Alejandro Russo, a researcher at Chalmers, is part of a team at Stanford that is developing solutions to protect the integrity and confidentiality of data in modern computer systems.From left to right PhD student Sergio Benitez, PhD student Amit Levy, Alejandro Russo, PhD student - David Terei. Photo: Private.
Holiday photos and login information. Everything is collected and saved. Quick and easy. When functionality takes priority over safety, however, integrity is jeopardized and personal information can be spread over the Internet. Alejandro Russo, a researcher at Chalmers, is part of a team at Stanford that is developing solutions to protect the integrity and confidentiality of data in modern computer systems.
Alejandro Russo is temporarily back in Gothenburg to advise students, amongst other things. He stops short at the coffee machine. "Is that your mobile phone," he asks, and points to the table where a colleague has left his phone
while taking care of his coffee cup. He takes a serious approach to safety, but still uses various functions on the Internet such as when he pays bills. He also accepts requests from apps for access to pictures. However, he is not happy that all of the functionality provided by smartphones might jeopardize his integrity and private life. "That is why I am trying to find a solution for the problem," he says.
Functionality vs. private life
He is a researcher at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Software Technology division. His research specialization is safety for both server systems and web browsers. No one would be willing to give his or her unlocked mobile phone to a stranger – specifically because of the amount of personal information stored on it. At the same time, though, you often give programmers, who you have never met and do not know, access to your personal data every time you install an app.
"You prioritize functionality over privacy," says Alejandro Russo.
Programmers who build web pages and implement online services make mistakes – this is not surprising given the complexity of such pieces of software.
"The question is what type of technology we can build to help programmers avoid errors which might lead to the compromise of private data, so that no data is made available to unauthorized parties”, says Alejandro Russo.
Solutions to safeguard privacy
Alejandro Russo and his colleagues in the Secure Computer Systems Group at Stanford, lead by Professor David Mazières, have produced two solutions, Hails and COWL, which are based on several years of basic research. Hails pertains to constructing web servers in a secure manner. COWL is a small modification for the Firefox and Chrome web browsers which functions as a guardian for integrity and private data stored and handled by web browsers. COWL will raise an alarm when users' private information or integrity is at risk.
Alejandro Russo and the rest of the team want to use Hail and COWL to build a safer Internet, protecting users’ privacy and integrity.
"When something private runs the risk of being leaked, we alert the user or the web developer. If it is possible to check where information goes, you can also safeguard privacy."
Cooperation of many years
The exchange between Stanford and Chalmers has been in place for many years. Alejandro Russo was invited to work with Stanford Professor David Mazière's team back in 2011. There were a few trips back and forth between Gothenburg, Silicon Valley and Stanford. When he was offered the chance to stay a longer period of time, he accepted.He is now at his second time as Visiting Associate Professor at Stanford and will be there for a whole year, ending in September 2015.
The technology-intensive environment at Stanford and the close contact with companies and start-ups in Silicon Valley are very inspirational. There is a flip side to San Francisco, however. Rents. A shortage of housing pushes up rent.
"It is insane. People with well-paid jobs at Google, for example, still have to share a flat with someone to be able to afford the rent," he says.
Thanks to the scholarship from the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, he was able to find good housing in the Inner Sunset area, close to the Golden Gate park.
"I would not be able to afford a flat for my wife and me without the scholarship."
Curious about business world
His time at Stanford has given him a new outlook on how research results can be presented. Alejandro Russo says there is a great deal of talk about impact at Stanford in terms of what impact the research results will have, and who and how many will be interested in the results. It is also a matter of getting the research presented at various conferences – where competition is extremely stiff. As an example, Alejandro Russo is a co-author in an article presented at the USENIX Operating Systems Design and Implementation (OSDI) conference, where COWL was presented. Out of 218 articles, only 18 per cent were selected to be presented at the conference. Presenting at a conference of this calibre is good in terms of getting new contacts in both academia and the business world.
Spending time at Stanford and in Silicon Valley has brought forth ideas about getting the research results out into the market where they can benefit society.
"It will be interesting to see what opportunities exist," he says.
Text: Ellen Andersson
Visiting Associate Professor Alejandro Russo in the middle with his team: PhD student Sergio Benitez, PhD student Amit Levy, and PhD student David Terei. Photo:Private.