Wear Sunscreen. Better Yet, Set Secure Passwords

If Prof.  Ankit Gangwal could offer you only one tip for the future, secure passwords would be it. Lover of conspiracy theories, web-series binge watcher and recreational jogger, this 31-year-old faculty at the Centre for Security, Theory and Algorithmic Research (CSTAR) intends to leave no digital footprint of his personal information. In a candid chat, he reveals his reasons behind the cyber paranoia. 

Remember Orkut, the pre-Facebook online medium of making ‘fraandships’? At the time when others were bragging about the number of profile views and visitors to their page, a teenaged Ankit Gangwal wasn’t so impressed. “To me, it was an invasion of my privacy. Why should everybody have access to my photos? It started there,” he smiles. What began as quiet misgivings about “a business model that didn’t make sense” to him eventually led to a formal career probing the aftermath of digital footprints one leaves. Prof. Gangwal is now a well-known researcher and professor of cybersecurity and digital privacy.

Viva Vienna!
For someone who did not have lofty career goals to begin with, Prof. Gangwal’s resume stands out for various research positions previously held at Italy, Netherlands, and the US of A. Like most others, getting a good placement ranked high on his agenda upon completion of his BTech. But after a few years of being in a comfortable job, he began to realise the importance of a higher education. “At the bachelor’s level, given that the internet had not  reached the masses so much then, we only had a brief introduction to the world of Computer Science. I was motivated to go back and resume my studies in order to learn more about it.” With his initial inquisitiveness on ethical hacking and privacy being vetted during the Master’s degree at NIT Jaipur, a PhD seemed like a natural trajectory to be on. He established contact with Dr. Mauro Conti, an expert in the area of security and privacy at the University of Padua, Italy and flew there for a 3-year contract. “Unlike other places, where there’s an infinite loop, I wanted to complete my PhD as soon as possible. The fixed tenure plus a renowned international figure as my supervisor made me opt for Europe.” Interestingly, the PhD was multidisciplinary in nature requiring him to delve into human psychology, and the intricacies of the human brain alongside Computer Science. A postdoctoral fellowship at TU Delft, Netherlands and a Visiting Research Scholarship under Prof. Giuseppe Ateniese at the Stevens Institute of Technology, USA helped in cementing the focus on cyber security. “Prof. Ateniese is one of the leading cryptographers in the world,” says Prof. Gangwal, adding that he was really fortunate to work with him.

Digital Dark Underbelly 
If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, you would know that it raises uncomfortable questions about the social media industry and exposes its machinations of manipulating user behaviour. “I pondered about those same questions 10 years ago and in fact that was my motivation to jump into this field,” says Prof. Gangwal. It’s this inquisitiveness that he encourages in his classroom discussions with students. For a social media-obsessed Gen Z, getting them to question the very intent behind the platforms they thrive on, is far from easy. “I tell my students that some wise people have said there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you’re not paying for the product, then you *are* the product. My goal is to inform young minds and make them aware of the pros and cons of an online presence. After that, it’s their personal choice. What decision they take is up to them,” he says.

Points To Ponder
When you type in “Ankit Gangwal” in a search engine, apart from a listing of his own home page and Google Scholar citations, it throws up just a couple of  images of the professor. “The minimal online presence is deliberate,” he states. “ I prefer not being recorded or taken pictures of to prevent potential misuse.” He mentions deep fakes, a new-age tech that uses images obtained off the internet which are then used to create convincingly realistic-looking video hoaxes. But why look so far? “Your instant messaging app’s profile picture which you innocuously change every now and then is visible to people – from the doodhwala to the tailoring aunty – whoever has your phone number. And even if I don’t have your number, I can plug in the first few digits, say, 98290 and begin with 00000, 00001, 00002 and so on, until I chance upon your number and your image! This is mostly due to the fact that many of us take privacy settings lightly.” Calling it a cat and mouse game, Prof. Gangwal says that as a security researcher, one always has to be on top of things and innovating solutions because no sooner a new solution is found than threats to compromising it arise. How then to prevent data and identity theft? “Since we easily recall things that we relate to or that are relevant to us, we automatically use such information while setting passwords. From birthdates to the name of the first primary school attended to the number plate of the swanky new car you recently purchased and posted about – all of this is unwittingly available online; even for any unethical usage. One needs to strike the right balance between convenience (in terms of easy recall) and security.”

Campus & Community
Attracted by the IIITH ethos that encourages research among faculty with a minimal teaching load, Prof. Gangwal now calls Hyderabad his home. “The good thing about IIITH is that there is no orthodox boundary between juniors and seniors. You are free and independent to develop your own research group.” With a bunch of students working with him who are well on their way to publishing impressive papers, his immediate plan is to start a dedicated research group for cyber security and privacy. The goal is to disseminate awareness about maintaining a subdued online presence and setting strong passwords. The latter, he indicates was tricky in the case of his own parents, who like most others from their generation find it more convenient to write down their passwords. “You will always be a child to them, so they won’t listen to you! Besides, they’re quick to retort ‘There’s anyway no money in that account’ and so on”, he laughs and shakes his head. Expressing a desire to see demand for experts in this field on the rise, Prof. Gangwal signs off with, “Typically, campus placement offers are made for beachyspharmacy.com software developers. Hardly anyone comes to recruit cyber security professionals. I want to change that despite knowing it is far from easy.”

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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