Network Operations and Internet Security @ UChicago

Sam Burnett Thesis Defense on Internet Censorship

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Congratulations to Sam Burnett, who successfully defended his dissertation entitled “Enabling bystanders to facilitate Internet Censorship Measurement and Circumvention”.

Sam’s work designs systems that allow third parties to contribute resources to both measure the extent of censorship and to circumvent it.  His work has been featured in New Scientist, Slashdot, and The Economist.  An abstract of his dissertation is below.  You can also view an archive of the defense here.  Congratulations, Sam!

Free and open exchange of information on the Internet is at risk: more than 60 countries practice some form of Internet censorship, and both the number of countries practicing censorship and the proportion of Internet users who are subject to it are on the rise. Understanding and mitigating these threats to Internet freedom is a continuous technological arms race between security researchers and advocates, and many of the most influential governments and corporations.

By its very nature, Internet censorship varies drastically from region to region, which has impeded nearly all efforts to observe and fight it on a global scale. Researchers and developers in one country may find it very difficult to study censorship in another; this is particularly true for those in North America and Europe attempting to study notoriously pervasive censorship in Asia and the Middle East.

This dissertation develops techniques and systems that empower users not affected by censorship, or bystanders, to assist in the measurement and circumvention of Internet censorship in other countries. Our work builds from the observation that there are people everywhere would be willing to help us if only they knew how. First, we develop Encore, which allows webmasters to help study Web censorship by collecting measurements from their sites’ visitors. Encore leverages weaknesses in cross-origin security policy to collect measurements from a far more diverse set of vantage points than previously possible. Second, we build Collage, a technique that allows users to leverage the pervasiveness and scalability of user-generated content hosting services to disseminate censored content. Collage’s novel communication model is robust against censorship that is significantly more powerful than governments use today. Together, Encore and Collage make it significantly easier for people everywhere to help study and circumvent Internet censorship around the world.

Author: Nick Feamster

Nick Feamster is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. Before joining the faculty at Princeton, he was a professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. He received his Ph.D. in Computer science from MIT in 2005, and his S.B. and M.Eng. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT in 2000 and 2001, respectively. His research focuses on many aspects of computer networking and networked systems, including the design, measurement, and analysis of network routing protocols, network operations and security, and anonymous communication systems. In December 2008, he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his contributions to cybersecurity, notably spam filtering. His honors include the Technology Review 35 "Top Young Innovators Under 35" award, a Sloan Research Fellowship, the NSF CAREER award, the IBM Faculty Fellowship, and award papers at SIGCOMM 2006 (network-level behavior of spammers), the NSDI 2005 conference (fault detection in router configuration), Usenix Security 2002 (circumventing web censorship using Infranet), and Usenix Security 2001 (web cookie analysis).

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