University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Information Technology Policy Seminar

When? Every other Wednesday @ 11 AM
Where? CS 140

Goal The goal of this seminar series is to present topics at the intersection of computer science, public policy, social science and law. Speakers will span technical and social science disciplines with topics like cryptocurrencies, Internet governance, censorship and surveillance. Interested members of the UMass or five colleges community are encouraged to attend.

Interested in speaking? Please contact Phillipa Gill: phillipa at

Current schedule: (check back as speakers are confirmed!)

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Sept. 7Jesse Sowell, Stanford CISAC
Epistemic Constructivism in Science and Technology Policy
Establishing institutions capable of credible knowledge assessment and policy advice has been a longstanding challenge, especially for areas of science and technology with potential for substantive impact on public, private, and social goods. Building on Haas’ (1992) work on epistemic communities, Sowell (2015) describes, explains, and evaluates the institutions created by operator communities to sustain numbering and routing integrity in the Internet’s infrastructure. Operational epistemic communities are institutions that create and sustain knowledge that can only be garnered from managing the uncertainties that arise in a live, complex engineering system. Credibility comes, perhaps counter-intuitively, from constructive conflict among sets of independent, and often competing, firms collaborating to sustain the integrity of a common infrastructure. It is important to make clear where, and under what circumstances, these actors are collaborating. Collaboration sustains a commonly managed infrastructure each depends on as a critical factor of input into their respective value propositions. Within the markets built atop this common platform, these very same actors compete fiercely. This work (1) draws on cases from Sowell (2015) and other science and technology domains to extend the notion of operational epistemic communities beyond the case of Internet operators and (2) develop the notion of epistemic constructivism as a theoretical construct for framing epistemic communities’ application of their policy relevant knowledge.

Highlighting norms, knowledge assessment, and rule making as a form of constructivism places it squarely in a known political framework and facilitates comparison to social constructivism, in particular its application to the politics of globalization. Analytically, the contrast highlights the novelty of this formulation of constructivism. Empirical cases will illustrate the challenges that lie along the spectrum from an “ideal form” of epistemic constructivism, how existing institutions function, and the influences of institutions rooted more closely to models of social constructivism. This work concludes by highlighting two political hazards distorting thus-far established modes of credible knowledge assessment: the particularistic threat of transnational social activism masquerading in the guise of benevolent technocracy and the threat of political capture on both ends of the spectrum.

Haas, P. M. (1992). Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination. International Organization, 46(1), 1.
Sowell, J. H. (2015). Finding Order in a Contentious Internet (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA, USA.
Sept. 12 Nicholas Weaver, ICSI
**Note: This talk will take place at 3PM in CS151**
Welcome to the Panopticon(s)
Quietly, almost without notice, our digital and physical worlds turned into a series of panopticons, a network of both private companies and governments intent on monitoring everything. They all have adopted a similar solution: Their objectives require the ability to target anybody (either for advertising or intelligence), yet as they don't know who they may wish to target at time of collection, they have chosen to collect data on everybody.

The tracking takes place in various forms, from elements and advertising on the page, to companies providing profiles and lists, to passive surveillance and active censorship of networks by governments and potentially criminals. These technologies are not purely passive but can also be used to exploit targets.

By building our own systems (or assigning them as homework), developing techniques to monitor and mitigate tracking, and participating as customers of private industry we can gain insights into how they work and the nearly invisible watchers affecting our modern world.

About the speaker: Nicholas Weaver received a B.A. in Astrophysics and Computer Science in 1995, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2003 from the University of California, Berkeley. Although his dissertation was on novel FPGA architectures, he also focused on computer security, including postulating the possibility of very fast computer worms in 2001. He joined the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) in 2003. His primary research focus is on network security, notably worms, botnets, surveillance, and other internet-scale attacks, and network measurement. Other areas have included both hardware acceleration and software parallelization of network intrusion detection, defenses for DNS resolvers, and tools for detecting ISP-introduced manipulations of a user's network connection.
Sept. 21No seminar.
Oct. 5No seminar.
Oct. 19 Jason Q. Ng, Data Analyst Tumblr; Research Fellow, Citizen Lab
A data-driven approach to researching censorship and sensitive conversations on social media

Like all nations, China has been profoundly affected by the emergence of the Internet, particularly new forms of social media which allow individuals themselves to be independent broadcasters of news. However the rise of "We Media" has also led to a corresponding rise in the filtering and blocking of online content in China. Identifying and explaining these disruptions comes with a host of challenges for researchers--ranging from technical ones like developing methodologies for tracking online censorship to non-technical ones like even defining what online censorship is.

