Mazurek and Akgul Win Distinguished Paper Award at USENIX

Published August 11, 2023

news story image

A University of Maryland-led team recently received a distinguished paper award for delving into the challenges faced by bug bounty hunters—ethical hackers who discover and report vulnerabilities or bugs to a platform’s developer.

The researchers, which includes a graduate student and the director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center (MC2), were honored at the 32nd USENIX Security Symposium. The event, which was held August 9–⁠⁠11 in Anaheim, California, brings together researchers, practitioners, system administrators, and programmers interested in the latest advances in the security and privacy of computer systems and networks.

The paper, “Bug Hunter’s Perspectives on the Challenges and Benefits of the Bug Bounty Ecosystem,” seeks to understand the difficulties that individuals in bug-bounty programs must navigate. First spearheaded by Netscape in 1995, many companies—including Google and Apple—and governmental agencies now run bug-bounty programs. When the ecosystem functions well, bug bounties have the potential to improve the security posture of organizations—commercial or governmental—at a low cost.

The researchers found communication problems, such as unresponsiveness and disputes, are most likely to discourage bug hunters. They offer recommendations to make the bug-bounty ecosystem more accommodating and ultimately increase participation in an underutilized market.

The award-winning team is comprised of Omer Akgul, lead author and a seventh-year Ph.D. student; Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science and director of MC2; Daniel Votipka, an assistant professor of computer science at Tufts University who received his Ph.D. from UMD in 2020; and researchers from Pennsylvania State University, University of Houston, Technical University of Munich, and University of California, Berkeley.

Graduate student Danesh Sivakumar, undergraduate Jack Burg, recent Ph.D. graduate Kevin Bock, and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dave Levin won the Best Practical Award at the workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet for their study on evading censorship in China.

Their paper, “How the Great Firewall of China Detects and Blocks Fully Encrypted Traffic,” measures and characterizes the Great Firewall of China’s (GFW) new system for censoring fully encrypted traffic. The researchers’ understanding of the GFW’s new censorship mechanism helps them derive several practical circumvention strategies. They responsibly disclosed their findings and suggestions to the developers of different anti-censorship tools, helping millions of users successfully evade this new form of blocking.

Three additional papers by MC2 researchers were presented at USENIX and the 19th Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS), a co-located conference, contain qualitative studies of interviews with privacy and security challenges faced by various groups—including library IT staff, professional product reviewers, and teenagers using virtual reality (VR).

The other MC2-affiliated papers are:

“How Library IT Staff Navigate Privacy and Security Challenges and Responsibilities” presents 12 interviews with library IT staff members regarding their privacy and security protocols and policies, the challenges they face implementing them, and how this all relates to their patrons. They discovered that the participants are primarily concerned with protecting their patrons’ privacy from threats outside their walls, such as police and government authorities and third parties, and occasionally from other patrons who also use the devices. MC2-affiliated authors are Alan F. Luo (lead author), Noel Warford (lead author), Samuel Dooley and Michelle Mazurek.

“The Role of Professional Product Reviewers in Evaluating Security and Privacy” shares insights from 17 interviews with product reviewers about their procedures, incentives and assumptions regarding security and privacy on Internet-connected devices and software. They found that while reviewers have incentives to consider security and privacy, they face significant disincentives and challenges, including audience disinterest, lack of expertise, potentially unreliable assumptions, and a dearth of effective and usable tools for evaluation. MC2-affiliated authors are Wentao Guo (lead author), Jason Walter and Michelle Mazurek.

“An Investigation of Teenager Experiences in Social Virtual Reality from Teenagers’, Parents’, and Bystanders’ Perspectives” presents an interview study with 24 participants—eight teenagers, seven parents and nine bystanders—to understand how they perceive threats and the mitigation strategies they employ. The team uncovered several safety threats that teenagers may face, such as virtual grooming, ability-based discrimination, unforeseeable threats in privacy rooms, and more. Their findings provide a better understanding of the risks teens face in social VR, and offer insights to design safer and more fulfilling experiences. The MC2-affiliated author is Julio Poveda (paper appeared at SOUPS).

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld, UMIACS communications group