MC2 Awards Seed Grants to Graduate Students Researching VPN Advertising and Digital Safety

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Three graduate students in the Maryland Cybersecurity Center (MC2) have been awarded seed grants to pursue research in security and privacy that has not yet been externally funded.

“It’s a validation that the work we’re conducting is relevant to security and privacy research in the eyes of MC2 faculty, some of the top researchers in the world,” says Omer Akgul, a sixth-year computer science doctoral student who studies the negative effects of virtual private network (VPN) advertising being vague and misleading.

He previously led a study that examined YouTube influencer marketing ads for VPNs, finding that they commonly discuss broad security guarantees and specific technical features, yet ultimately produce potentially misleading claims, including overpromises and exaggerations.

Akgul’s paper, “Investigating Influencer VPN Ads on YouTube,” was presented last year at the 43rd IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in San Francisco.

His co-authors included sixth-year computer science doctoral student Richard Roberts; former MC2 researcher Moses Namara, who is now at Meta; Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dave Levin; and Associate Professor of Computer Science Michelle Mazurek, who is also the director of MC2. Levin and Mazurek have dual appointments in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Both Akgul and Roberts were recently awarded seed grants to further explore misleading VPN advertisements. Akgul will use his $5,000 award to recruit participants for another study; while Roberts is using his $1,500 in funding to conduct interviews with content creators who advertise security and privacy products like VPNs and password managers.

During his interviews, Roberts hopes to learn how online sponsorship deals impact content creators, and eventually find ways that they can deliver positive messages to their viewers about the products they advertise.

“By learning about how creators balance community engagement, content creation and sponsors’ demands, we can find ways to limit harmful messaging from making its way into advertisements,” he explains.

Julio Poveda, a second-year computer science doctoral student, was awarded $500 to research how to best support survivors of domestic violence who face digital safety challenges.

“This funding will allow me to conduct a user study that seeks to better understand how survivors interact on social media,” Poveda says.

Postdocs and students who are active members of MC2 are eligible to apply for up to $5,000 in seed funding to conduct research that has not yet been externally funded. Applications are open three times a year, with deadlines in January, May and August.

—Story by Ethan Cannistra, UMIACS communications group

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