Meet OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program 2023 Cohort

OTF has selected 11 fellows for the newest Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP). The group will advance internet censorship research, analysis, and circumvention tool development.
Thu, 2024-05-16 20:29

This latest ICFP cohort includes individuals from a variety of disciplines, crossing lines between computer science, reverse engineering, technology development, social sciences, and information security. Efforts include examining VPN interference, access barriers to Chinese social media, the transparency of VPNs, how hardware restrictions in mobile devices can be used for censorship, and the application of AI chip technology within China’s digital totalitarian system.

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

Anonymous ICFP Fellow

Focus: Network-traffic monitoring to identify spyware

Host Organization: Not publicly listed

Duration: 12 months

This ICFP Fellow is working on a tool to help identify spyware at the network level. While existing efforts have mostly utilized evidence left on infected devices, this project seeks to utilize network-traffic monitoring to enhance efforts to identify the presence of such software.

Josh Beaker 

Focus: How system design and hardware restrictions on mobile devices are used for information control

Host Organization: University of Washington

Duration: 12 months

Josh is examining how the system design of popular mobile devices can be used in closed spaces for information control. This research is significant because implementation of restrictions and monitoring through hardware would be near-impossible to overcome on a per-user basis. The project will analyze the system design and existing hardware restrictions on ten mobile devices produced by and for repressive environments. The goal is to understand how any existing hardware restrictions or system components are responsible for implementing or securing information controls on the device, and evaluate what information controls are possible given existing hardware restrictions and system design.

Chiang Min-yen

Focus: The application of AI chip technology within China’s digital totalitarian system

Host Organization: Secdev Group

Duration: 12 months

In recent years, China has employed various methods of digital totalitarian surveillance, including account censorship, content deletion, and algorithmic censorship designed to promote pro-government narratives. AI chip technology—chips that have been optimized with AI algorithms—could be the next frontier. Min-yen’s project focuses on the application of AI chips within the digital totalitarian system in China and analyzes the development trajectory of Chinese AI chip technology in relation to the global supply chain. In addition, the project also seeks to understand how to delineate the technological classifications of AI chips, and from a technical perspective, how these different types contribute to the utilization of domestic digital surveillance products in China.

Ain Ghazal

Focus: Measuring VPN interference on a global scale

Host Organization: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

Duration: 12 months

This fellow seeks to create a system that improves the visibility around which VPNs work, which do not, and where—at any given moment. This will entail allowing OONI probes to start measuring VPN interference on a global scale, with a focus on Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and China,  to detect interference with VPN or Fully Encrypted Protocols and enable near real-time research about the viability of tunneling strategies. 

For VPN users, measurements and analysis will contribute to answering the question of what can be used (safely) to bypass VPN censorship. For researchers, broader and better data can improve understanding of why blocks or slow-downs work at the technical level and aid in causal evidence of intentional network manipulation. The code produced by the fellow’s project will allow the execution of reproducible and comparable experiments.

For developers and providers of circumvention tools, exposing real-time results as open data will allow us to answer when and how a given protocol, or a particular subset of VPN infrastructure, is (or has ceased to be) reachable from various networks. It also sets the basis for independent auditability of reachability claims.

Amir Gh

Focus: Measuring network disruptions and blocking through comprehensive network-level logging and reporting

Host Organization: Not Publicly Listed 

Duration: 12 months

In order to understand and assess censorship behavior from many different connection points, Amir seeks to develop tools and frameworks for measuring network disruptions and blocking through a comprehensive set of network-level error logging and reporting to a designated target.

Censorship systems are constantly changing their strategies and evolving over time to control the flow of information. It is imperative that anti-censorship systems adapt quickly to neutralize deployed tactics and force censors to pursue manual tedious work. This will require testing and measuring the censorship systems from many different connection points (different ISPs), and aggregating and analyzing the collected data to derive a new strategy that can be quickly deployed. 

This project will focus on the first step, and utilize and expand upon the tools offered by Outline SDK that will help developers of other VPN applications and messaging apps integrate these modules for enhanced error logging and reporting.

