Change Makers of CSE: KC Claffy (PhD ’94) and the Evolving Internet

Feb 2, 2022
CSE PhD alumna KC Claffy

Kimberly (KC) Claffy had just completed her PhD in UC San Diego’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering when she noticed a problem: internet measurement data for scientific research might not always be available. The problem showed up soon after she graduated in 1994 when NSFNET, the National Science Foundation-funded Internet backbone infrastructure project, was decommissioned.

“I wrote my dissertation on data about the Internet, but when I graduated, the data source, and in fact the entire NSFNET infrastructure, went away,” said Claffy, director of the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and an inductee into the Internet Hall of Fame.

“I was concerned it would be impossible to conduct scientific studies on the Internet because the data would be behind proprietary doors of companies that were operating in an extremely competitive environment,” she said.

The Internet was going through some rapid changes in the mid-90s. In the early 1980s, the Department of Defense (DOD), which created the original ARPANET, realized much of the traffic was not military and wanted to transition the technology out of DOD. This early Internet had become an incredibly important channel for researchers to share their work and the NSF wanted to help maintain this capability.

Because UC San Diego hosted an NSFNET backbone node, it was an ideal place to conduct research. Claffy founded CAIDA in 1997 to support large-scale data collection, curation and sharing, part of a global effort to develop the still-young discipline of Internet cartography.

“Researchers were not going to be able to study how networks really operated, what traffic or topology looked like, how it was evolving,” said Claffy. “The data gap was daunting, as the Internet industry rocketed forward, and I wanted to make sure researchers could study real networks and not just rely only on testbeds and simulation tools.”

Data to Inform Public Policy

The 1990s were an historically laissez-faire period for U.S. communications policy. Today, however, the U.S. government is recognizing there are harms on the Internet that merit attention to safeguard the public interest.

However, what government regulations might look like, and how they would work across national boundaries, are open questions. A recent CAIDA initiative has focused on mapping on-line harms to measurements and data to inform scientific security studies, policy debates and assessments. 

“The challenges of understanding and managing complex critical infrastructure are not unique to the Internet,” said Claffy. “But other critical infrastructures have entire agencies dedicated to oversight, including measurement where appropriate. The Internet is not so amenable to that kind of oversight. Privacy-respecting sharing of measurement data will be an essential part of transparency and accountability mechanisms to support the security and trustworthiness of the Internet infrastructure.”

Finding a Home at UC San Diego

Claffy and CAIDA have several ongoing projects, primarily focused on building a more trustworthy Internet infrastructure by enabling infrastructure transparency and accountability through science, technology and policy (for data sharing) capabilities.

Claffy considers herself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to found CAIDA, conduct interesting work and stay at UC San Diego.

“I’m not sure I could have created the group I created and pursued the projects I have anywhere else but UC San Diego,” she said. “The network and security research group in CSE is more impressive every year. It has been such a privilege to be a part of this community.”