Google CEO Eric Schmidt Commends PSU Research to Counteract Internet Censorship
Author: Julie Rutherford, Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science
Posted: March 13, 2014

(Portland, Ore.) Mar. 11, 2014 — The Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University (PSU) today announced that research conducted by a member of its faculty received significant praise from one of the tech world’s most influential figures.

PSU computer science professor Thomas Shrimpton is a recipient of one of ten New Digital Age Grant awards funded through a private donation by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The gift was made in recognition of work conducted by Shrimpton and his colleagues work to develop new data encryption techniques and methods to circumvent internet censorship.

“This gift was quite unexpected,” explains Shrimpton. “It’s an incredible honor for me and my colleagues to be recognized in this way.  We are all really excited to see our work gaining attention, and having impact.”  

State of the art monitoring of network traffic is empowered by “deep packet inspection” (DPI) systems, which can provide detailed information about the specific content of each data packet it sees.  DPI can help network operators to provide better overall quality of service.  However, governments and nation-states are increasingly using DPI to control citizens’ ability to communicate and access information via the internet.  China, Iran, and Pakistan are among the countries performing pervasive censorship of internet traffic.

Data encryption has long been used to provide privacy for the contents of internet traffic, and can be an effective counter-measure against some forms of digital surveillance and censorship. However, conventional encryption protocols are easily detected by DPI. Through their research, Shrimpton and his colleagues developed a new cryptographic technique dubbed “format-transforming encryption” (FTE) that can foil DPI.  FTE simultaneously encrypts data and lets the user control how the resulting traffic will “look” to DPI devices.  In a recent academic paper, FTE was shown to resist detection in tests against six state-of-the-art DPI technologies.  Shrimpton and his colleagues used FTE to tunnel arbitrary web traffic through the so-called Great Firewall of China.  With no apparent signs of detection after one month of continuous operation, the researchers concluded the test.

The New Digital Age Grants were established to highlight organizations that use technology to counter global challenges of particular interest to Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, including government-sponsored censorship, disaster relief and crime fighting.

“The recipients chosen for the New Digital Age Grants are doing some very innovative and unique work, and I’m proud to offer them this encouragement,” said Schmidt. “Five billion people will encounter the Internet for the first time in the next decade. With this surge in the use of technology around the world—much of which we in the West take for granted—I felt it was important to encourage organizations that are using it to solve some of our most pressing problems.”

Ten non-profits in the U.S. and abroad were named recipients of New Digital Age Grants. Portland State University is the only group in the Pacific Northwest to receive such an award.

The gift totals $96,400 and will be used to further support the research conducted by Shrimpton and his colleagues Kevin P. Dyer, a doctoral candidate at Portland State University, Scott E. Coull, a research scientist at security analytics company Redjack, LLC, and Thomas Ristenpart, a professor of computer science at University of Wisconsin - Madison.

More information about this research is available at