31/05/2015

Interview with Dr Feng Hao

Categories: Meet the researchers


Awarded an ERC Starting Grant of EUR 1.5 million in 2013, Dr. Hao is based at the School of Computing Science, Newcastle University (UK). Providing new directions in the field of security, Dr. Feng Hao's ERC project aims to devise a secure and publicly verifiable system of e-voting. We asked him to share his story and provide further tips for China-based researchers.

Tell us about your role and your research.

I'm the Principal Investigator (PI) of the ERC project. The project is about investigating a new generation of e-voting systems called "self-enforcing e-voting" (SEEV). A SEEV system allows voters to independently verify the tallying results, hence guaranteeing the integrity of an election. It differs from previous verifiable e-voting schemes in that a SEEV system does not require any trustworthy tallying authorities; hence the system is "self-enforcing".

Very few Chinese nationals hold ERC grants. Why did you apply for the funding?

applied because I thought I had a good research idea. The idea was about realizing public verifiability of an e-voting system for a large-scale election without requiring any trustworthy tallying authorities. I called this new type of e-voting system "self-enforcing electronic voting" (SEEV). No one has investigated this before, as all existing voting schemes proposed in the past universally require a set of tallying authorities to administrate the tallying process. However, the implementation of tallying authorities has proved rather difficult in practice. I did preliminary research in this area and discovered that the role of tallying authorities was actually not as indispensable as many had believed.

Description: Bogen_magentaTo prove that it is possible to obliterate the dependence on tallying authorities completely, I, with a colleague (Matthew Kreeger), designed a concrete SEEV system in 2010 and tried to get the paper published. However, the idea in the paper was not compatible with the mainstream e-voting research at the time. So the paper was repeatedly rejected. But still, I believed the idea was viable and worth pursuing. This motivated me to apply for the grant to support continued investigation along this line of research. The grant allowed me to recruit a team of researchers to work on SEEV and tackle remaining challenges. One year after the grant was awarded, our paper (basically unchanged from the initial 2010 version) was accepted by a major journal for publication.

Do you have any tips for future applicants?

The evaluation is based on two parts: the researcher track record and the proposal. The applicant needs to pay attention to both parts, as they carry the same weight during the evaluation process. For the first part, the applicant needs to demonstrate a creditable track record on successfully solving important research problems in the past. Thus, reviewers would have confidence that, given a new challenging problem and adequate support of resources, the applicant will likely perform successfully again.

On the second part, a high-risk-high-gain type research is more likely to be favoured by reviewers than incremental research. A high-risk-high-gain project usually involves exploring something that is potentially viable but for various reasons something no one has tried before (hence the high-risk); but if successful, it will be a game-changer in the field (hence the high-gain). The two parts need to be closely related to demonstrate that the applicant has unique skills and advantages to work on the proposed project.

In your opinion, how important is international mobility for a researcher's career?

I believe it is important for the researcher to work in an environment that "clicks" with his/her research interest and strength. Once in a right environment, the researcher's potential can be exploited to the maximum extent. International mobility can greatly help the researcher search and identify such an environment.

What sparked your interest in science?

It was the stimulating environment of the computer laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where I did my PhD from 2004 to 2007. As PhD students, we had the flexibility to freely explore research topics of our own interest. The research culture in the computer lab has been to tackle real-world problems. This fits well my engineering background and interest of working on practical problems. My interest in science was further amplified when I found that one of the security protocols I invented was deployed in real-world applications and used by millions of users.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope to see the SEEV technology adopted by national elections in the future. The technology should be able to address many security problems of (unverifiable) e-voting systems that have been used in many countries.

What are your plans for the future?

In the next five years, I plan to focus on e-voting research and make as much impact as we can in this field. In the meantime, I will be consolidating my research in related areas such as secure communication protocols, NFC payment, BitCoin and so on. In 5 years, I hope to be able to write a book about security protocols and their real-world applications.

What motivates you as a researcher?

I like working on practical and challenging research problems with real-world impact.

Dr Feng Hao graduated with a PhD in 2007 at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Earlier, he received his education from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

He had several years of working experience in security industry before joining the faculty as a lecturer in 2010.

Read more about his research and personal story on ERC Stories: Towards Next Generation E-Voting.

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Annual deadline for application to ERC Starting Grant is in February.

To know more about the practicalities of applying for this prestigious funding, you can read also the previously published 20 Tips on How to Apply for ERC Grant (447.21 KB) by Prof Andreas Zeller (ERC Advanced Grant holder).

Have a look also at this resourceful website in Chinese called "ERC for non-European researchers"!