A Day at Google, Banglore, winning the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship 2012

Amongst 30 unread emails in my inbox, there was one about ‘Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship 2012’ application which I quickly opened and closed without really reading the content. I had heard about the scholarship before and knew that it was awarded to very few students; mostly from top-notch institutes like the IITs. There was no chance of me getting through, rather read the other emails I thought! But after a lot of persuasion from my father, I grumpily filled out the application form. The application asked for my academic details, achievements (I have a very few!) and a couple of essays, and it took me 8 long hours to complete it. Just a week after, the new semester started and I forgot all about the scholarship.

Around March end, I received a phone call from Google Office, and-voila! I had been declared a finalist for the scholarship and invited to their Banglore Office for a one-day conclave. And now, I was excited! Eager to see what happens at the conclave and hoping to get a lot of Google-goodies!

I arrived at Google Office on 20th April, and soon realized that it was going to be much more awesome than I had expected! The day kickstarted with a quick delicious breakfast followed by a talk by Yolanda Mangolini – the chief of Google Diversity Program. She talked about various opportunities and programs by Google which bring together people from across the globe and also help them to hold their identity in their own way. She briefly talked about the facilities and the work culture at Google, some of which was really amazing like the flexible work hours and the easy transition from one project to another. The next talk – ‘Making Magic at Google’ spawned over some of the most successful projects at Google and the journey of people involved in those projects. The next two talks were fairly technical – ‘Map Maker’ by Rachna Agarwal and ‘Android 4.0’ by Rajdeep Dua. Map Maker is one of the most brilliant and successful crowd-sourcing projects in which the native people of a place built the ‘geographical map’ of their region/country because there were no high quality satellite images available for those areas. This is how you actually see accurate Google maps for many places in India and countries like Pakistan. Rajdeep gave us some insightful tips on how to design a user friendly UI for mobile applications and some quick tips to build an Android application.

All the speakers encouraged us to ask questions and made their talks engaging in their own way, but what struck me the most about these Google researchers and engineers was the passion for their projects. The talks were followed by lunch at Google’s food court. There we got to talk with a lot of Google employees; we were free to roam around their offices and talk to just anybody! I had interesting chit-chat with a few people who told me about their projects, how they got into Google and what they plan next. Overall, it was quite a satisfying day till yet; little did we know that there was more to come!

Just after lunch was the ‘Icebreaker Session’. The 16 finalists were divided into four teams and each team was given a stick, cord and a ball and were asked to design and build an automated catapult in next one hour! We had to solve some puzzles like sudoku, crosswords and Soma cube to buy items to build the catapult. The team who could throw the ball farthest was to be declared the winner. Phew! The one-hour activity really showed us how important team-work is. Finally, our team won! After this, the last social activity of the day was a career panel discussion. On the panel were researchers and engineers we had interacted previously and HR – Keerthana Mohan. They gave us tips on how to achieve ones dream job/career. The discussion was less about Google and the speakers shared their experiences about PhD, work and pursuing research at industry.

The eventful day ended with the award distribution ceremony where they declared the winners. I was least expecting to get the award, and was taken aback with surprise when my name was announced. All of the participants at the conclave received a lot of Google goodies – much more than what I had expected!

The whole experience at Google was exhilarating. Interaction with other students at various institutes, talks by Google researchers, chit-chat sessions with other Google employees taught me a lot and was a very effective channel to know about various work being done at other places. I would highly encourage others to apply for this scholarship and try to attend the conclave.

Below is the pic of all the participants at the conclave (finalists).


My time at PreCog

When I first visited PreCog’s website, I was impressed not only by the exciting research being carried out but also by a small, recurring line found below each project, “If you are interested in knowing more or helping us with the research please write to pk [at] iiitd [dot] ac [dot] in”. There was a sense of approachability that you don’t normally see in research groups. So, I quickly sent out a mail to PK about internship opportunities and was pleasantly surprised to see a reply under 20 minutes. It oozed professionalism, genuine interest and a no-nonsense attitude, signs of things to expect from the group. Within a month of my correspondence, my application to join PreCog was accepted. A new place, new language, new people, I wondered if I would actually fit into the group. Having never been part of a “research lab” before, my imagination conjured up a dull boring dungeon filled with geeks and nerds without a social life sketching graphs, concocting equations and spitting code. Thankfully, I found PreCog to be very different, a vibrant cohesive group of really smart young people full of bright (and crazy) ideas! The transition to the group was completely seamless, aided by my mentor Anupama Aggarwal and the healthy group culture brewing here. The group members are like family, always willing to help and share. Once in PreCog, there is a very contagious bout of enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and confidence that quickly rubs off on you and gives you a sense of belonging here. Everyone knows what other members are researching on through weekly afternoon ‘What’s Up?’ meetings where idea-sharing, problem-sharing (and sometimes even lunch-sharing) take place! The members work on varied fields such as phishing, spam, social networks, access control etc., experimenting and constantly trying out exciting new ideas. I found that the members research on their topic of interest, limited only by their imagination while being guided (and not instructed) by PK. It gives a feeling of ownership and naturally, pride, to ultimately see YOUR idea flourishing. I also like that special focus is given to building usable software based on research conducted whenever possible, thus creating a real, measurable impact instead of limiting work to just publications. Ofcourse, Precog is not all research, development and publications. We have birthday parties, anniversary parties, celebration parties and even guys-only parties(\m/). 5 cakes and an amusement park outing in 4 months isn’t a bad count for a research group, right? There is plenty that I would take away from my time here, technically I gained a lot, understanding how to go about research, different techniques adopted, inferences that could be drawn etc., but what I didn’t anticipate is how PreCog would shape me personally, my thinking, outlook and confidence. It was a wonderful experience, something that I would certainly cherish and enjoy looking back.

