CHERI: Architectural support for the scalable implementation of the principle of least privilege

[CHERI tablet photo]
FPGA-based CHERI prototype tablet — a 64-bit RISC processor that boots CheriBSD, a CHERI-enhanced version of the FreeBSD operating system.
Only slightly overdue, this post is about our recent IEEE Security and Privacy 2015 paper, CHERI: A Hybrid Capability-System Architecture for Scalable Software Compartmentalization. We’ve previously written about how our CHERI processor blends a conventional RISC ISA and processor pipeline design with a capability-system model to provide fine-grained memory protection within virtual address spaces (ISCA 2014, ASPLOS 2015). In our this new paper, we explore how CHERI’s capability-system features can be used to implement fine-grained and scalable application compartmentalisation: many (many) sandboxes within a single UNIX process — a far more efficient and programmer-friendly target for secure software than current architectures.

Continue reading CHERI: Architectural support for the scalable implementation of the principle of least privilege

Decepticon: interdisciplinary conference on deception research

I’m at Decepticon 2015 and will be liveblogging the talks in followups to this post. Up till now, research on deception has been spread around half a dozen different events, aimed at cognitive psychologists, forensic psychologists, law enforcement, cybercrime specialists and others. My colleague Sophie van der Zee decided to organise a single annual event to bring everyone together, and Decepticon is the the result. With over 160 registrants for the first edition of the event (and late registrants turned away) it certainly seems to have hit a sweet spot.

Award-winning case history of the care.data health privacy scandal

Each year we divide our masters of public policy students into teams and get them to write case studies of public policy failures. The winning team this year wrote a case study of the care.data fiasco. The UK government collected personal health information on tens of millions of people who had had hospital treatment in England and then sold it off to researchers, drug companies and even marketing firms, with only a token gesture of anonymisation. In practice patients were easy to identify. The resulting scandal stalled plans to centralise GP data as well, at least for a while.

Congratulations to Lizzie Presser, Maia Hruskova, Helen Rowbottom and Jesse Kancir, who tell the story of how mismanagement, conflicts and miscommunication led to a failure of patient privacy on an industrial scale, and discuss the lessons that might be learned. Their case study has just appeared today in Technology Science, a new open-access journal for people studying conflicts that arise between technology and society. LBT readers will recall several posts reporting the problem, but it’s great to have a proper, peer-reviewed case study that we can give to future generations of students. (Incidentally, the previous year’s winning case study was on a related topic, the failure of the NHS National Programme for IT.)

Four cool new jobs

We’re advertising for four people to join the security group from October.

The first three are for two software engineers to join our new cybercrime centre, to develop new ways of finding bad guys in the terabytes and (soon) petabytes of data we get on spam, phish and other bad stuff online; and a lawyer to explore and define the boundaries of how we share cybercrime data.

The fourth is in Security analysis of semiconductor memory. Could you help us come up with neat new ways of hacking chips? We’ve invented quite a few of these in the past, ranging from optical fault induction through semi-invasive attacks generally. What’s next?

Double bill: Password Hashing Competition + KeyboardPrivacy

Two interesting items from Per Thorsheim, founder of the PasswordsCon conference that we’re hosting here in Cambridge this December (you still have one month to submit papers, BTW).

First, the Password Hashing Competition “have selected Argon2 as a basis for the final PHC winner”, which will be “finalized by end of Q3 2015”. This is about selecting a new password hashing scheme to improve on the state of the art and make brute force password cracking harder. Hopefully we’ll have some good presentations about this topic at the conference.

Second, and unrelated: Per Thorsheim and Paul Moore have launched a privacy-protecting Chrome plugin called Keyboard Privacy to guard your anonymity against websites that look at keystroke dynamics to identify users. So, you might go through Tor, but the site recognizes you by your typing pattern and builds a typing profile that “can be used to identify you at other sites you’re using, were identifiable information is available about you”. Their plugin intercepts your keystrokes, batches them up and delivers them to the website at a constant pace, interfering with the site’s ability to build a profile that identifies you.

FCA view on unauthorised transactions

Yesterday the Financial Conduct Authority (the UK bank regulator) issued a report on Fair treatment for consumers who suffer unauthorised transactions. This is an issue in which we have an interest, as fraud victims regularly come to us after being turned away by their bank and by the financial ombudsman service. Yet the FCA have found that everything is hunky dory, and conclude “we do not believe that further thematic work is required at this stage”.

