Posts filed under 'Security engineering

Apr 3, '14

As part of another project, I needed to demonstrate how the various user-interface options for sending anonymous email through Mixmaster appeared to the email sender. This is very difficult to explain in words, so I recorded some screencasts. The tools I used were the Mixmaster command line tool, the Mutt email client with Mixmaster plugin, QuickSilver Lite, and finally a web-based interface.

The project is now over, but in case these screencasts are of wider interest, I’ve put them on YouTube.

Overall, the usability of Mixmaster is not great. All of the secure options are difficult to configure and use (QuickSilver Lite is probably the best), emails take a long time to be sent, recipients of anonymous email can’t send replies, and there is a high chance that the email will be dropped en-route.


Mar 7, '14

The main reason for passwords appearing in headlines are large password breaches. What about being able to fearlessly publish scrambled passwords as they are stored on servers and still keep passwords hidden even if they were “123456″, “password”, or “iloveyou”.

Mar 3, '14

I will be trying to liveblog Financial Cryptography 2014. I just gave a keynote talk entitled “EMV – Why Payment Systems Fail” summarising our last decade’s research on what goes wrong with Chip and PIN. There will be a paper on this out in a few months; meanwhile here’s the slides and here’s our page of papers on bank security.

The sessions of refereed papers will be blogged in comments to this post.

Feb 26, '14

We are pleased to announce a job ad for two new research assistants or post-doctoral research associates working on our CTSRD Project, whose target research areas include OS, compiler, and CPU security. This is a joint project between the University of Cambridge’s Security, NetOS, and Computer Architecture research groups, as well as the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International.

Research Assistants and Associates in OS, Compiler and CPU Security
Fixed-term: The funds for this post are available for 18 months in the first instance.

We are seeking multiple Research Assistants and Post-Doctoral Research Associates to join the CTSRD Project, which is investigating fundamental improvements to CPU-architecture, operating-system (OS), program-analysis, and programming-language structure in support of computer security. The CTSRD Project is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and SRI International, and part of the DARPA CRASH research programme on clean-slate computer system design for security. More information may be found at:

This position will be an integral part of an international team of researchers spanning multiple institutions in academia and industry. Successful candidates will contribute to the larger research effort by performing system-software, compiler, and hardware implementation and experimentation, developing and evaluating novel hypotheses about refinements to the vertical hardware-software stack. Possible areas of responsibility include: modifying OS kernels (e.g., FreeBSD), adapting compiler suites (e.g., Clang/LLVM); extending an open-source Bluespec-based research-processor design (CHERI); supporting an early-adopter user community for open-source hardware and software; and improving the quality and performance of hardware-software prototypes. The successful candidate must be willing to travel in the UK and abroad engaging with downstream user communities.

Feb 5, '14

Today we release a paper on security protocols and evidence which analyses why dispute resolution mechanisms in electronic systems often don’t work very well. On this blog we’ve noted many many problems with EMV (Chip and PIN), as well as other systems from curfew tags to digital tachographs. Time and again we find that electronic systems are truly awful for courts to deal with. Why?

The main reason, we observed, is that their dispute resolution aspects were never properly designed, built and tested. The firms that delivered the main production systems assumed, or hoped, that because some audit data were available, lawyers would be able to use them somehow.

As you’d expect, all sorts of things go wrong. We derive some principles, and show how these are also violated by new systems ranging from phone banking through overlay payments to Bitcoin. We also propose some enhancements to the EMV protocol which would make it easier to resolve disputes over Chip and PIN transactions.

Update (2013-03-07): This post was mentioned on Bruce Schneier’s blog, and this is some good discussion there.

Update (2014-03-03): The slides for the presentation at Financial Cryptography are now online.

Jan 20, '14

Today Robert Brady and I publish a paper that solves an outstanding problem in physics. We explain the beautiful bouncing droplet experiments of Yves Couder, Emmanuel Fort and their colleagues.

For years now, people interested in the foundations of physics have been intrigued by the fact that droplets bouncing on a vibrating tray of fluid can behave in many ways like quantum mechanical particles, with single-slit and double-slit diffraction, tunneling, Anderson localisation and quantised orbits.

In our new paper, Robert Brady and I explain why. The wave field surrounding the droplet is, to a good approximation, Lorentz covariant with the constant c being the speed of surface waves. This plus the inverse square force between bouncing droplets (which acts like the Coulomb force) gives rise to an analogue of the magnetic force, which can be observed clearly in the droplet data. There is also an analogue of the Schrödinger equation, and even of the Pauli exclusion principle.

