Borisov receives NSF CAREER Award


Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS

Nikita Borisov
Nikita Borisov

ECE Assistant Professor Nikita Borisov is a recipient of the 2010 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Borisov is the fifth member of the ECE faculty who were named recipients of this prestigious award in 2010. ECE Assistant Professors Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia, Yih-Chun Hu, Eric Pop, and Shobha Vasudevan were named recipients earlier this spring. These awards are among the most prestigious given to young faculty.

Borisov’s proposal addresses anonymous communication in Internet privacy.

“I’ve been interested in online privacy since I was doing my PhD,” Borisov said. “It’s really exciting for me to see that the National Science Foundation is very much recognizing the need for technologies to enhance privacy.”

When people visit a search engine, like Google, the site will know their IP addresses and can identify its users to an extent. Providers can then figure out what Web sites people are visiting, who is communicating, and who visits certain pages. And there have been documented abuses of this information in the past, including AOL releasing personal data on people’s search habits.

Anonymous communication can be used to avoid some Internet privacy problems. Anonymous communication forwards a user’s information among several computers so that it is not possible to see the traffic’s complete path. This makes it impossible to link the source and destination of the communication.

“My proposal is to build technologies that can make this kind of approach scale to very large systems and very large user bases,” Borisov said. Currently, Tor is a prototype Internet anonymity network, but it is limited in size and performance. Borisov hopes to increase the size of the network so that a larger population can use it and improve the performance so it is considered a legitimate alternative.

Borisov explained it as an extension to encryption protocols. Encryption encodes the information sent online in such a way that it is unreadable to others.

“That protects the contents of your communications, but not the fact that you’re talking to somebody else and who you’re talking to,” Borisov said. “When you go to your banking site, all your bank information—your account number, your password—is protected by encryption, but which bank you’re using is not.”

Another goal of the proposal is to integrate anonymous communication into Internet design so that there is a privacy-enhanced connection choice for Internet traffic.

“I would like to move toward a design that lets you, for any Internet connection, say [whether] I’d like this to be private or nonprivate,” Borisov said.

His proposal also had an educational component. He has taught graduate-level courses on cryptography and privacy and plans to incorporate research into modules for those courses. He will also include three or four undergraduates in his research.

“This lets promising undergraduates explore research and better understand the issues of privacy and the technology behind it,” Borisov said. “The students I’ve talked to are often very excited about working on this topic. I’m happy to be able to support them in that.”

Borisov said he is anticipating devoting more time to researching this topic.

“I’m looking forward to being able to do some of the explorations that bridge the gap between a simple theoretical design for how the system works and the real-world implementation of it,” he said.