Shehar Bano made it possible to fight state censorship of the internet—by pioneering the first systematic study of how it happens.
It all started when Bano’s homeland of Pakistan blocked YouTube in 2012. “Previously, people were under the delusion that this was magic,” she says of the inner workings of such restrictions. But she wanted to understand—and defeat—them.
So Bano probed three years of ISP data from Pakistan, and she experimented with ways to circumvent China’s Great Firewall. What she found was a variety of relatively basic technical restrictions, such as censors looking for any request to load a specific website and then sending signals to both the website’s servers and the surfer’s browser to end the request. Understanding this let her devise ways around the restriction without resorting to encryption, like sending an initial, fake request that the censor would see but ignore because of a misspelling—allowing the real request to slip through in the meantime.
Bano not only analyzed online censorship; she also looked into how users of anonymization and security software like Tor and ad blockers are treated differently from unprotected surfers, whether that means a worse user experience or an outright ban.
Bano has joined a wave of computer scientists working to protect the freedom of online communication. As a postdoc at University College London, she’s increasingly working with blockchain-based systems, like the smart-contract platform Chainspace, to improve online security and transparency by allowing transactions that are difficult for outside parties to monitor.