Student Supervision

I am always interested in welcoming new people and hearing about new ideas. There are plenty of opportunities for interested students and researchers to come and work with me and the rest of the research team at the Citizen Lab.  I outline the main categories below and provide some details on these opportunities.

Please note that because of the volume of requests I get, I cannot engage in extensive evaluations of proposals or discussions of research topics with individual students until they are accepted into one of the programs / opportunities outlined below.  Please read the following carefully before reaching out to me.

Please also take a look at Main Thematic Research Areas at the end of this post, as I only entertain supervision for students willing to work on projects that build upon topics in one of these main thematic areas.

Graduate Students (Masters and Doctoral)

I am a cross appointed faculty member in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, which means that my primary supervision responsibilities are in the area of political science and, broadly speaking, global studies.  I have tended to supervise mostly International Relations doctoral students interested in some aspect of information and communication technologies.  However, I am also open to supervising and sitting on the committees of students in other areas, such as comparative politics.  

Given the unorthodox nature of my research, I have also helped supervise or sat on the committees of doctoral students outside of political science, including computer science, law, and engineering.  However, I am not a trained lawyer, computer scientist or engineer and would prefer to serve in an auxiliary capacity when it comes to those areas.

We have limited space for and occasionally welcome visiting doctoral (and postdoctoral) students who come from different universities and have their own funds for short-term stays, as long as they are doing work related to one of our main thematic research areas and have a clear scope of work.  We post our own post-doctoral opportunities on the website of the Citizen Lab as they come available. Check back there often if you’re interested and fit the bill.

My engagement with masters students is focused on the Masters in Global Affairs (MGA) Program at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.  I teach a course in the winter term each year, called GLA2010H: The Geopolitics of Cyberspace. Note that this course is restricted to MGA students only, and I am unable to make any exceptions.

Undergraduate Students 

My engagement with undergraduate students is through the course I teach, Pol. 106H: Contemporary Challenges to Democracy: Democracy in the Social Media Age. Note: because of COVID, this course will be offered entirely online for the 2021 term.

I do occasionally supervise senior theses and independent reading courses — but rarely, and no more than one per semester.   Unfortunately we do not have volunteer positions at the Citizen Lab for undergraduate students, but I occasionally hire undergraduates as research assistants.  Any research assistant positions are advertised on the Citizen Lab website.  

There is an endowed award, called the “Citizen Lab Award” that is awarded by the Department of Political Science to a student who has taken a political science course. The award includes a generous cash prize in exchange for working as an intern in the Citizen Lab for the summer.  We will give this award to a student who successfully completes Pol. 106H.

Postdoctoral Fellows

We do have dedicated post doctoral fellowship, and I am pleased to host and supervise postdoctoral fellows, and have done so for students from computer science, law, engineering sciences, and political science, who come with their own funds (e.g., a SSHRC or NSERC postdoctoral fellowship).  The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Toronto also has an advertised post doctoral fellowship program.

For all postdoctoral fellows, I would only consider hosting and supervising students whose interests fall within one of our main thematic areas (see below), and who will come prepared to help lead Citizen Lab research and tutor junior scholars and researchers.  We expect postdoctoral fellows to show leadership around advancing one of our main project areas.

Other Fellowships

 Interested students and others should check the Citizen Lab website for deadlines and opportunities for fellowship opportunities.

Main Thematic Areas

I supervise students whose work intersects with the current research priorities of the Citizen Lab (which naturally are my own too!).  Presently, the main thematic areas are listed below.  I’m especially interested in having students from the social sciences who can integrate their research into these thematic areas:

Comparative Analysis of National-Level Information Controls (Network Monitoring)

This area is primarily about information controls at a national level — e.g., Internet censorship and surveillance.  Citizen Lab work includes developing new tools and methods for network measurement, analyzing Internet filtering systems, and correlating network interference with political events (e.g., elections, protests, conflicts, etc).  We were part of the OpenNet Initiative for over ten years, and as part of that research undertook comparative analyses of information controls in more than 70 countries. A byproduct of this research is the use of network measurement and scanning techniques to fingerprint the vendors of commercial surveillance, content filtering, deep-packet inspection, and other products and services. We also evaluate laws, policies, and norms related to the topics outlined above, on national and comparative bases.  Students who are interested in understanding practices, norms, laws, and technologies around information controls at a national level would find a lot to build upon in this area.  Citizen Lab works with a network of researchers in the global South, which means that we have good partnerships with groups in those regions and good insight into the situations in the developing world.  I am very interested in students working in comparative developing politics who are interested in better understanding practices and policies around cyber security in the global South, in failed and fragile states, and among authoritarian regimes or countries transitioning in and out of democracy.

Examples:

Bill Marczak, Jakub Dalek, Sarah McKune, Adam Senft, John Scott-Railton, and Ron Deibert. “Bad Traffic: Sandvine’s PacketLogic Devices Used to Deploy Government Spyware in Turkey and Redirect Egyptian Users to Affiliate Ads?,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 107, University of Toronto, March 2018.

Jakub Dalek, Lex Gill, Bill Marczak, Sarah McKune, Naser Noor, Joshua Oliver, Jon Penney, Adam Senft, and Ron Deibert. “Planet Netsweeper,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 108, University of Toronto, April 2018.

