Applebaum ’13 Helps Internet Users Remain Anonymous

Julian Applebaum ’13, a computer science major, won honors for his thesis titled, “A Model of Outbound Client Behavior on the Tor Anonymity Network." (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Julian Applebaum ’13, a computer science major, won honors for his thesis titled, “A Model of Outbound Client Behavior on the Tor Anonymity Network.” (Photo by Olivia Drake)

If you’ve ever spent an evening looking up old flames on Facebook, shopping online and watching questionable YouTube videos, you may have wished there were a way to preserve your anonymity on the World Wide Web. It turns out there is a way; and a Wesleyan senior’s capstone work explored how to make that way faster and better.

Julian Applebaum ’13, a computer science major, spent the year working on a simulation of Tor, a global network run by volunteers, that allows internet users to remain anonymous. There is one problem: Tor is painfully slow.

His work attempts to simulate actual activity on the network as a way to test and improve Tor, by collecting a sample of data from the network and creating a mathematical model trained on the patterns he observed.

“If you’re looking for ways to make it run faster or that much more resilient, what you need is a good simulation of the network,” Applebaum said. “This is our own simulation, which we hope to show works better (than existing models).”

There’s a significant social-justice aspect to Tor, which isn’t just for average internet users, but could be critically important to activists and bloggers worldwide, many of whom may work in repressive societies and whose internet use is tracked by governments. For them, Web anonymity could mean the difference between freedom and jail.

“They may be able to hide their blog posts, but just the fact that they are on a blog could have serious consequences,” Applebaum said.

He sees his work as just a foundation that he hopes others build on.

“I would call this thesis the beginning of a longer line of research,” he said. “There’s more to be done here.”

Applebaum’s thesis, “A Model of Outbound Client Behavior on the Tor Anonymity Network,” won honors for the computer science major from Westfield, N.J. And he doesn’t have to worry about looking for work post-graduation. His internship last summer at Squarespace, Inc., a website builder in New York, resulted in a job offer by August.

Squarespace, named second-best place to work in New York City by Crain’s New York Business, put Applebaum to work helping to build an e-commerce platform. He’ll start back at the company in June, after a trip to Alaska with Wesleyan friends.

Applebaum credits Wesleyan’s small and intense Computer Science Department, and his advisor, Norman Danner, with his success.

“It’s not difficult to really get to know a professor here. I’ve been building relationships with my professors since I got here. That was really important,” he said.

“That it’s so easy to take classes completely outside of your major is also what’s so great (about Wesleyan)” Applebaum said. He took a full year of typography and graphic design at Wes.

“I came in and it opened a whole section of my mind that didn’t exist before. … and that stuff is really applicable to computer science. Ever since Apple started making really beautiful hardware and software, being a good designer is pretty much as important as being a computer scientist.”

Applebaum’s parting gift to Wesleyan was a 36-hour Hackathon during senior week, a contest between three teams to design a useful Wesleyan-related app in a day and a half’s time. His team didn’t win (the victors designed a Wesmaps app to allow more intuitive and successful course selection), but the event (partially sponsored by his new employer) was “really fun,” Applebaum said.