Monthly Archives: March 2008

Award Winners #2

Two years ago, almost exactly, I wrote:

Congratulations to Steven J. Murdoch and George Danezis who were recently awarded the Computer Laboratory Lab Ring (the local alumni association) award for the “most notable publication” (that’s notable as in jolly good) for the past year, written by anyone in the whole lab.

Well this year, it’s the turn of Tyler Moore and myself to win, for our APWG paper: Examining the Impact of Website Take-down on Phishing.

The obligatory posed photo, showing that we both own ties (!), is courtesy of the Science Editor of the Economist.

Tyler Moore and Richard Clayton, most notable publication 2008
Tyler Moore and Richard Clayton, most notable publication 2008

Securing Network Location Awareness with Authenticated DHCP

During April–June 2006, I was an intern at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. My project, supervised by Tuomas Aura and Michael Roe, was to improve the privacy and security of mobile computer users. A paper summarizing our work was published at SecureComm 2007, but I’ve only just released the paper online: “Securing Network Location Awareness with Authenticated DHCP”.

How a computer should behave depends on its network location. Existing security solutions, like firewalls, fail to adequately protect mobile users because they assume their policy is static. This results in laptop computers being configured with fairly open policies, in order to facilitate applications appropriate for a trustworthy office LAN (e.g. file and printer sharing, collaboration applications, and custom servers). When the computer is taken home or roaming, this policy leaves an excessively large attack surface.

This static approach also harms user privacy. Modern applications broadcast a large number of identifiers which may leak privacy sensitive information (name, employer, office location, job role); even randomly generated identifiers allow a user to be tracked. When roaming, a laptop should not broadcast identifiers unless necessary, and on moving location either pseudonymous identifiers should be re-used or anonymous ones generated.

Both of these goals require a computer to be able to identify which network it is on, even when an attacker is attempting to spoof this information. Our solution was to extend DHCP to include an network location identifier, authenticated by a public-key signature. I built a proof-of-concept implementation for the Microsoft Windows Server 2003 DHCP server, and the Vista DHCP client.

A scheme like this should ideally work on both small PKI-less home LANs and still permit larger networks to aggregate multiple access points into one logical network. Achieving this requires some subtle naming and key management tricks. These techniques, and how to implement the protocols in a privacy-preserving manner are described in our paper.

Security Economics and the EU

ENISA — the European Network and Information Security Agency — has just published a major report on security economics that was authored by Rainer Böhme, Richard Clayton, Tyler Moore and me.

Security economics has become a thriving field since the turn of the century, and in this report we make a first cut at applying it in a coherent way to the most pressing security policy problems. We very much look forward to your feedback.

The two faces of Privila

We have discussed the Privila network on Light Blue Touchpaper before. Richard explained how Privila solicit links and I described how to map the network. Since then, Privila’s behavior has changed. Previously, their pages were dominated by adverts, but included articles written by unpaid interns. Now the articles have been dropped completely, leaving more room for the adverts.

This change would appear to harm Privila’s search rankings — the articles, carefully optimized to include desirable keywords, would no longer be indexed. However, when Google download the page, the articles re-appear and the adverts are gone. The web server appears to be configured to give different pages, depending on the “User-Agent” header in the HTTP request.

For example, here’s how soccerlove.com appears in Firefox, Netscape, Opera and Internet Explorer — lots of adverts, and no article:
Soccerlove (Firefox)

In contrast, by setting the browser’s user-agent to match that of Google’s spider, the page looks very different — a prominent article and no adverts:
Soccerlove (Google)

Curiously, the Windows Live Search, and Yahoo! spiders are presented with an almost empty page: just a header but neither adverts nor articles (see update 2). You can try this yourself, by using the User Agent Switcher Firefox extension and a list of user-agent strings.

I expect the interns who wrote these articles will be displeased that their articles are hidden from view. Google will doubtlessly be interested too, since their webmaster guidelines recommend against such behavior. BMW and Ricoh were delisted for similar reasons. Fortunately for Google, I’ve already shown how to build a complete list of Privila’s sites.

Update 1 (2008-03-08):
It looks like Google has removed the Privila sites from their index. For example, searches of soccerlove.com, ammancarpets.com, and canadianbattery.com all return zero results.

Update 2 (2008-03-11):
Privila appear to have fixed the problem that led to Yahoo! and Windows Live Search bots being presented with a blank page. Both of these spiders are being shown the same content as Google’s — the article with no adverts. Normal web browsers are still being sent adverts with no article.

Update 3 (2008-03-11):
Shortly after the publication of an article about Privila’s browser tricks on The Register, Privila has restored articles on the pages shown to normal web browsers. Pages presented to search engines still are not identical — they don’t contain the adverts.