Man sitting

Tibetan Student Earns Degree, Heads Back to the Global Cyber Hotspot

He travelled 7,704 miles from Dharamshala, India to Atlanta and spent two years fine tuning his cybersecurity capabilities so that when he returns to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), also known as the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, he can continue protecting the online assets of the exiled government.

Tenzin Chokden’s cybersecurity journey began when he was hired by the CTA’s Tibetan Computer Resource Centre (TCRC) in 2013, placing him in one of the biggest hotbeds for cyber-attacks in the world. He and his colleagues were the underdogs in a fight between their exiled government and attackers located in the People's Republic of China.

“The resources they have what we have is unparalleled,” said Chokden. “Our government has limited or mismatched resources and it is easy for people to lose hope, but what keeps us going is not the technology, it is fighting for what we believe in. It is presenting our identity and our culture even in cyberspace.”

It is important to understand that the CTA faces a wide range of cyberattacks on a regular basis. Government employees and journalists are extensively trained in the best cybersecurity practices to keep their citizens’ information safe. In the past, advanced persistent threats like 2009’s GhostNet saw China-based cybercriminals send malware laced emails to targeted Tibetan officials. The effort successfully corrupted around 1,300 computers in more than 100 countries.

This large and existential challenge is what Chokden faced every day during his eight years working at TCRC. He expects to face similar problems once he returns home this summer. For his practicum at the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (SCP) he is doing a security assessment that will act as a foundation for his job with the exiled Tibetan government.

“The practicum project I am working on will help me step back into my role after spending two years away while I earned my master’s,” said Chokden. “I actually thought about doing a Ph.D., but my scholarship program requires that I return home for a period of time.”

If he were to pursue an advanced degree, Chokden wants to study the impact of advanced persistent threats that China-based hackers launch against Tibetans and other impacted people groups around the world. He wants to continue his work at Georgia Tech and invite other researchers to the CTA to study the attacks his government faces.

Academics who actively study the cyber conflict between Tibet Government in Exile and the People's Republic of China are far and few between. The Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, is one of the only groups outside of Tibet that study suspected Chinese incursions on Tibetan digital networks.

“Anything you can think of in espionage and cybersecurity happens in Tibet,” said Jon Lindsay, Georgia Tech associate professor and co-editor of China and Cybersecurity: Espionage, Strategy, and Politics in the Digital Domain. “We are practically sending Tenzin to an active threat environment.”

He adds that Tibet has long been the epicenter of cyberattacks and advanced persistent threats. This might make researchers looking to venture into this field hesitant out of fears that Chinese based hackers would begin to target them in retaliation.

man standing

 (Photos by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing)

However, Chokden expects retaliation from online threat actors, which he says comes with the job. To him, the fear that comes from being targeted by such a powerful entity is a unique experience.

“When I tell you about this, you hear from the perspective of a third party,” he said. “But if you go there and feel the firsthand experience of the Tibetan people and other marginalized groups, you feel the magnitude of what it is like to be targeted and you may feel more invested.”

The new Georgia Tech alum views his return to the CTA as another new challenge, similar to the one he undertook when he landed in Atlanta two years ago. Chokden recalled feeling like an imposter when he first arrived on campus but was quickly welcomed by his professors and classmates. Without the invaluable support of Assistant Professor Brendan Saltaformaggio, Professor Mustaque Ahamad, and Regents Professor Sy Goodman, he would not have been able to succeed during his time at Tech.

“We have some of the best professors in the world. They believed in me and my ability” the graduate said. “It is to the vision of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, a refugee leader who has led the Tibetan Freedom Struggle with peace and compassion, and love, of my family and friends, that I have come this far in life. To live in truth even in technology.”

Chokden walked the Commencement stage in early May and received his Master of Science in Cybersecurity. The master’s degree is interdisciplinary with the College of Computing, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Engineering. Both traditional and online students are represented in the below list.

Saumya Agarwal

Brantley Heron Alvanos

Gary Alan Andersen

Hsinhsian Appulingam

Shanmugam Arthanari

Grant William Austin

Adetoyese M. Bakare

Betul Denise Benzer

Olavo Borges De Oliveira Filho

Vishnu Harsha Boyapati

Jason Lamont Boykin

Bradley Mark Bryant

Michael Joseph Cataletto

Tinomutenda Chikate

Tenzin Chokden

Andrew William Chung

Michael Thomas Cole

Thomas Blake Conner

James David Davidson Jr.

Chelsea Janae’ Davis

Endale Asefa Defersha

Keval Chandreshbhai Desai

Sandesh Nathan Devarapalli

Erick Omar Duran Nunez

Aarushi Dwivedi

Philip Ogaga Egbetho

Nasryn El-Hinnawi

Dominic José Eldridge

Zachary Allen Fink

Casey Lawrence French

Davit Gabrielyan

Unique R. Glover

Jake Ronald Robert Gord

Adrija Goswami

Michael Douglas Grasso

Wanda Guo

Kaitlyn Nicole Hart

Steven R. Hart

Elizabeth Loegel Holland

Yizhi Huang

Crystle Johnson

David Arthur Johnson

Lee Johnson

Christelle Joseph

Shreejeet Prashant Kadam

Rajeew Sandaruwan Kaluthanthri Patabendi

Han-Chung Kang

Zinet Kemal

Beyza Umran Kepir

Anderson Kunho Kim

Mihaela Larisa Kirkland

Tony Kirkland

Michal Krupa

Omega M. Kwanga

Kinman Lam

Telia Renee Lecompte

Jerome Christopher Lovato

Keith Kenneth Lunden

Sahibzada Ali Mahmud Todd R. McKeever

Rajat Mehra

James Alexander Michael Mertz

Daniel Michaud-Soucy

Avani Modak

Idiris Abdullahi Mohamed

Dawood Fakhruddin Mohammed

Oscar Monge

Vaibhav Nagar

Faina B. Nakhimovsky

Tuan Vu Ngo

Jimmy Trong Duc Nguyen

Bhavinkumar Balubhai Patel

Ricardo Posada

Gayathri Rajakumar

Subhiksha Ramanathan

Vivek Ravindra Ramcharitar

Andrew S. Reina

Gabriella Riffle-Gonzalez

Mehran Safizadeh Shabestar

Quentin Lee Samuels

Matthew Adam Schwager

Alexandria Segovia

Joaquin Andres Serna

Mehul Shah

Sneha Janani Shekar

Anusha Shenoy

Sateesh Krishna Shiradwade

Yuliya Sergeyevna Slesareva Godoy

Alexander James St. Pierre

David C. Steckbeck

Apostolos Stergiou

Timothy Scott Sutton

George Henry Mawuli Tamakloe

George Ison Thekkedath

David William Tyler

Vipul Pramod Ujawane

Ganesh Devendrappa Vanahalli

Michael Christopher Vanover

Suresh Velagaleti

Yathiendra Vunnam

Joshua Weintraub

Melaku A. Weldesenbet

Wade Vincent Wells

Thomas Preston Westbrook

Thomas Craig Woodard

Jingli Yan

Xiaoyi Zhu