Reethika Ramesh awarded Rackham Barbour Scholarship

The scholarship will support her work on studying the security and privacy of networks.
Reethika Ramesh

Reethika Ramesh, a PhD candidate in computer science and engineering, has received a Barbour Scholarship for the 2023-2024 academic year to support her work on investigating the commercial VPN ecosystem through the lens of security, privacy, and usability. The Barbour Scholarship recognizes women of the highest academic and professional caliber from countries in Asia who study science, medicine, mathematics, and other academic disciplines.

Internet users around the world face security and privacy threats from governments, service providers, and advertisers whose capabilities have grown manifold in recent years, Reethika says. Her investigations into emerging information control techniques revealed that network operators could easily employ deep packet inspection technology to examine the traffic that passes through their networks. 

In response, many users turn to privacy-enhancing technologies such as virtual private networks (VPNs) to keep their activities and information safe. But despite being a multibillion-dollar industry, she says, the VPN ecosystem remains severely understudied. Reethika and her collaborators work to bridge this gap with the VPNalyzer project, and as a part of these efforts, built a multi-platform desktop tool with a test-suite of 15 measurements of a VPN’s functionality. Using this tool, they found several previously unreported findings highlighting key issues and implementation shortcomings in the VPN ecosystem, including DNS and IPv6 leaks, data leaks during tunnel failure, and more.

“My team and I created the VPNalyzer project to bring rigor to the technical investigation of commercial VPNs,” says Reethika.

The team also conducted a survey of 1,200 VPN users and nine VPN providers to answer fundamental questions about the ecosystem, and the misalignments between user expectations and what the technology can actually deliver. Reethika put forward actionable recommendations for improving and securing the ecosystem as an outcome of this empirical study. Her work has been covered in over 90 global news outlets, and her collaboration with Consumer Reports and the resulting report has been cited by elected officials urging the FTC to call for regulation in the VPN ecosystem.

“The Barbour Scholarship grants me the opportunity to use the upcoming year to expand the impact of my work and focus on the final piece of my dissertation,” Reethika says.

After her PhD, Reethika plans to continue her research on creating tools for systematic, automated investigations of existing privacy-enhancing technologies, and to work towards the improvement and development of the next-generation of these technologies.