Fellows make notable advances in anti-censorship research, tool creation, and more
As the second class of OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) wraps up their work, we’d like to take this time to highlight the fellows and the accomplishments they achieved during their tenure as ICFP fellows.
A diverse group made up of computer scientists, researchers, and lawyers, this class has been hard at work over the past year pursuing and completing goals in areas such as: conducting novel research on internet censorship developments in understudied regions; building new tools to bolster existent circumvention systems; and researching security vulnerabilities in popular peer-to-peer communication apps.
You can find below a brief description of each fellow’s area of focus, what they accomplished, and links to related materials where applicable. Throughout the year, the fellows have presented their findings publicly in the form of reports, papers, presentations, and tool launches. Some are nearing completion and will be added as they become available.
- Antonio Espinoza
Focus: Discovering vulnerabilities in apps used by at-risk groups
Working closely with Citizen Lab researchers, Antonio investigated mobile communication apps used by at-risk populations that utilize cryptography. Significant discoveries were made around potential vulnerabilities. Forthcoming reports from Citizen Lab will rely on Antonio’s research following the completion of a responsible disclosure period.
- Serene Han
Focus: New internet censorship circumvention methods with NAT traversal
Serene collaborated with researchers at the University of California-Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute to design and develop a new system which allows users to easily and reliably circumvent internet censorship, even when behind Network Address Translation (NAT). NATs allow multiple computers to connect to the internet from a single IP address and are ubiquitous, but cause technical complication in a wide variety of applications, especially circumvention. Serene completed initial development of Snowflake and will be using her upcoming six month fellowship to integrate the technology into widely used circumvention tools such as the Tor Browser Bundle.
- Arthur Gwagwa
Focus: Researching information controls in southern and eastern Africa
Arthur’s fellowship focused on researching information controls in Southern and East Africa, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, and Djibouti. The research combines both technical and policy information to highlight the increasing level of interference and censorship occurring within these countries. With the help of Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), Arthur published his findings on Zambia in collaboration with OONI. Other country reports are forthcoming and will be integrated into the Africa ICT Policy Database.
- Griffin Boyce
Focus: Analyzing internet censorship in post-Soviet states
Leveraging the resources of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University, Griffin collected and analyzed the internet censorship climate in former Soviet states. Censorship in this region in particular has received relatively scant attention from researchers and required testing to be performed from multiple endpoints in each of the selected countries. Griffin will publicly release the comprehensive results following the completion of the analysis.
- Yixin Sun
Focus: Improving resilience of Tor
Yixin focused her fellowship on increasing the resiliency of anonymity networks, specifically Tor. Working out of Princeton’s Security and Privacy Lab, Yixin implemented a new Tor client that increases the resilience of the relay selection algorithm (the mechanism that decides the manner in which your traffic is directed in order to create anonymity). This lowers the probability of a Tor client being affected by a hijack attack on its guard relay. Yixin also built a live BGP monitoring system that gets live BGP updates to check for suspicious routing changes/updates. After trialing the system, it lowered the probability of being affected by attacks, while not impacting the performance.
- Tim Libert/Nathalie Maréchal
Focus: Assessing ICT companies on privacy and free expression
This project was carried out by two researchers. Tim Libert was awarded a fellowship in 2015 to work on the finalization and release of the first Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Corporate Accountability Index. He then evaluated potential methodological expansions for the 2017 RDR Index to include companies that produce software, devices, and networking equipment. In 2016, Nathalie Marechal advanced this work, determining that software and devices would be appropriate for RDR, but networking equipment was not. Nathalie further refined the 2015 methodology for the greatly expanded 2017 Index, increased outreach and support to other researchers and organizations interested in employing the RDR methodology, and authored several scholarly publications on the impact of private sector policies on free expression and privacy online.
- Ben Jones
Focus: Detecting DNS censorship
Ben collaborated with Princeton researchers at the NOISE Lab to advance understanding around detecting DNS censorship. The paper was presented at the PAM conference. Ben also focused on improving mobile interference detection and continued presenting his research around ethical censorship measurements. Despite these accomplishments, Ben ended his fellowship early after being accepted by Google as a summer fellow.
- Wafa Ben Hassine
Focus: How Arab nations use cybercrime laws to crack down on dissidents
Wafa worked diligently with the Electronic Frontier Foundation during her 6 month fellowship to produce a report analyzing the raft of cyberterrorism and cybercrime laws enacted in the Arab world. The report demonstrates how these laws are oftentimes used to silence dissident voices and stifle free speech online. The threat such laws pose to internet freedom is growing not just in the Arab world, but globally. Wafa’s report serves to highlight the vigilance necessary to protect fundamental freedoms online from a wide variety of threats.
- Ben Mixon-Baca
Focus: Building a plugin to detect MITM attacks
Ben focused his 3-month fellowship on determining how to better assist at-risk organizations in accurately detecting man-in-the-middle and man-on-the-side attacks. With the help of Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Ben developed a plugin for existing detection software and also trained multiple organizations on how to use the plugin (and numerous other tools) to quickly detect attacks. These tools (and the knowledge of how to use them) will greatly increase these organizations’ ability to respond quickly and effectively to threats. Ben’s work will further serve as a template for the rising number of organizations globally subject to similar attacks.
Most of the fellows were able to convene at the 2016 Citizen Lab Summer Institute, which brings together a broad and diverse range of researchers and practitioners focused on a multitude of disciplines relevant to internet censorship. This atmosphere of cross-pollination acts as a vehicle for new collaborative efforts. The event included sessions focusing on how censorship, circumvention, and surveillance have changed over the past year and emerging information controls research shared by ICFP fellows and others.
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 class. OTF has already begun supporting a third round of ICFP fellows that are tackling a variety of compelling projects. We’ll be highlighting their work in an upcoming post.#
The Open Technology Fund (OTF)’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) was jointly established in 2014 with Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to cultivate research, programs, and creative collaboration focusing on information controls - specifically repressive internet censorship and surveillance. It was modeled after other successful fellowship programs. The ICFP supports fellows to work within host organizations that are established centers of expertise by offering competitively paid fellowships.
To learn more about the ICFP, click here.
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