Posts filed under 'Hardware & signals

Jan 22, '10

A few days ago, BBC2’s Newsnight approached me to have a look inside what might have been some kind of smartcard, but had long been suspected to be part of a simple-minded and dangerous fraud that may already have cost lives. (more…)

Jan 19, '10

On the 1st of January 2010, many German bank customers found that their banking smart cards had stopped working. Details of why are still unclear, but indications are that the cards believed that the date was 2016, rather than 2010, and so refused to process a transaction supposedly after their expiry dates. This problem could turn out to be quite expensive for the cards’ manufacturer, Gemalto: their shares dropped almost 4%, and they have booked a €10 m charge to handle the consequences.

These cards implement the EMV protocol (the same one used for Chip and PIN in the UK). Here, the card is sent the current date in 3-byte YYMMDD binary-coded decimal (BCD) format, i.e. “100101″ on 1 January 2010. If however this was interpreted as hexadecimal, then the card will think the year is 2016 (in hexadecimal, 1 January 2010 should have actually been “0a0101″). Since the numbers 0–9 are the same in both BCD and hexadecimal, we can see why this problem only occurred in 2010*.

In one sense, this looks like a foolish error, and should have been caught in testing. However, before criticizing too harshly, one should remember that EMV is almost impossible to implement perfectly. I have written a fairly complete implementation of the protocol and frequently find edge cases which are insufficiently documented, making dealing with them error-prone. Not only is the specification vague, but it is also long — the first public version in 1996 was 201 pages, and it grew to 765 pages by 2008. Moreover, much of the complexity is unnecessary. In this article I will give just one example of this — the fact that there are nine different ways to encode integers.

(more…)

Nov 11, '09

Today, Finextra (a financial technology news website), has published a video interview with me, discussing my research on banks using card readers for online banking, which was recently featured on TV.

In this interview, I discuss some of the more technical aspects of the attacks on card readers, including the one demonstrated on TV (which requires compromising a Chip & PIN terminal), as well as others which instead require that the victim’s PC be compromised, but which can be carried out on a larger scale.

I also compare the approaches taken by the banking community to protocol design, with that of the Internet community. Financial organizations typically develop protocols internally, and so are subject to public scrutiny late in deployment, if at all. This is in contrast with Internet protocols which are commonly first discussed within industry and academia, then the specification is made public, and only then is it implemented. As a consequence, vulnerabilities in banking security systems are often more expensive to fix.

Also, I discuss some of the non-technical design decisions involved in the deployment of security technology. Specifically, their design needs to take into account risk analysis, psychology and usability, not just cryptography. Organizational structures also need to incentivize security; groups who design security mechanisms should be responsible for failure. Organizational structures should also discourage knowledge of security failings from being hidden from management. If necessary a separate penetration testing team should report directly to board level.

Finally I mention one good design principle for security protocols: “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

The video (7 minutes) can be found below, and is also on the Finextra website.


Launch in external player (19 MB)

Oct 26, '09

This evening (Monday 26th October 2009, at 19:30 UTC), BBC Inside Out will show Saar Drimer and I demonstrating how the use of smart card readers, being issued in the UK to authenticate online banking transactions, can be circumvented. The programme will be broadcast on BBC One, but only in the East of England and Cambridgeshire, however it should also be available on iPlayer.

In this programme, we demonstrate how a tampered Chip & PIN terminal could collect an authentication code for Barclays online banking, while a customer thinks they are buying a sandwich. The criminal could then, at their leisure, use this code and the customer’s membership number to fraudulently transfer up to £10,000.

Similar attacks are possible against all other banks which use the card readers (known as CAP devices) for online banking. We think that this type of scenario is particularly practical in targeted attacks, and circumvents any anti-malware protection, but criminals have already been seen using banking trojans to attack CAP on a wide scale.

Further information can be found on the BBC online feature, and our research summary. We have also published an academic paper on the topic, which was presented at Financial Cryptography 2009.

Update (2009-10-27): The full programme is now on BBC iPlayer for the next 6 days, and the segment can also be found on YouTube.

BBC Inside Out, Monday 26th October 2009, 19:30, BBC One (East)

Sep 8, '09

Tomorrow at Cryptographic Hardware and Embedded Systems 2009 I’m going to be presenting a frequency injection attack on random number generators formed from ring oscillators.

Random numbers are a vital part of cryptography — if predictable numbers are being used an attacker may be able to read secret messages, impersonate either party, or replay transactions. In addition, many countermeasures to attacks such as Differential Power Analysis involve adding randomness to operations — without the randomness algorithms such as RSA become susceptible.

