Stanford Internet Observatory Seeks to Detect Internet Abuse in Real Time

press release photo rod searceyforweb Alex Stamos, director of the Internet Observatory, and Renée DiResta, the program's new research manager. Photo: Rod Searcey

$5 million gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies will support new program, led by computer security expert Alex Stamos

Massive volumes of data and content continue to exponentially expand across the internet, and the ability to examine the negative impacts of tech on society has not kept pace. The Internet Observatory, a new program at Stanford University, aims to tackle this problem by providing researchers with cutting-edge analytics and machine-learning resources.

A $5 million gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies will support the recruitment of a team of nearly a dozen people who have the skills and industry experience that are relevant to the Observatory’s research goals.

Part of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, the Observatory is a cross-disciplinary initiative comprised of research, teaching and policy engagement addressing the abuse of today’s information technologies, with a particular focus on social media. This includes the spread of disinformation, cybersecurity breaches, and terrorist propaganda.

“We are developing a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science education, and our research discoveries will lead to trainings and policy innovations to serve the public good,” said Alex Stamos, Program Director of the Internet Observatory, a research scholar at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution and formerly the chief security officer at Facebook. “This gift from Craig Newmark will help make this curriculum a reality by allowing us to bring in diverse and innovative talent.”

“The strength of our democracy depends on ensuring that all people have access to accurate information,” said Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. “The Internet Observatory has a vision for a trustworthy Web, and I’m proud to support their mission-critical work to grapple with disinformation and other ways that bad actors use tech against the common good.”

The Internet Observatory’s new course, “Trust & Safety Engineering,” will be taught for the first time during Stanford’s fall 2019 academic quarter in the Computer Science department. It will introduce the ways in which consumer internet services are abused to cause real human harm, as well as provide potential operational, product and engineering responses.

“There are many potential uses for machine learning to keep people safe online, but this is something that is often missing from the conversation,” said Stamos. “You hear that a company took down 500 accounts belonging to a certain group that spreads disinformation, but don’t hear what we can learn from their operations so that we can do better in the future. Our research platform and courses at Stanford intend to bridge that gap.”

Stamos’s popular “HackLab” course, which combines lectures with hands-on learning, will also be offered at Stanford this fall. Targeted at students who do not have a computer science background, HackLab gives an understanding of the most common types of attacks that are used in cybercrime and cyberwarfare, with the goal of bringing more diverse people and skills into the field.

Renée DiResta, a 2019 Mozilla Fellow in Media, Misinformation and Trust, will serve as the program’s first research manager. As a Mozilla Fellow, DiResta investigates the spread of malign narratives across social networks, and assists policymakers in understanding and responding to this threat. Stamos and DiResta recently introduced this new program at “Securing Our Cyber Future: Innovative Approaches to Digital Threats,” an event hosted at Stanford.

Among the Internet Observatory’s first policy goals is to deliver recommendations on how to jointly protect the 2020 U.S. presidential election to Congress and the major technology firms. The Observatory also plans to provide overviews of critical elections around the world, complete with descriptions of the capabilities that are available to potential bad actors and information on how the public, media and technology companies should prepare to meet these threats.

The Stanford Internet Observatory is a program of the Cyber Policy Center, which is based at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the university’s premier research institute for the study of international affairs.