“We study the Internet like other people study nature”
Florian Tschorsch holds the first of 50 professorships at the newly established Einstein Center Digital Future.
Jun 16, 2017
“Computer science is often tightly focused on technical issues, but the effects of information technology go much further,” says Florian Tschorsch. The 31-year-old computer scientist is the first professor to be appointed at the new Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF), which opened this April and where researchers from various disciplines will address questions relating to digitalization. “What I see as important is looking at issues that are relevant to society as a whole and take in not just the technology involved, but the implications as well,” says Tschorsch, who was appointed by Technische Universität Berlin. Responsibility in computer science, Tshorsch says, means being aware of complex social interdependencies and having due regard for consequences as well as technical feasibility.
This is likewise the approach taken by the ECDF, which is equipped with 38.5 million euros in funding and is located in Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse as part of the Robert Koch Forum. The center was launched as a joint effort by the Berlin universities together with eight non-university consortium partners. As professor of distributed security infrastructures (DSIs), Florian Tschorsch will look among other things into systems such as Tor – a network for anonymizing connection data – and the online currency, Bitcoin.
“It’s impossible to create a recipe for security online.”
Tschorsch gained a degree in computer science and cultural studies in Düsseldorf and completed his doctorate last year at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. His thesis dealt with anonymous communication online as used in the Tor network. “Tor allows people to use the Internet as anonymously as possible,” he explains. Tor is used – among others – by whistleblowers and journalists to pass on information without third parties listening in. “The desire to use the Internet securely always involves competing and conflicting requirements,” says Tschorsch. People want pages to load quickly while staying secure and protecting their privacy. Tschorsch plans to address this conflict in the next semester with a lecture on network security at Technische Universität Berlin. “It’s impossible to create a recipe for security online. We have to look at the limits to protection and learn how best to analyze security gaps. No system is watertight.”
Tschorsch and his colleagues at the Einstein Center Digital Future aim in what is initially a six-year project to find out how digitalization develops, how it works, and what are its implications. They also target increasing public visibility for their findings. Tschorsch sees evidence of a need for communication in this regard in examples such as the global espionage practices revealed by ex-CIA agent Edward Snowden. “The surveillance mechanisms that Snowden revealed were not a surprise in terms of their technical feasibility,” says Tschorsch. “The surprising part was more the systematic nature and the scale of the surveillance – that there is a whole surveillance industry at work out there behind the scenes.”
This shows, he adds, how people use digital technology without general knowledge of how it works or of the risks involved. Tschorsch therefore sees a need for enhanced dialogue between researchers and the people who use technology. Going forward, Tschorsch wishes to establish the Einstein Center Digital Future as a point of contact for anyone interested in learning about the processes of digitalization and their implications. “I think it’s important to share our findings with the public in lectures and open events beginning in the near future.
The Internet: Complex as an Ecosystem
Even computer scientists are not quite sure how the Internet works, says Tschorsch, laughing. It is made up of so many individual components that it is hard to predict how they will interact. As an example, he cites the phenomenon of what is called Internet background noise. “You can visualize the Internet as a postal system. Sender A makes up a parcel with information, addresses it, and sends it to addressee B. If something goes wrong and the parcel can’t be delivered, it should have a timeout that makes it self-destruct,” says Tschorsch. “But we see data packets going round and round without an addressee. Why that happens and why, so to speak, communication attempts still continue to be made when nobody is communicating any more is something we so far know little about.”
Ultimately, he explains, research into the Internet ends up facing similar problems to research into complex natural structures like cells or ecosystems. “We formulate a hypothesis, design experiments, and do measurements. And the results are often surprising. We study the Internet like other people study nature.”
Tschorsch sees a great opportunity in the fact that the ECDF is set up as a large-scale project funded on a public-private partnership basis. Funders such as the German Federal Printing Office and the Berlin water utility have no influence on the research. However, such partnerships facilitate exchange between research and practical application. “That enables us to infer new research questions from practice and do research based on real-world problems.”