as the newest Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellows. The group will focus on advancing research, analysis, and tool development on topics related to Internet censorship.

This latest ICFP cohort includes individuals from a variety of disciplines, crossing lines between computer science, reverse engineering, technology development, social sciences, human rights, and information security. The common thread uniting this diverse group is their focus on the various aspects of information controls, specifically repressive censorship and surveillance. You can check out the outputs of previous fellows for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The ongoing 2018 class can be found here.

The incoming fellows and a brief description of their areas of focus are as follows:

Esther Rodriguez Hernandez
Host organization: University of New Mexico
Duration: Nine months
Some countries are pushing to create restrictive online policies and laws against the spread of misinformation. In particular, LINE is currently in the spotlight in Taiwan as the country aims to battle disinformation campaigns spread as messages through its group chat. It is important that at-risk users in repressive environments acknowledge the threats a state actor could pose to a group chat app. The company that owns the messaging application publicly claims that communications on the platform are secure, but they have not disclosed key details to back up that claim. Esther will work with the University of New Mexico to perform cryptanalysis on LINE’s group chat protocol to discover specifics of vulnerabilities to the app’s users. The findings will be disseminated to maintainers of relevant training materials, such as those designed for human rights, media, or other civil society actors.

Information Control Fellow
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. This research and development project will focus on the Egyptian Internet censorship context, aiming to analyze and document past and current efforts to create different circumvention solutions. The fellow will work with the Stratosphere Research Laboratory at the Czech Technical University to carry out their work.

Information Control Fellow
Host organization: University of Michigan
Duration: Nine months
This Information Controls Fellow will look into the Myanmar government and military's surveillance and censorship capacity. Myanmar has witnessed unprecedented growth in Internet connectivity and mobile services since operating licenses were issued to foreign telecom companies in 2013. That change has enabled millions of people to gain access to the Internet. While it has provided new opportunities and services, the rise of the Internet has also created new concerns for citizens' rights, particularly regarding the curtailment of freedom of expression and privacy. In the absence of proper rule of law and a lawful interception framework, the authorities have confiscated and analyzed the devices of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists. The government and military are also leveraging increasingly sophisticated surveillance hardware/software, putting activists and journalists at growing risk. This fellow will work with the University of Michigan to shed light on these developments and the underlying surveillance and censorship technology being employed by these repressive actors.

Babatunde Okunoye
Host organization: Tor Project
Duration: Twelve months
Babatunde will work with the Tor Project to investigate the use of censorship circumvention tools in four African countries: Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. The research will explore the reasons behind a relatively low level of adoption of some of these tools, despite varying levels of censorship being prevalent in each of these country contexts. The project will seek to engage the tools directly to mitigate any issues identified. Objectives include gaining an 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.

Shinyoung Cho
Host organization: University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Duration: Six 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 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 is working 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 will then work with the Tor Project to explore solution integration.

Pellaeon Lin
Host organization: Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Duration: Nine months
The fellow is working with Citizen Lab to conduct a security and privacy audit of TikTok, a popular social media application that is popular in China and increasingly in markets outside of China. This includes doing a technical analysis of the extent it protects user’s privacy and security and a legal analysis of the company’s public policies. Numerous concerns have been raised publicly around these issues given the perceived likelihood that the Chinese government has access to any information collected or surveillance undertaken through the app.

Kris Ruijgrok
Host organization: Software Freedom Law Center
Duration: Twelve months
Kris is working with the Software Freedom Law Center to document the social and political circumstances that lead to an Internet shutdown in India - regularly a world leader in Internet shutdown events. 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. The project will explore the underlying legal framework, government motivations, and the role of the private sector in how shutdowns are carried out. The fellow's host organization, the Software Freedom Law Center, has played a leading role in documenting the hundreds of network shutdowns that have occurred in India through their on-the-ground network. Given the proliferation of shutdowns globally, this project will serve as a reference for all those focused on combating Internet shutdowns.

Marios Isaakidis
Host organization: University of Waterloo
Duration: Nine months
Marios is working with the University of Waterloo to assess the viability of a new censorship circumvention technique, called biton, that supports low-latency proxying and redundant file storage - both with plausible deniability. For that, biton proposes a way to construct 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.

Information Control Fellow
Host organization: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Duration: Twelve months
This fellow intends to work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how individuals involved in protests in Sudan gained awareness of circumvention tools and the mechanisms that led to adoption. Specifically, he will explore the role of social media in Sudan's recent protests, how and when circumvention tools were used to overcome censorship, how awareness of such tools was raised, and the government's efforts to proliferate misinformation to disrupt protect activities. Given the global proliferation of censorship, especially network shutdowns, this project will provide critical insights into how communication continues to occur during these events.

Interested in becoming an ICFP fellow? OTF is accepting applications for the next ICFP cohort until February 24, 2020. The application and additional information is accessible from the ICFP home page, found here.

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The Open Technology Fund (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.
To learn more about the ICFP, click here.