In this talk, we'll look at a number of different ways online censorship can be defined as well as various data-driven techniques for revealing its occurrence in social media--as well as the various ways social media companies attempt to mask or justify it. However, just as important as identifying the mechanisms for how censorship is implemented is trying to understand the motivations for such behavior. Knowing both how and why online censorship occurs is key for not only academic researchers who hope to better understand content moderation and filtering practices, but it is essential information for the activists, journalists, and advocates who utilize such findings in their work.

About the speaker: Jason Q. Ng is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, Data Analyst at Tumblr, and author of Blocked on Weibo, a book on Chinese social media. He is also a research consultant at China Digital Times where he develops censorship monitoring tools and teaches a digital activism course at Columbia SIPA. His writing and research projects can be found at
Nov. 4

Note that this seminar is happening on Friday Nov. 4 in CS150/151 at noon and will be cross posted with the CSSI seminar

Mass Hacking and the New Transparency
Jon Penney, Oxford Internet Institute

Wikileaks, DCleaks, and a host of other examples of mass hacking in recent times, have made headlines around the world, offering insights into politics and public policy impossible to attain under traditional access to information / freedom of information laws and similar transparency measures, while also exposing the private thoughts, personal information, and mundane life details of hundreds of innocent people caught up in the sweeping document dumps to mass privacy violations. This radical new transparency into American politics and media, inevitably raises a range of questions and complex legal, ethical, and public policy challenges, such as when is mass hacking and reports on its leaks legal and ethical (and when should it be)? Is this radical transparency the new normal and, if so, how did we get here and where are we going? Drawing on law, hacker culture (and its history), and present and past information conflicts, this talk will aim to offer insights on these and other questions, including the legal/historical origins of the mass hacking phenomenon, its implications for privacy and democracy in the Post-Snowden world, and ideas on how this new paradigm’s excesses may be addressed.

Bio: Jon Penney is a lawyer, doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford (Balliol College), and a research fellow at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. A recent Fellow and then Affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Jon’s interdisciplinary doctoral research explores regulatory chilling effects online and is affiliated with the Takedown Project, a research collective studying online intermediary regulatory systems globally, based at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law and Columbia University's American Assembly. Jon has also spent time as a Google Policy Fellow at the Citizen Lab and has taught law in both Canada and the U.K. His research, more generally, concerns human rights and information law and policy (and its history), particularly where these areas intersect with privacy, censorship, and security.

Nov. 16No seminar!
Dec. 2 How traffic shaping can be used to evade oversight for Internet surveillance 
Sharon Goldberg, Boston University

Note that this seminar is happening on Friday Dec. 2 in CS150/151 at noon and will be cross posted with the CSSI seminar

The talk considers that possibility that the protections for Americans built into in U.S. surveillance law can be circumvented by exploiting the Internet's protocols.

We start with a look at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which roughly regulates surveillance on US soil. We then describe Executive Order (EO) 12333, which roughly regulates surveillance abroad. Surveillance under EO 12333 is subject to fewer legal restraints than surveillance under FISA.   We therefore consider the possibility that FISA can be circumvented by collecting traffic abroad under EO 12333.

First, we discuss why U.S. persons Internet traffic might *naturally* flow abroad, where it can be swept up as part of bulk surveillance programs under EO 12333. 

Second, we discuss the possibility that Internet technologies can be exploited to*deliberately* redirect traffic from inside the US to abroad.  The NSA uses the term *traffic shaping* to describe the redirection of traffic for any purpose. Can traffic shaping lawfully be used to redirect Internet traffic from inside the U.S. onto foreign soil so that it can be collected under EO 12333?  Given the classified nature of many surveillance programs and surveillance laws, it is impossible to know exactly what the intelligence community is doing with its traffic-shaping capabilities.  However, we present a possible interpretation of the law that suggests that traffic shaping might be regulated entirely by the permissive EO 12333 regime.

We conclude by with an argument in a favor of more robust legal protections for Internet traffic collected on foreign soil. 

About the speaker Sharon Goldberg is an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Boston University, and a member of the BU Security Group. She uses tools from theory (cryptography, game-theory, algorithms) and networking (measurement, modeling, and simulation) to understand the hurdles practitioners face when deploying new security technologies, and to develop solutions that surmount them.
Dec. 14

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