One of the things the FCA asked their consultants is whether there’s any evidence that claims are rejected on the sole basis that a pin was used. The consultants didn’t want to reply on existing work but instead surveyed a nationally representative sample of 948 people and found that 16% had a transaction dispute in the last year. These were 37% MOTO, 22% cancelled future dated payment, 15% ATM cash, 13% shop, 13% lump sum from bank account. Of customers who complained, 43% were offered their money back spontaneously; a further 41% asked; in the end a total of 68% got refunds after varying periods of time. In total 7% (15 victims) had claim declined, most because the bank said the transaction was “authorised” or following a”contract with merchant” and 2 for chip and pin (one of them an ATM transaction; the other admitted sharing their PIN). 12 of these 15 considered the result
unfair. These figures are entirely consistent with what we learn from the British Crime Survey and elsewhere; two million UK victims a year, and while most get their money back, many don’t; and a hard core of perhaps a few tens of thousands who end up feeling that their bank has screwed them.

The case studies profiled in the consultants’ paper were of glowing happy people who got their money back; the 12 sad losers were not profiled, and the consultants concluded that “Customers might be being denied refunds on the sole basis that Chip and PIN were used … we found little evidence of this” (p 49) and went on to remark helpfully that some customers admitted sharing their PINs and felt OK lying about this. The FCA happily paraphrases this as “We also did not find any evidence of firms holding customers liable for unauthorised transactions solely on the basis that the PIN was used to make the transaction” (main report, p 13, 3.25).

According to recent news reports, the former head of the FCA, Martin Wheatley, was sacked by George Osborne for being too harsh on the banks.

Job Ads: Cloud Cybercrime Centre

The Cambridge Cloud Cybercrime Centre (more information about our vision for this brand new initiative are in this earlier article) now has a number of Research Associate / Research Assistant positions to fill:

  • A person to take responsibility for improving the automated processing of our incoming data feeds. They will help develop new sources of data, add new value to existing data and develop new ways of understanding and measuring cybercrime: full details are here.
  • A person with a legal background to carry out research into the legal and policy aspects of cybercrime data sharing. Besides contributing to the academic literature and to the active policy debates in this area they will assist in negotiating relevant arrangements with data suppliers and users: full details are here.

and with special thanks for the generosity of ThreatSTOP, who have funded this extra position:

  • We also seek someone to work on distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) measurement. We have been gathering data on reflected UDP DDoS events for many months and we want to extend our coverage and develop a much more detailed analysis of the location of perpetrators and victims along with real-time datafeeds of relevant information to assist in reducing harm. Full details are here.

Please follow the links to read the relevant formal advertisement for the details about exactly who and what we’re looking for and how to apply.

Crypto Wars 2.0

Today we unveil a major report on whether law enforcement and intelligence agencies should have exceptional access to cryptographic keys and to our computer and communications data generally. David Cameron has called for this, as have US law enforcement leaders such as FBI Director James Comey.

This policy repeats a mistake of the 1990s. The Clinton administration tried for years to seize control of civilian cryptography, first with the Clipper Chip, and then with various proposals for ‘key escrow’ or ‘trusted third party encryption’. Back then, a group of experts on cryptography and computer security got together to explain why this was a bad idea. We have now reconvened in response to the attempt by Cameron and Comey to resuscitate the old dead horse of the 1990s.

Our report, Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications, is timed to set the stage for a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee at which Mr Comey will present his proposals. The reply to Comey will come from Peter Swire, who was on the other side twenty years ago (he was a Clinton staffer) and has written a briefing on the first crypto war here. Peter was recently on President Obama’s NSA review group. He argues that the real way to fix the problems complained of is to fix the mutual legal assistance process – which is also my own view.

Our report is also highly relevant to the new ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ that Home Secretary Teresa May has promised to put before parliament this fall. Mrs May has made clear she wants access to everything.

However this is both wrong in principle, and unworkable in practice. Building back doors into all computer and communication systems is against most of the principles of security engineering, and it also against the principles of human rights. Our right to privacy, set out in section 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, can only be overridden by mechanisms that meet three tests. First, they must be set out in law, with sufficient clarity for their effects to be foreseeable; second, they must be proportionate; third, they must be necessary in a democratic society. As our report makes clear, universal exceptional access will fail all these tests by a mile.

For more, see the New York Times.

Passwords 2015 call for papers

The  9th International Conference on Passwords will be held at Cambridge, UK on 7-9 December 2015.

Launched in 2010 by Per Thorsheim,  Passwordscon is a lively and entertaining conference series dedicated solely to passwords. Passwordscon’s unique mix of refereed papers and hacker talks encourages a kind of cross-fertilization that I’m sure you’ll find both entertaining and fruitful.

Paper submissions are due by 7 September 2015. Selected papers will be included in the event proceedings, published by Springer in the Lecture Notes in Computer Science (LNCS) series.

We hope to see lots of you there!

Graeme Jenkinson, Local arrangements chair