To create unpredictable random numbers in a predictable computer involves measuring some kind of physical process. Examples include circuit noise, radioactive decay and timing variations. One method commonly used in low-cost circuits such as smartcards is measuring the jitter from free-running ring oscillators. The ring oscillators’ frequencies depend on environmental factors such as voltage and temperature, and by having many independent ring oscillators we can harvest small timing differences between them (jitter).

But what happens if they aren’t independent? In particular, what happens if the circuit is faced with an attacker who can manipulate the outside of the system?

The attack turns out to be fairly straightforward. An effect called injection locking, known since 1665, considers what happens if you have two oscillators very lightly connected. For example, two pendulum clocks mounted on a wall tend to synchronise the swing of their pendula through small vibrations transmitted through the wall.

In an electronic circuit, the attacker can inject a signal to force the ring oscillators to injection-lock. The simplest way involves forcing a frequency onto the power supply from which the ring oscillators are powered. If there are any imbalances in the circuit we suggest that this causes the circuit to ring to be more susceptible at that point to injection locking. So we examined the effects of power supply injection, and can envisage a similar attack by irradiation with electromagnetic fields.

And it works surprisingly well. We tried an old version of a secure microcontroller that has been used in banking ATMs (and is still recommended for new ones). For the 32 random bits that are used in an ATM transaction, we managed to reduce the number of possibilities from 4 billion to about 225.

So if an attacker can have access to your card and PIN, in a modified shop terminal for example, he can record some ATM transactions. Then he needs to take a fake card to the ATM containing this microcontroller. On average he’ll need to record 15 transactions (the square root of 225) on the card and try 15 transactions at the ATM before he can steal the money. This number may be small enough not to set off alarms at the bank. The customer’s card and PIN were used for the transaction, but at a time when he was nowhere near an ATM.

While we looked at power supply injection, the ATM could also be attacked electromagnetically. Park a car next to the ATM emitting a 10 GHz signal amplitude modulated by the ATM’s vulnerable frequency (1.8 MHz in our example). The 10 GHz will penetrate the ventilation slots but then be filtered away, leaving 1.8 MHz in the power supply. When the car drives away there’s no evidence that the random numbers were bad – and bad random numbers are very difficult to detect anyway.

We also tried the same attack on an EMV (‘Chip and PIN’) bank card. Before injection, the card failed only one of the 188 tests in the standard NIST suite for random number testing. With injection it failed 160 of 188. While we can’t completely predict the random number generator, there are some sequences that can be seen.

So, as ever, designing good random number generators turns out to be a hard problem not least because the attacker can tamper with your system in more ways than you might expect.

You can find the paper and slides on my website.

Feb 26, '09

A number of UK banks are distributing hand-held card readers for authenticating customers, in the hope of stemming the soaring levels of online banking fraud. As the underlying protocol — CAP — is secret, we reverse-engineered the system and discovered a number of security vulnerabilities. Our results have been published as “Optimised to fail: Card readers for online banking”, by Saar Drimer, Steven J. Murdoch, and Ross Anderson.

In the paper, presented today at Financial Cryptography 2009, we discuss the consequences of CAP having been optimised to reduce both the costs to the bank and the amount of typing done by customers. While the principle of CAP — two factor transaction authentication — is sound, the flawed implementation in the UK puts customers at risk of fraud, or worse.

When Chip & PIN was introduced for point-of-sale, the effective liability for fraud was shifted to customers. While the banking code says that customers are not liable unless they were negligent, it is up to the bank to define negligence. In practice, the mere fact that Chip & PIN was used is considered enough. Now that Chip & PIN is used for online banking, we may see a similar reduction of consumer protection.

Further information can be found in the paper and the talk slides.

Feb 20, '09

(co-authored with Robert Watson)

Recently, our group was treated to a presentation by Ruby Lee of Princeton University, who discussed novel cache architectures which can prevent some cache-based side channel attacks against AES and RSA. The new architecture was fascinating, in particular because it may actually increase cache performance (though this point was spiritedly debated by several systems researchers in attendance). For the security group, though, it raised two interesting and troubling questions. What is the proper defence against side-channels due to processor cache? And why hasn’t it been implemented despite these attacks being around for years?

(more…)

Sep 3, '08

At last Friday’s Security Group meeting, we talked about security protocols that are intended to deter or reduce the consquences of theft, and how they go wrong.

