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Jed Crandall, associate professor of computer science

Jed Crandall, associate professor of computer science

Associate prof. studies censorship, surveillance on the Internet

Subjects such as Internet censorship and freedoms are becoming increasingly discussed as modern society moves further and further into the Digital Age. Jed Crandall, an associate professor of computer science at UNM, studies incidences of censorship and surveillance on the Web to get an idea of where inconsistencies may lie.

Some of Crandall’s research efforts involve studying Facebook censorship in certain countries, but his team is currently taking on a much bigger project: measuring Internet use daily over three years and attempting to log almost every instance of censorship on the Web. The Daily Lobo speaks with Crandall about these issues:

Your bio indicates that your interests include Internet surveillance and censorship. What made you interested in those fields of study?

"When I was a graduate student I was part of a reading group (for the free pizza), and someone suggested that we read a paper about the Great Firewall of China. The paper left us with a lot of questions, so we did our own measurements to answer our questions and ended up publishing a paper about it. After that I was hooked, because I love computer science research and I have an iconoclastic nature and this research is a way to combine the two."

What specific things do you research?

"Most of my research is aimed at measuring Internet censorship and then publishing both what is being censored and the technical details of how that's happening. I hope that this empowers other people to do something about it, but efforts to circumvent censorship are not part of my research profile at this time."

How do you integrate that kind of research -- internet surveillance and hacking methods -- into an academic setting?

"It turns out that it integrates very naturally, because the set of skills that people like the national labs, the FBI and corporations are looking for are the same set of skills that it takes to do research on Internet censorship and surveillance. And when I'm teaching a topic like computer networks, if you look at the way censorship and surveillance work, they're an excellent way to teach about computer networks because all of the different layers and concepts are integral to how censorship and surveillance get implemented in the network."

Your bio states that some of your research seeks to answer the question "What's really going on in the Internet?" What kinds of things have you found that are most relevant to modern society?

"A lot of our past work has focused on censorship rather than surveillance, and we've mostly looked at China because they're the most advanced when it comes to censoring the Internet (plus, they represent about 1/4 of the Internet's population in terms of people online). We've documented censorship and surveillance in Chinese chat programs and found more than 10,000 sensitive words (see https://china-chats.net for a subset, more data will be posted there soon)."

"A bigger issue for the U.S., though, is surveillance. Surveillance is difficult to measure. If someone censors your chat session, you'll know it because your message to your friend will never arrive. But surveillance happens silently. If you're a journalism institution in the United States (e.g., the New York Times) and you have a network in your company and an Internet gateway connection so your employees can use the Internet, how do you know if things that could compromise sources or otherwise violate privacy rights are being sent out over the Internet by your employees or the software that they use? This is a problem we're starting to look at: combining reverse engineering with network monitoring technologies to help organizations understand what's getting put out there via their Internet gateways."

Some people see subjects like hacking or internet censorship as negative topics, or even taboo -- what would you say to those people?

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"People that want to use hacking for nefarious reasons (which could be hackers trying to steal your credit card or government agents trying to violate your privacy rights) aren't going to limit their knowledge to a set of safe subjects, so folks who are trying to defend society against those nefarious people shouldn't limit their knowledge either."

From your background and studies, what are (or is) the most contentious topic(s) when it comes to Internet freedoms and liberties?

"Internet privacy is the most contentious topic. We have privacy rights in our homes thanks to the Fourth Amendment. Even though this means that people could be committing even the most horrible crimes imaginable in their homes, we still (generally speaking) feel as a society that this right is important for our democratic system. I think that if people better understood how at-risk populations (e.g., journalists, whistleblowers, political activists, victims of domestic
abuse, etc.) use the Internet and their privacy needs, then they would understand how important online privacy is."

What do you see as the biggest threat to those Internet freedoms today?

"Surveillance. Censorship is relatively easy to expose, and it affects everyday people in their everyday lives, so they care about it. Surveillance, on the other hand, happens silently and mostly affects the small number of people in our society that are already at risk because they're trying to meaningfully oppose power in constitutionally protected ways."

What are some resources that interested students can utilize concerning their rights to the Internet and censorship on the network?

"If members of the UNM community care about their digital freedoms, they can start with these five easy (and fun) steps:

1. Search YouTube for 'Richard Stallman TED talk' and watch it. Using open-source software (e.g., Linux instead of Windows, LibreOffice instead of MS Office) is one of the most important steps you can take to preserve your digital freedoms.

"2. Download Ubuntu Linux and try it out. You don't have to install it on your computer, you can use a 4GB USB stick to boot it and give it a spin, then remove the USB stick and reboot into your old OS if you decide not to install Linux and take the plunge for good.

3. Watch "Citizenfour" if you haven't seen it yet.

4. Set up PGP encryption for your email and encourage others to do the same.

5. Check out torproject.org."

David Lynch is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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