Reethika Ramesh awarded Towner Prize for Distinguished Academic Achievement

The award recognizes active participation in research, leadership, and academic performance.
Reethika Ramesh

Reethika Ramesh, a PhD candidate in computer science and engineering, has been awarded the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Prize for Distinguished Academic Achievement by the College of Engineering. This award is presented to an outstanding graduate student in each degree program at the College; the criteria considered include the student’s active participation in research, leadership, and academic performance.

Reethika’s research interests are in digital security and privacy. In her research, she employs network measurements and empirical research methods to study systems and its users from security and privacy perspectives.. Recently, she has investigated the commercial Virtual Private Network (VPN) ecosystem in a series of large-scale studies.

A key product of her research so far is the VPNalyzer project, and the desktop tool that she and her collaborators developed to enable systematic, semi-automated investigation of the functioning of VPNs. The tool consists of a measurement test suite containing 15 measurements that identify deficiencies in service, leakages, misconfigurations, and tests for security and privacy essentials in a VPN’s operation. They used this tool to conduct the largest state-of-the-art investigation into 80 top, popular desktop VPNs. Her investigation revealed several previously unreported findings highlighting key issues and implementation shortcomings in the VPN ecosystem, including DNS and IPv6 leaks, data leaks during tunnel failure, and more. 

In a parallel research study, she conducted quantitative and qualitative studies to answer fundamental questions about the VPN ecosystem. She published a multi-perspective study that included a survey of over 1,200 VPN users and nine providers and augments their perspectives to present an overview of the current state and put forward actionable recommendations for improving and securing the VPN ecosystem.

Through her work, she has exposed critical shortcomings in popular currently available commercial VPNs, the ability of network service providers and governments to identify and block the use of VPNs, and issues in user education and gaps in understanding between VPN users and VPN providers.

Reethika has co-authored seven papers at top-tier security and measurement venues in her field, including four for which she was lead author. As a recognition of its practical impact, her work with the VPNalyzer tool won first place for applied security research at the Applied Research Competition as part of New York University’s CSAW’22 Cybersecurity Games and Conference. It was also used in 2021 by Consumer Reports to rate popular consumer VPNs on their effectiveness in these areas. The report resulting from their collaboration with Consumer Reports was recently cited by elected officials calling on the FTC to regulate the VPN ecosystem. Previously, Reethika has also been part of the team that  earned a USENIX Distinguished Paper Award (2022), and First Prize in the USENIX/Meta Internet Defense Prize (2022).

Reethika is passionate about improving enrollment and retention of students in Computer Science and in research. She has given talks for the Renew CS initiative, CS Kickstart, and served as a panelist twice for the Explore CS Research program at U-M to encourage undergraduate women to consider research careers in computing. She has been deeply involved with student organizations in the CSE department at the University of Michigan as well. She was elected twice to serve as the treasurer for the student organization ECSEL+. Reethika Ramesh is advised by Prof. Roya Ensafi.