Ian Goldberg named tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies

Friday, June 28, 2019

Cheriton School of Computer Science Professor Ian Goldberg has been named a tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies. He is one of 14 University of Waterloo researchers and the only member from the Faculty of Mathematics to receive this prestigious national research chair in this year’s award cycle. 

photo of Professor Ian GoldbergProfessor Goldberg’s Canada Research Chair comes with $1.4 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council over seven years (2019–26) to create and expand privacy enhancing technologies — systems that allow people to protect their privacy online.

“This is fantastic news,” said Mark Giesbrecht, Director of the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “Canada Research Chairs recognize and support Canada’s top scientists and scholars. With this CRC in Privacy Enhancing Technologies, Ian will expand his already internationally recognized research on privacy-preserving communications networks, off-the-record messaging systems, censorship resistance protocols, and zero-knowledge proofs. This research is both of enormous foundational impact and essential for the economic and social functioning of our networked world.”

Professor Goldberg’s appointment as a Canada Research Chair is effective July 1, 2019. He is the fifth faculty member at the Cheriton School of Computer Science to be named a Canada Research Chair, following Professors Ming Li and Ian Munro, current Canada Research Chair holders, and Professors Srinivasan Keshav and Justin Wan, previous Canada Research Chair holders.

We asked Professor Goldberg about his research and how his Canada Research Chair will help to expand and strengthen his efforts to protect privacy online.

Many people think of online privacy as merely protecting personal information while visiting websites or sending messages. Online privacy, however, is a much broader concept. What does it comprise and why is it essential?

Protecting personal data is only one small aspect of online privacy. Privacy broadly involves freedom, autonomy, self-determination, and civil liberties. It’s the ability to make your own decisions without external interference. 

Online privacy is about being able to communicate with others without being observed, coerced or pressured. This is important for everyone, but particularly so for marginalized communities, disadvantaged groups, and young people who are trying to find their own identities. It is important for anyone who may want to interact with others in their communities without fear of being monitored or pervasively surveilled by an authority. Surveillance in and of itself causes self-censorship, which can be as real a force as overt censorship. 

How does your research protect privacy?

The wide variety of privacy enhancing technologies we create in our research group help people protect their privacy broadly when they are online. 

Some of our technologies protect the contents of communication, such as Off-The-Record Messaging. Other technologies protect metadata of communication — for example, what websites you visit, who you talk to, and who your online friends are. These include anonymous communications technologies such as Tor, and DP5, a suite of privacy-preserving presence protocols.

Say you want to be able to connect to a website without others knowing you’re doing this. This is particularly important in countries where online content is censored. Our work on censorship resistance — in particular, our Slitheen project — is a good example such a technology we have developed.

With Slitheen, what happens is that there’s a cooperating Internet router somewhere outside your country — somewhere in the open Internet — and that router is situated along a path between you and a website with cute cat content, which the censor is unwilling to block. When you visit the cute cat website, you put a special signal into your communication that’s only visible to this router. Only someone with the router’s private key can even tell there’s a signal there.

When the router sees this signal, it says, “a-ha, someone wants to Slitheen.” It notices that you’re not really trying to go to the cute cat site, but rather that you want to go to another site, say Wikipedia.

Slitheen takes the packets you are sending it and it reads hidden information inside and uses that as a request for Wikipedia. It fetches the information from Wikipedia, and as the videos are coming in from the cute cat site it replaces the video content with Wikipedia content. From the censor’s point of view, you are watching a cute cat video.

With systems like Slithleen, you need the cooperation of Internet routers. We’re working on the next version of Slitheen, which we think will be better and easier to deploy. In fact, we have a project with RBC [Royal Bank of Canada] to work on this kind of deployment and related topics.

What forms do these privacy-enhancing technologies take? 

Some of our technologies run on servers in the cloud, some run on your laptop or desktop computer, and some technologies could potentially run on smartphones

Professor Goldberg featured in HAK_MTL

To learn more about how individuals are being monitored and surveilled by corporations and governments and the impact this has on privacy, please watch the trailer for HAK_MTL, a documentary by Journeyman Pictures that includes an interview with Professor Goldberg.

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