Roya Ensafi selected for Sloan Research Fellowship

Sloan Research Fellowships recognize distinguished performance and unique potential to make substantial research contributions.
Roya Ensafi
Prof. Roya Ensafi

Roya Ensafi, a Morris Wellman Faculty Development Professor at the University of Michigan, has been selected for a 2023 Sloan Research Fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for her work on internet privacy and censorship.

The Sloan Research Fellowships seek to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise.  These two-year fellowships are awarded yearly to 126 researchers in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.

Ensafi’s research focuses on Internet security and privacy, with the goal of creating techniques and systems to better protect users online. She is particularly passionate about online censorship, geo-discrimination, surveillance, and related threats to Internet freedom. Much of her work has focused on designing techniques to detect and defend against adversaries who manipulate Internet traffic in order to block, monitor, or tamper with users’ online activities.

Most recently, Ensafi has led development of VPNalyzer, a tool for crowdsourced investigation of commercial VPNs. The VPNalyzer tool was used by Consumer Reports, a leading consumer research and advocacy organization, as the first line of systematic investigation to evaluate a set of popular VPNs. Ensafi and her team worked closely with CR journalists  to produce a recent series of articles that have been read by millions of people, including Should You Use a VPN? and VPN Testing Reveals Poor Privacy and Security Practices, Hyperbolic Claims. Most recently other research on VPN has earned the USENIX/Meta Internet Defense Prize and USENIX Best Paper Award.

Ensafi also leads the Internet Splintering Project, which has begun investigating how the features of a user’s Internet connection such as their geolocation or IP address can affect their experience online, what is causing this differentiation, and what can be done about it.

Ensafi is the founder of Censored Planet, a global censorship observatory that provides continuous data about the reachability of thousands of sensitive websites from more than 221 countries. In partnership with Google Jigsaw, Ensafi and her team launched a cloud-based data analysis pipeline and a visualization dashboard, facilitating the use of Censored Planet data by more than 100 organizations spanning research and human rights advocacy. Some of her research team’s high profile rapid response investigations include Russia’s throttling of Twitter, HTTPS interception in Kazakhstan, and China’s Great Cannon attack, among many other instances of network interference. 

Ensafi is a recipient of a Google Faculty Research Award, an NSF Research Initiation Initiative award, and the Consumer Reports Digital Lab fellowship. Her work has been cited in popular publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, Business Insider, Wired, and Ars Technica. Last year, she was invited by the White House to speak on “democracy-affirming technology” at President Biden’s Summit for Democracy.