Oh and Viswanath receive grant to develop privacy protocols to preserve anonymity online


August Schiess, CSL

In this era of cybersecurity hacks and data breaches, is it possible to remain anonymous online? CSL Professors Sewoong Oh and Pramod Viswanath are investigating protocols to guarantee privacy and anonymity online, especially in applications that demand it, such as cryptocurrency transactions including Bitcoin and online platforms that guarantee user anonymity for whistleblowing and other applications.

Sewoong Oh
Sewoong Oh
“Anonymity-preserving systems are specifically designed to prevent adversaries from linking users to their actions within the system,” said Sewoong Oh, assistant professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering. “However, most online services today are not designed to protect anonymity.”

The team received a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to examine the vulnerabilities that lead to the exposure of anonymous sources and then build new protocols to protect those sources.

This work has applications in apps and microblogging that aim to preserve privacy, like YikYak or Whisper, or cryptocurrency systems such as Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are distributed, digital currencies that allow a community to verify transactions, while keeping the identity of the users making transactions anonymous.

“Both anonymous microblogging platforms and cryptocurrencies broadcast sensitive messages over a network and are generally perceived as systems that protect user anonymity,” said Oh. “However, if people can pinpoint the IP address or transactions of someone sending messages, it’s a big issue of privacy, and we want to understand and protect that privacy.”

This project will develop open-source applications that incorporate their key theories and findings, including an anonymous messaging app, called Wildfire, and an upgrade to Bitcoin’s network that will safeguard user anonymity.

This work comes at a time when privacy attacks seem far too common. Anonymity-preserving technologies can provide a safety net when users are unduly monitored or surveilled.

Pramod Viswanath
Pramod Viswanath
“Ensuring privacy can be important in regions where users may face legal consequences for disclosing information online,” said Pramod Viswanath, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “And this—given the privacy attacks of this era—fits into the bigger picture of why we’re looking at this now.”

In addition to Oh and Viswanath, the team includes Peter Kairouz, postdoc at Stanford University, Shaileshh Bojja Venkatakrishnan, ECE and CSL PhD student, and Giulia Fanti, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.