Monthly Archives: November 2009

How to vote anonymously under ubiquitous surveillance

In 2006, the Chancellor proposed to invade an enemy planet, but his motion was anonymously vetoed. Three years on, he still cannot find out who did it.

This time, the Chancellor is seeking re-election in the Galactic Senate. Some delegates don’t want to vote for him, but worry about his revenge. How to arrange an election such that the voter’s privacy will be best protected?

The environment is extremely adverse. Surveillance is everywhere. Anything you say will be recorded and traceable to you. All communication is essentially public. In addition, you have no one to trust but yourself.

It may seem mind-boggling that this problem is solvable in the first place. With cryptography, anything is possible. In a forthcoming paper to be published by IET Information Security, we (joint work with Peter Ryan and Piotr Zielinski) described a decentralized voting protocol called “Open Vote Network”.

In the Open Vote Network protocol, all communication data is open, and publicly verifiable. The protocol provides the maximum protection of the voter’s privacy; only a full collusion can break the privacy. In addition, the protocol is exceptionally efficient. It compares favorably to past solutions in terms of the round efficiency, computation load and bandwidth usage, and has been close to the best possible in each of these aspects.

With the same security properties, it seems unlikely to have a decentralized voting scheme that is significantly more efficient than ours. However, in cryptography, nothing is ever optimal, so we keep this question open.

A preprint of the paper is available here, and the slides here.

The Real Hustle and the psychology of scam victims

This, which started as a contribution to Ross’s Security and Psychology initiative, is probably my most entertaining piece of research this year and it’s certainly getting its bit of attention.

I’ve been a great fan of The Real Hustle since 2006, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in security, and it has been good fun to work with the TV show’s coauthor Paul Wilson on this paper. We analyze the scams reproduced in the show, we extract general principles from them that describe typical behavioural patterns exploited by hustlers and then we show how an awareness of these principles can also strengthen systems security.

In a few months I have given versions of this talk around the world: Boston, London, Athens, London, Cambridge, Munich—to the security and psychology crowd, to computer researchers, to professional programmers—and it never failed to attract interest. This is what Yahoo’s Chris Heilmann wrote in his blog when I gave the talk at StackOverflow to an audience of 250 programmers:

The other talk I was able to attend was Frank Stajano, a resident lecturer and security expert (and mighty sword-bearer). His talk revolved around application security but instead of doing the classic “prevent yourself from XSS/SQL injection/CSRF” spiel, Frank took a different route. BBC TV in the UK has a program called The Real Hustle which shows how people are scammed by tricksters and gamblers and the psychology behind these successful scams. Despite the abysmal Guy Ritchie style presentation of the show, it is full of great information: Frank and a colleague conducted a detailed research and analysis of all the attacks and the reasons why they work. The paper on the research is available: Seven principles for systems security (PDF). A thoroughly entertaining and fascinating presentation and a great example of how security can be explained without sounding condescending or drowning the audience in jargon. I really hope that there is a recording of the talk.

I´m giving the talk again at the Computer Laboratory on Tuesday 17 November in the Security Seminars series. The full write-up is available for download as a tech report.

Interview with Steven Murdoch on Finextra

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.