Towards a better Internet: Computer science professors receive largest research award from the European Research Council

December 12, 2013

The computer scientists held their own against about 450 other applications from all over Europe to approach our society's current challenges together.

This year, only a handful of research groups with internationally prominent scientists are receiving the highly renowned European award. The four professors named their research project "imPACT." The four capital letters represent the goals to which Michael Backes (Saarland University), Peter Druschel, Rupak Majumdar (both Max Planck Institute for Software Systems) and Gerhard Weikum (Max Planck Institute for Informatics) have devoted themselves. The goals are protecting users' privacy when publishing content on the Internet and participating in online communities, ensuring accountability of users and providers so misbehavior can be detected, enabling compliance of software and services with user expectations and assessing the trustworthiness of information and services that a user consumes. "So far we have no satisfactory solution for even one of these four topics. But these are essential properties for the Internet, which is used by two billion persons," says Michael Backes, professor of information security and cryptography at Saarland University and spokesperson of the project.

The Internet, originally developed for only a few million users, has grown into a global multimedia platform. Today, this platform is intensively used by billions of users, the entertainment industry, trading companies, and also for politics and education. "The structures of the Internet were not built for such a rapid growth. It was overwhelmed by its own success and now it is transforming into a giant kraken that threatens basic values of democracy. Thus, our privacy, data safety as well as our freedom of information and expression are in danger," warns Michael Backes, who also leads the Center for IT-Security, Privacy and Accountability (CISPA) in Saarbrücken. This competence center is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology.

It is rarely possible to protect one's own privacy on the Internet using state-of-the-art technologies. The user does not have a clear view of the consequences of his actions on the World Wide Web. Even for experts it is nearly impossible to move through the net anonymously and use it for the exchange of confidential information. "The NSA affair showed us all how easy it is to browse through enormous amounts of data for detailed information and to link personal data from completely divergent sources. It is not only easy for companies that want to find out about the personal interests and wishes of their customers. The intelligence services and criminal gangs are spying, too," explains Backes. As a result, he wants to devote himself mainly to the protection of privacy within the new research project.

His colleague Gerhard Weikum from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics researches reliable ways to test information from the Internet for validity. Currently, search engines are using their own, non-transparent mechanisms and it is frequently unclear how reliable a source really is. "The example of Bettina Wulff, former first lady of Germany, showed how false statements can show up only because millions of users search for such statements," Gerhard Weikum explains. Even companies can rarely ensure that all data they serve is trustworthy. Here begins the work of Rupak Majumdar from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems. He wants to establish that services respect user preferences, provider policies and legal mandates on the Internet (compliance). The realization of these rules can be guaranteed by mathematical proofs.

"Today, criminal users and providers can rarely be held accountable for their actions on the Internet. At the same time, users must keep the right to freely seek information inform and express themselves on the Internet, without fearing reprisal, discrimination and other disadvantages," says Peter Druschel, scientific director at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems. Thus, he wants to search for solutions for how responsibility for one's own actions in the Internet can be defined more clearly without becoming a transparent consumer and citizen. "Within our joint research project, we not only seek technical solutions, but work together with jurists, social scientists and economists to find new ways to secure basic democratic rights on the Internet", says Druschel.

According to Michael Backes, each of the four research goals is a mammoth task, since some of their goals conflict with each other. But the ERC Synergy Grant aims at taking advantage of synergies between different research areas and using them to explore new territory. "For example, it is very complex to enable privacy and anonymity on the Web, and simultaneously hold users accountable for their actions in case of intentional misconduct. Furthermore it is difficult to ascertain the reliability of data that was published anonymously," explains Michael Backes. Many of these question remain unsolved and will be the subject of their research in this project.
-end-
Press pictures are available here: http://www.uni-saarland.de/pressefotos

Information about the ERC Synergy Grant:http://www.eubuero.de/erc-synergy.htm

Questions can be addressed to:

Professor Michael Backes
Chair for Cryptography and Security
Center for IT Security, Privacy and Accountability (CISPA)
Phone: +49 681/302-3259
Email: backes(at)cs.uni-sb.de

Edited by:

Gordon Bolduan
Competence Center Computer Science Saarland
Phone: +49 681 302-70741
Email: bolduan(at)mmci.uni-saarland.de

Note for broadcast journalists: You can conduct a telephone interview with researchers from Saarland University in studio quality, via broadcast codec (IP connection with direct selection or via neutral point of the ARD 106813020001)

Saarland University

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