Examples include:

  • GSM mobile phones have an identifier for the phone (separate from the identifier for the user) that can be blacklisted when the phone is stolen.
  • Some car radios will stop working when the battery is disconnected, and only start working again when a numeric code is entered. This is intended to deter theft of the radio.
  • In Windows Vista, Bitlocker can be used to encrypt files. One of the intended applications for this is that if someone steals your laptop, it will be difficult for them to gain access to your encrypted files.

Ross told a story of what happened when he needed to disconnect the battery on his car: the radio stopped working, and the code he had been given to reactivate it didn’t work – it was the wrong code.
Ross argues that these reactivation codes are unecessary, because other measures taken by the car manufacturers – such as making radios non-standard sizes, and hence not refittable in other car models – have made them redundant.

I described how the motherboard on a laptop had needed to be replaced recently. The motherboard contains the TPM chip, which contains the encryption keys needed to decrypt files protected with Bitlocker. If you replace the motherboard, the files on your hard disk will become unreadable, even if the disk is physically OK. Domain-joined Vista machines can be configured so that a sysadmin somewhere within your organization is able to recover the keys when this happens.

Both of these situations suffer from classic usability problems: the recovery procedures are invoked rarely (so users may not know what they’re supposed to do), and, if your system is configured incorrectly, you only find out when it is too late: you key in the code to your radio and it remains a doorstop; the admin you hoped was escrowing your keys turns out not to have the private key corresponding to the public key you were encrypting under (or, more subtly: the person with the authority to ask for your laptop’s key to be recovered is not you, because the appropriate admin has the wrong name for the laptop’s owner in their database).

I also described what happens when an XBox 360 is stolen. When you buy XBox downloadable content, you buy two licenses: one that’s valid on any XBox, as long as you’re logged in to XBox live; and one that’s valid on just your XBox, regardless of who’s logged in. If a burglar steals your Xbox, and you buy a new one, you need to get another license of the second type (for all the other people in your household who make use of it). The software makes this awkward, because it knows that you already have a license of the first type, and assumes that you couldn’t possibly want to buy it again. The work-around is to get a new email address, a new Microsoft Live Account, and a new Gamer Tag, and use these to repurchase the license. You can’t just change the gamertag, because XBox live doesn’t let the same Microsoft Live account have two gamertags. And yes, I know, your buddies in the MMORPG you were playing know you by your gamertag, so you don’t want to change it.

Jun 26, '08

In 2006 I published a paper on remotely estimating a computer’s temperature, based on clock skew. I showed that by inducing load on a Tor hidden service, an attacker could cause measurable changes in clock skew and so allow the computer hosting the service to be re-identified. However, it takes a very long time (hours to days) to obtain a sufficiently accurate clock-skew estimate, even taking a sample every few seconds. If measurements are less granular than the 1 kHz TCP timestamp clock source I used, then it would take longer still.

This limits the attack since in many cases TCP timestamps may be unavailable. In particular, Tor hidden services operate at the TCP layer, stripping all TCP and IP headers. If an attacker wants to estimate clock skew over the hidden service channel, the only directly available clock source may be the 1 Hz HTTP timestamp. The quantization noise in this case is three orders of magnitude above the TCP timestamp case, making the approach I used in the paper effectively infeasible.

While visiting Cambridge in summer 2007, Sebastian Zander developed an improved clock skew measurement technique which would dramatically reduce the noise of clock-skew measurements from low-frequency clocks. The basic idea, shown below, is to only request timestamps very close to a clock transition, where the quantization noise is lowest. This requires the attacker to firstly lock-on to the phase of the clock, then keep tracking it even when measurements are distorted by network jitter.

Synchronized vs random sampling

Sebastian and I wrote a paper — An Improved Clock-skew Measurement Technique for Revealing Hidden Services — describing this technique, and showing results from testing it on a Tor hidden service installed on PlanetLab. The measurements show a large improvement over the original paper, with two orders of magnitude lower noise for low-frequency clocks (like the HTTP case). This approach will allow previous attacks to be executed faster, and make previously infeasible attacks possible.

The paper will be presented at the USENIX Security Symposium, San Jose, CA, US, 28 July – 1 August 2008.

Jun 3, '08

My PhD thesis “Covert channel vulnerabilities in anonymity systems” has been awarded this year’s best thesis prize by the ERCIM security and trust management working group. The announcement can be found on the working group homepage and I’ve been invited to give a talk at their upcoming workshop, STM 08, Trondheim, Norway, 16–17 June 2008.

Update 2007-07-07: ERCIM have also published a press release.


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