Bill Marczak (Lead), Nicholas Weaver (Lead), Jakub Dalek, Roya Ensafi, David Fifield, Sarah McKune, Arn Rey, John Scott-Railton, Ronald Deibert, Vern Paxson,
China’s Great Cannon,” Citizen Lab Research Brief No. 52, April 2015. [Download PDF]

Targeted espionage against civil society

This research area focuses on investigating politically motivated targeted malware and other digital attack campaigns against civil society. This area of research includes reverse engineering malware, mapping attack infrastructure, tracking malware development, and linking contextual information to technical data through investigative research techniques and structured focused interviews.  We are interested in better understanding the threat environment facing civil society organizations in the digital arena, especially as their adversaries become better equipped with surveillance and spyware tools. This area can involve exceptionally rigorous technical work (e.g., reverse engineering malware and mapping command and control infrastructure) but can also lend itself well to research that examines the political context around such attacks, the legal and regulatory environment around the control of surveillance technologies, structured focused interviews around specific targeted communities and their responses or defences to attacks, risk mitigation, and evidence of psycho-social harms.

Examples:

John Scott-Railton, Adam Hulcoop, Bahr Abdul Razzak, Bill Marczak, Siena Anstis, and Ron Deibert. “Dark Basin: Uncovering a Massive Hack-For-Hire Operation,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 128, University of Toronto, June 2020.

Bill Marczak, Adam Hulcoop, Etienne Maynier, Bahr Abdul Razzak, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, John Scott-Railton, and Ron Deibert. “Missing Link: Tibetan Groups Targeted with 1-Click Mobile Exploits,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 123, University of Toronto, September 2019.

John Scott-Railton, Bill Marczak, Siena Anstis, Bahr Abdul Razzak, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, and Ron Deibert. “Reckless VII: Wife of Journalist Slain in Cartel-Linked Killing Targeted with NSO Group’s Spyware,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 117, University of Toronto, March 2019.

Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Adam Senft , Bahr Abdul Razzak, and Ron Deibert. “The Kingdom Came to Canada: How Saudi-Linked Digital Espionage Reached Canadian Soil,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 115, University of Toronto, October 2018.

Privacy and security of mobile apps and social media

Projects in this area include uncovering censorship and surveillance in popular applications and social media platforms (e.g, chat apps, microblogs, etc), and evaluating the privacy and security of popular consumer apps (e.g., browsers, fitness trackers, etc). We are particularly interested in widely used apps and platforms that are understudied by security researchers. The goal of this work is to help users make more informed decision about the technologies they use and better understand the way threat actors might exploit privacy and security flaws to track high risk users.  Students who are interested in researching how Internet intermediaries (e.g., mobile carriers, applications) affect information controls would find a lot to work with in this area. This area also lends itself well to national comparative analyses of Internet censorship and surveillance in the mobile arena.

Examples:

Jeffrey Knockel, Christopher Parsons, Lotus Ruan, Ruohan Xiong, Jedidiah Crandall, and Ron Deibert. “We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 127, University of Toronto, May 2020.

Bill Marczak and John Scott-Railton. “Move Fast and Roll Your Own Crypto: A Quick Look at the Confidentiality of Zoom Meetings,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 126, University of Toronto, April 2020.

Jeffrey Knockel and Ruohan Xiong. “(Can’t) Picture This 2: An Analysis of WeChat’s Realtime Image Filtering in Chats,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 122, University of Toronto, July 2019.

Christopher Parsons, Adam Molnar, Jakub Dalek, Jeffrey Knockel, Miles Kenyon, Bennett Haselton, Cynthia Khoo, and Ron Deibert. “The Predator in Your Pocket: A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 120, University of Toronto, June 2019.

Corporate and public transparency

Projects in this area include developing software platforms for empowering citizens to exercise their rights to data protection and access requests, and analyzing the systems, policies, and practices of telecommunication and Internet companies as it pertains to the handling and sharing of customer data.  We are especially interested in tracking state SIGINT practices, in Canada and abroad, as revealed by the Snowden disclosures and other sources of information.  I am presently supervising PhD students in political science who are exploring the impact of the Snowden disclosures on SIGINT practices, and the norms governing intelligence sharing among the FVEYs.  We are also presently developing out and expanding research on the Access My Info project to several jurisdictions outside North America, offering the first opportunity to analyze primary data on corporate data handling and sharing practices that arises from user requests.

Examples:

Petra Molnar and Lex Gill. “Bots at the Gate: A Human Rights Analysis of Automated Decision-Making in Canada’s Immigration and Refugee System,” Citizen Lab and International Human Rights Program (Faculty of Law, University of Toronto) Research Report No. 114, University of Toronto, September 2018.

Lex Gill, Tamir Israel, and Christopher Parsons. “Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 109, University of Toronto, May 2018.

Andrew Hilts, Christopher Parsons, and Masashi Crete-Nishihata. “Approaching Access: A Look at Consumer Personal Data Requests in Canada,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 106, University of Toronto, February 2018.

Lex Gill, Tamir Israel, and Christopher Parsons. “Government’s Defence of Proposed CSE Act Falls Short,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 105, University of Toronto, January 2018.

Disinformation and Digital Media

Disinformation and digital media is a new topic of interest for us at Citizen Lab. We are developing a dedicated team focusing on this area, and starting research around specific cases.

Examples:

Gabrielle Lim, Etienne Maynier, John Scott-Railton, Alberto Fittarelli, Ned Moran, and Ron Deibert. “Burned After Reading: Endless Mayfly’s Ephemeral Disinformation Campaign,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 118, University of Toronto, May 2019.

Adam Hulcoop, John Scott-Railton, Peter Tanchak, Matt Brooks, and Ron Deibert. “Tainted Leaks: Disinformation and Phishing with a Russian Nexus,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 92, University of Toronto, May 2017.