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Frostburg State University Computer Science Student Presents Encrypted Chat Program at International Conference
02/15/2017

Frostburg State University Computer Science Student Presents Encrypted Chat Program at International Conference
FSU senior Christopher Gill, left, with his professor, Dr. Xunyu Pan, presented his encrypted group chat app at the International Symposium on Electronic Imaging.

Technology companies specializing in instant messaging are always looking at ways to make their applications more secure. Frostburg State University computer science major Christopher Gill of Leonardtown is already building a product that helps evolve existing chat applications.

Gill, who built a desktop prototype application for group multimedia instant messaging with real-time attribute-based encryption, recently presented his project at the Society for Imaging Science and Technology International Symposium on Electronic Imaging near San Francisco.

The senior’s application features encrypted messaging on each user’s device, designed not to be captured by a server. When a message is sent and routed through a server, the server normally keeps a copy of the message, whether decrypted or its encrypted contents for that matter. The server becomes a forwarding service.

“At the moment, we have applications out there where you’re sending messages to other people, and you don’t know what the server is storing,” Gill said. “It could have full access to all of the messages that are sent, and you don’t know who’s able to gain access to that server.”

That server could be controlled by one person or a group or be susceptible to hacking, he said.

Having the security of the messages rest on the user/client side – on your smartphone, tablet or computer – reduces the chances of a middleman intercepting the messages. The downside to this method is a slower delivery time.

Encrypted chat applications are on the market now, including WhatsApp. What makes his different from WhatsApp is that WhatsApp encrypts on both the client end and through servers because the scale of their operations must serve millions of messages quickly. WhatsApp does the filtering through its servers to figure out where an encrypted message should go. Gill’s app has the smartphone or other device perform that sorting, which contributes to the lag time.

“Every client is technically getting every message, but if they don’t have the correct decryption details, they can’t view them,” Gill said. “Every client has to search through every message being sent on the network, making it somewhat inefficient, but making it more secure in that only the people who can decrypt them can view a message.”

Few studies have been done on user-end security in group chats. 

Gill’s program also allows users to assign their contacts to groups to allow a group chat based on an interest or topic, like work, sports, family or friends. Making group conversations easier to manage is an improvement over existing applications.

If Gill would develop his application for commercial use, he said he would need to build a smarter, more secure server that can more efficiently forward the correct messages, enable the ability for encrypted multimedia and live video, integrate the app with existing social media, plus make a sleek-looking user interface for smartphones.

Gill was motivated to pursue this undergraduate research project by FSU Computer Science Assistant Professor Dr. Xunyu Pan, who entreats students in his Multimedia and Internet Communication course to research technologies that interest them and find a way to improve on existing technology. Participation in the annual FSU Undergraduate Research Symposium in the previous year helps prepare these students to present their work on a larger level.

The most-developed project from Pan’s class is recommended for presentation at the international conference, where students can network with Silicon Valley players and graduate schools.

“The conference gives students not only opportunities to communicate with their peers from other universities and countries, but it gives the student a chance to look at the most advanced research,” Pan said.

Gill plans to use his skills to find a technology security job in the Washington, D.C., market and, ultimately, land a dream job for a top firm in California.

Gill’s trip was made possible through the FSU President’s Experiential Learning Enhancement Fund and an FSU Foundation Opportunity Grant, which is supported by the FSU Foundation Annual Fund.

To support the Annual Fund, visit www.frostburg.edu/foundation/ways-to-give/annual-fund or call 301-687-4161.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.

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For further information on this release, contact:

Office of News and Media Services
Frostburg State University
101 Braddock Road
Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

Telephone: 301-687-3171
Fax: 301-687-7589
E-mail: news@frostburg.edu