Come back next month for more technical details into my research at PreCog.

PhishAri : Real-Time Phishing Detection on Twitter

We, at PreCog, not only do research but also try to build products based on our work for end-users. More often than not, developing scalable, real systems can be a challenging task; much more than just developing the underlying algorithm. It feels good to be part of a research group which has given me perspective to understand the need to create a bridge between research and real-world solutions. Here goes my first PreCog blog entry on one such product we (where I’m the lead) are developing, which aims to detect phishing on Twitter.

There has been a lot of research and publications on spam detection on online social media, but there do not exist many real-world products which use these intelligent solutions. When we started with detection of phishing on Twitter, we decided to build a real-time system for Internet users based on our research which we named – PhishAri. Before we move on to how we built PhishAri, any guesses on what the name means? Well, its a combination of two words – Phish + Ari. “Phish” stands for “phishing” in short and “Ari” means “enemy” in Sanskrit; PhishAri combats phishing by detecting phishing URLs spread through Twitter.

From our previous studies and some prior work in this area, we identified various features which we could use for phishing detection on Twitter. Some of these features include attributes of the URL, properties of the tweet and Twitter user who posts the tweet. We thought that the best way to reach out to most Internet users would be by using a browser extension. So, now after someone installs PhishAri browser extension, whenever he logs on to Twitter, he sees a small color-coded indicator in front of any URL in the tweets in his timeline or Twitter search results; green indicates that the URL is safe and red indicates a phishing URL. Since this solution is seamlessly built into the browser, it is hassle free and requires no other additional software or packages to be installed other than the browser you use and the PhishAri extension. Currently, PhishAri extension is available only for Chrome browser, but we’ll soon launch it for FireFox and other browsers too.

Now, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of PhishAri. The browser extension (written in JavaScript) is the front-end of the entire system which does very little processing and only shows the appropriate indicator beside every URL. Now comes the meat of the solution : a web-application hosted on a separate server which the extension uses to make decisions on which indicator to show in front of each URL. The web-application is written in python using web.py framework hosted on an Apache server. The extension takes the URL from tweet & the tweet id and sends it to the web-application as a GET request. The web-application takes this URL & the tweet id and creates the feature-vector based on the attributes of the URL and the tweet which are used for phishing detection. The web-application then uses machine learning classification to classify the URL as phish / legitimate. The extension again makes a GET request to the web-application to receive a JSON object which is a string, indicating class of the URL; accordingly, extension shows a red indicator if the class is ‘phishing‘ and a green indicator if it is ‘legitimate‘.

Currently, PhishAri works with an accuracy of 87.2%, we are still in process of making it stronger and more effective. The extension is easily downloadable from Chrome Web Store. We are trying to add more features and strengthen the underlying classifier to make PhishAri more efficient. Any feedback is warmly welcomed. If you use Twitter, do give it a try!


Our presence and experiences at Research Showcase @ IIIT-Delhi

As part of the IIIT-Delhi tradition of showcasing research done at the institute, a Research Showcase (RS) is held every year in the Spring semester. This year RS’12 was held on March 23 & 24. The following four posters from the group were showcased this year:

PhishAri by Anupama Aggarwal and Ashwin Rajadesingan (Research category)

– Privacy in Open Government Data by Swetank Kumar Saha, Daksha Yadav, Sudip Mittal and Mayank Gupta (Research category). Stay tuned for more information on this work!

W.Y.S.W.Y.E: Secure Authentication in Front of Prying Eyes by Rohit Khot, Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and Kannan Srinathan (Research category)

– TrustGuru by Komal Sachdeva and Claudio Marforio. Stay tuned for more information on this work!

The poster from our group, ‘Privacy in Open Government Data’ was judged as the best poster in the research category by reviewers. Congrats to Swetank, Daksha, Sudip, and Mayank. They won Google T-shirts, Microsoft caps, and INR 5,000 as prize money!

Anupama, Komal, Mayank, Rohit, and Swetank did a fabulous job in attracting visitors to their poster! Congrats to all members of the group who participated and encouraged us at the RS’12.

In addition to these posters which are part of the work done by the students in the group, we also had Prachi Jain, our member, present a poster that was done as part of her course work.

I also attended both the invited talks, one by Natwar Modani from IRL and the other one by Prasad Naldurg from Microsoft Research India. Natwar discussed community detection, social network analysis in mobile Call Detail Records (CDR). Prasad covered Zero Day Vulnerabilities, JavaScript attacks, and how to discover new vulnerabilities. I found a couple of commonalities in both the talks: (1) research output from both talks presented are now part of the product / services in real-world, which was very cool to know; I strongly believe that this is one of the key ways to measure success of one’s research; (2) both the speakers did not speak (understandably!!!) about details of the data, demographics, and current status, anything more than what was already stated in the papers.

The quality of the posters have definitely increased from RS’11. Students seemed to be more prepared, posters were well designed and there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm among students. Thanks to the student organizers of the RS’12 for putting up such a great show!

I look forward forRS’13!!!!