These results not only solve a fascinating puzzle, but might perhaps nudge more people to think about novel models of quantum foundations, about which we’ve written three previous papers.

Jan 6, '14

When I read about cryptography before computers, I sometimes wonder why people did this and that instead of something a bit more secure. We may ridicule portable encryption systems based on monoalphabetic or even simple polyalphabetic ciphers but we may also change our opinion after actually trying it for real.

Jan 2, '14

Passwords have not really changed since they were first used. Let’s go down the memory lane a bit and then analyse how password systems work and how they could be improved. You may say – forget passwords, OTP is the way forward. My next question would then be: So why do we use OTP in combination with passwords, when they are so good?

Dec 20, '13

It’s been a busy year for Capsicum, practical capabilities for UNIX, so a year-end update seemed in order:

The FreeBSD Foundation and Google jointly funded a Capsicum Integration Project that took place throughout 2013 — described by Foundation project technical director Ed Maste in a recent blog article. Pawel Jakub Dawidek refined several Capsicum APIs, improving support for ioctls and increasing the number of supported capability rights for FreeBSD 10. He also developed Casper, a helper daemon that provides services (such as DNS, access to random numbers) to sandboxes — and can, itself, sandbox services. Casper is now in the FreeBSD 11.x development branch, enabled by default, and should appear in FreeBSD 10.1. The Google Open Source Program Office (OSPO) blog also carried a September 2013 article on their support for open-source security, featuring Capsicum.

Capsicum is enabled by default in the forthcoming FreeBSD 10.0 release — capability mode, capabilities, and process descriptors are available in the out-of-the-box GENERIC kernel. A number of system services use Capsicum to sandbox themselves — such as the DHCP client, high-availability storage daemon, audit log distribution daemon, but also command-line tools like kdump and tcpdump that handle risky data. Even more will appear in FreeBSD 10.1 next year, now that Casper is available.

David Drysdale at Google announced Capsicum for Linux, an adaptation of Linux to provide Capsicum’s capability mode and capabilities, in November 2013. David and Ben Laurie visited us in Cambridge multiple times this year to discuss the design and implementation, review newer Capsicum APIs, and talk about future directions. They hope to upstream this work to the Linux community. Joris Giovannangeli also announced an adaptation of Capsicum to DragonFlyBSD in October 2013.

Over the summer, Mariusz Zaborski and Daniel Peryolon were funded by Google Summer of Code to work on a variety of new Capsicum features and services, adapting core UNIX components and third-party applications to support sandboxing. For example, Mariusz looked at sandboxing BSD grep: if a vulnerability arises in grep’s regular-expression matching, why should processing a file of malicious origin yield full rights to your UNIX account?

In May 2013, our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by Bill Harris, published a paper at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (“Oakland”) on “Declarative, Temporal, and Practical Programming with Capabilities” — how to model program behaviour, and automatically transform some classes of applications to use Capsicum sandboxing. We were very pleased to lend a hand with this work, and feel the art of programming for compartmentalisation is a key research challenge. We also collaborated with folk at SRI and Google on a a workshop paper developing our ideas about application compartmentalisation, which appeared at the Security Protocols Workshop here in Cambridge in March 2013.

Google and the FreeBSD Foundation are committed to further work on Capsicum and its integration with applications, and research continues on how to apply Capsicum at several institutions including here at Cambridge. We hope to kick off a new batch of application adaptation in coming months — as well as integration with features such as DNSSEC. However, we also need your help in adapting applications to use Capsicum on systems that support it!

Nov 8, '13

Today we’re presenting a new side-channel attack in PIN Skimmer: Inferring PINs Through The Camera and Microphone at SPSM 2013. We found that software on your smartphone can work out what PIN you’re entering by watching your face through the camera and listening for the clicks as you type. Previous researchers had shown how to work out PINs using the gyro and accelerometer; we found that the camera works about as well. We watch how your face appears to move as you jiggle your phone by typing.

There are implications for the design of electronic wallets using mechanisms such as Trustzone which enable some apps to run in a more secure sandbox. Such systems try to prevent sensitive data such as bank credentials being stolen by malware. Our work shows it’s not enough for your electronic wallet software to grab hold of the screen, the accelerometers and the gyro; you’d better lock down the video camera, and the still camera too while you’re at it. (Our attack can use the still camera in burst mode.)

We suggest ways in which mobile phone operating systems might mitigate the risks. Meanwhile, if you’re developing payment apps, you’d better be aware that these risks exist.


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