AMHERST, Mass. – Phillipa Gill, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been named one of MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators Under 35” for her groundbreaking work on Internet censorship and network security.
The award, first given by the magazine in 1999, celebrates young innovators who are poised to be leaders in their fields. Gill is recognized in the “Pioneer” category, joining peers who are developing new approaches to tackling technology challenges. She says, “I am honored and excited to be listed among the Innovators under 35. The award encourages me to continue to push the boundaries in my work on Internet security and censorship measurements.”
This year’s honorees will be featured in the online magazine starting today, and in the September/October print version on Aug. 29. They will appear in person at the upcoming EmTech MIT conference on Nov. 6-9 in Cambridge.
College of Information and Computer Sciences Dean Laura Haas says, “Acknowledging and supporting young innovators is essential to moving our field forward. We are pleased that the editors of the MIT Technology Review share our view of Phillipa, she is a true pioneer. Her interdisciplinary work towards forwarding human rights is an excellent example of the impact computer science can have on society.”
Gill says her interest in Internet censorship began when she was postdoctoral researcher in the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Speaking with political scientists there, she found that her research on network measurement was directly related to problems around accurately identifying and measuring Internet censorship in high-risk, and sometimes dangerous, locations around the globe.
As she told the magazine, when she was at the Citizen Lab, she was surprised to find that there was no accepted approach for empirically measuring censorship. Tech Review reports, “So she built a set of new measurement tools to detect and quantify such practices. One technique automatically detects so-called block pages, which tell a user if a site has been blocked by a government or some other entity. In 2015, Gill and colleagues used her methods to confirm that a state-owned ISP in Yemen was using a traffic-filtering device to block political content during an armed conflict.”
At UMass Amherst since 2016, Gill and a group of graduate student researchers are now developing a software platform to address these and related problems by measuring online information controls. The software, dubbed ICLab, has been installed on 14 small, low-cost computers known as Raspberry Pis, and also runs on hundreds of Virtual Private Network (VPN) servers worldwide. The Raspberry Pis are deployed to countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen, where a network of volunteers connect them to the Internet.
Once connected, ICLab uses techniques developed by Gill’s research team to study traces of network packets to automatically identify whether content is blocked, as well as understand how governments implement censorship.
In addition to her research on Internet censorship, Gill recently worked to create incentives for deploying BGPSec, a more secure version of BGP, a standard network protocol. BGP was designed in the early 1990s when the Internet was less dangerous, and has been vulnerable to attack because it lacks authentication mechanisms. Gill says her workspurred the Federal Communicatons Commission to create a working group, whose recommendations to encourage use of the security upgrade were agreed upon by major U.S. Internet Service Providers.