Melinda Cohoon

Focus: Application of Iranian gamer-circumvention methods in a broader context

Host Organization: The Miaan Group

Duration: 12 months

VPNs and internet tiering are issues that dovetail in the current internet crisis in Iran, wherein VPNs must be legally applied for and at the same time, internet segregation based on status will determine the level of access for each individual citizen. This project seeks to clarify the gaps among commonly used censorship circumvention tools in Iran to understand how to better assist high-risk internet users in Iran.

By focusing on Iranian gamers,, the project seeks to elucidate issues such as internet connectivity and how the so-called “protection bill” is enforcing tiering and mitigating protests in Iran, and how gamer methods may be useful or have security issues, which will help the developer community in assessing and creating better workaround methods to censorship for even everyday users. 

Sana Habib

Focus: Identifying how apps are used in targeted attacks against Pakistani media workers

Host Organization: Digital Rights Foundation

Duration: 12 months

This project seeks to identify how apps are used for targeted attacks against Pakistani media workers by  studying six suspicious local Pakistani Android apps speculated to be used for tracking and targeting the at-risk media workers. Built on the research findings, the project also seeks to provide Pakistani media workers actionable advice on how to protect themselves.

Senka Hadzic

Focus: Obstacles for community network operators in implementing safety, security, and circumvention tools

Host Organization: The Critical Infrastructure Lab

Duration: 12 months

Community networks (CNs) have been implemented across the globe to provide affordable connectivity to unconnected and underserved communities. Depending on the type of community, issues around privacy, security, accessibility, and censorship resistance often come second to solving locally relevant obstacles such as lack of digital literacy— – which is often the case in rural areas, or remote communities in the Global South. This research seeks to identify existing obstacles for community network operators to implement safety, security, and circumvention tools, and use cases where responsibility for delivering stronger digital security and reliable access can be shifted from the end-user to the operators of CNs— – either on the infrastructure side or through network design.

Sam Ju

Focus: Access barriers to Chinese social media platforms

Host Organization: GreatFire

Duration: 12 months

Chinese social media platforms have been implementing phone number-based registration systems that allow platforms to confine access to users within certain regions or only to users in China. The implementations and challenges vary across platforms, but their impact on diaspora communities and research networks is profound, resulting in these groups becoming increasingly fragmented. 

Sam seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of the magnitude of these restrictive practices, their global patterns, and develop the blueprint for a sustainable bypassing solution.

Ben Mixon-Baca

Focus: Increasing transparency of VPN owners, operators, and developers

Host Organization: Breakpointing Bad

Duration: 12 months

This project seeks to illuminate the owners, operators, and developers of VPNs on popular app markets and disseminate this information to a broad range of stakeholders. The expansion of the VPN space has attracted malicious actors with a range of objections from the relatively benign, such as collecting unnecessarily detailed user information for ad revenue, to more insidious threats such as ad fraud, mass exploitation by including malware in the APK, and targeted threats. Many popular VPNs such as the ones on the Google Play store—with tens to hundreds of millions of downloads—appear to hide who actually develops and runs them. This obscurity is concerning because of the position of trust VPNs have. 

To address this, Ben is using a combination of open source data collection and reverse engineering to generate a transparency score for a selection of VPN applications on app markets. He will then use this score to select a subset of VPNs for detailed examination and perform a comparative analysis with other, more transparent VPNs.

Anonymous ICFP Fellow

Focus: The Chinese censorship-job landscape

Host Organization: Not publicly listed

Duration: 9 months

This fellow is investigating China’s censorship landscape with public job-ads data, and is attempting to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and intricacies of the censorship practice from different actors in this market.

Censorship is a labor-intensive task and high political stakes push digital platforms in China to seek various solutions to accomplish this work. Through analyzing job- ads data, this fellow aims to examine the demand for censorship services, emphasizing the influence of modern technologies, specific skill requirements, and the roles played by various stakeholders such as the government, tech companies, state-owned media, professional censorship companies, and labor companies in China. The study will also examine the implications of new technologies and the decentralization of censorship power on information control strategies.

You can check out the outputs of previous fellows for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021. The ongoing 2022 class can be found here.

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.

Learn more about the ICFP