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Computer Science Professor Discusses Privacy by Lena Guidi (DailyLobo)

December 1, 2014

But for Jedidiah Crandall, a professor at UNM's Computer Science Department, these revelations came with little surprise. He had been studying internet surveillance and censorship since he was working on a doctoral degree in computer science from the University of California, Davis.

Crandall said while he didn't become specifically interested in surveillance until graduate school, he was working with computers from a very early age.

"My parents owned a software company when I was born, so as soon as I was able to sit up in a chair I was hacking away in Apple DOS on an Apple II," he said.

He said he got interested in internet censorship while attending a reading group about programming languages at UC Davis.

"I used to go to it just for the free pizza. One week someone suggested we read a paper about the packet-level details of the Great Firewall of China, and I've been hooked ever since," he said.

Crandall's research has two focuses: documenting internet censorship, and analyzing potential threats to online freedom. He said he uses side channels, or information from encrypted devices that does not include the encrypted text itself, to measure certain kinds of censorship. Side channel information could include CPU timing, power usage, or even noise coming from active hardware.

"As an example of a side channel, there's a story that the Russians used to know when something important like a land invasion by U.S. troops was going on because the number of pizzas delivered to the Pentagon went way up," Crandall said.

He said his research group at UNM uses similar techniques to determine if two computers anywhere in the world are able to communicate.

Crandall said this type of research is necessary because the internet has become increasingly dominated by governments in recent years.

"The internet used to have no borders, except maybe language barriers. Today the trend is for the internet to be broken up into national-level networks that are tightly controlled by governments," Crandall said.

He said that people are more afraid to oppose their government on the internet due to a lack of privacy and anonymity.

In the landmark court case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, Pennsylvania judge Stewart Dalzell agreed, striking down the Communications Decency Act, a law that would restrict internet content.

"As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion," Dalzell wrote in his opinion, deciding that internet censorship violated the First Amendment.

Crandall said that people deserve a space where they can discuss important issues without government mediation.

"That's the vision that I have for what the internet could be, but right now the trends are all going in the opposite direction," he said.

He said that people who defend surveillance by saying they have nothing to hide miss the point of why internet freedom is so important.

"The public as a whole needs to understand that there are lots of people with very valid

reasons to hide their activities from the government or other powers, such as journalists, lawyers, civil rights leaders, community organizers, agents who are investigating other parts of the government, and victims of domestic abuse," he said.

The most vulnerable populations around the world need internet privacy the most, he said.

Crandall said that while the trends in government control of the internet are disturbing, there are tools such as the encrypted browser Tor that are useful for protecting individuals from surveillance. Positive change will come, he said, from supporting software projects such as Tor and pressuring lawmakers to create policies that protect internet privacy.

"We need to work to return the internet to the free and open network that it used to be," Crandall said.

He said that programming or hacking skills are not required to get involved, as the free internet community requires everything from technical writing to studies of users who are vulnerable to surveillance and censorship.

"I'm always happy to meet with people who want to know more about internet freedom and how they can help. I also recommend people go see Citizenfour, try Ubuntu Linux, and give Tor a try," he said.

Lena Guidi is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com, or on Twitter @DailyLobo.