Monthly Archives: May 2011

TalkTalk's new blocking system

Back in January I visited TalkTalk along with Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group (ORG) to have their new Internet blocking system explained to us. The system was announced yesterday, and I’m now publishing my technical description of how it works (note that it was called “BrightFeed” when we saw it, but is now named “HomeSafe”).

Buried in all the detail of how the system works are two key points — the first is the notion that it is possible for a centralised checking system (especially one that tells a remote site its identity) to determine whether sites are malicious are not. This is problematic and I doubt that malware distributors will see this as much of a challenge — although on the other hand, perhaps by setting your browser’s User Agent string to pretend to be the checking system you might become rather safer!

The second is that although the system is described as “opt in”, that only applies to whether or not websites you visit might be blocked. What is not “opt in” is whether or not TalkTalk learns the details of the URLs that all of their customers visit, whether they have opted in or not. All of these sites will be visited by TalkTalk’s automated system — which may take some explaining if the remote system told you a URL in confidence and is checking their logs to see who visits.

On their site, ORG have expressed an opinion as to whether the system can be operated lawfully, along with TalkTalk’s own legal analysis. TalkTalk argue that the system’s purpose is to protect their network, which gives them a statutory exemption from wire-tapping legislation; whereas all the public relations material seems to think it’s been developed to protect the users….

… in the end though, the system will be judged by its effectiveness, and in a world where less than 20% of new threats are detected — that may not be all that high.

Make noise and whisper: a solution to relay attacks

About a moth ago I’ve presented at the Security Protocols Workshop a new idea to detect relay attacks, co-developed with Frank Stajano.

The idea relies on having a trusted box (which we call the T-Box as in the image below) between the physical interfaces of two communicating parties. The T-Box accepts 2 inputs (one from each party) and provides one output (seen by both parties). It ensures that none of the parties can determine the complete input of the other party.


Therefore by connecting 2 instances of a T-Box together (as in the case of a relay attack) the message from one end to the other (Alice and Bob in the image above) gets distorted twice as much as it would in the case of a direct connection. That’s the basic idea.

One important question is how does the T-Box operate on the inputs such that we can detect a relay attack? In the paper we describe two example implementations based on a bi-directional channel (which is used for example between a smart card and a terminal). In order to help the reader understand these examples better and determine the usefulness of our idea Mike Bond and I have created a python simulation. This simulation allows you to choose the type of T-Box implementation, a direct or relay connection, as well as other parameters including the length of the anti-relay data stream and detection threshold.

In these two implementations we have restricted ourselves to make the T-Box part of the communication channel. The advantage is that we don’t rely on any party providing the T-Box since it is created automatically by communicating over the physical channel. The disadvantage is that a more powerful attacker can sample the line at twice the speed and overcome our T-Box solution.

The relay attack can be used against many applications, including all smart card based payments. There are already several ideas, including distance bounding, for detecting relay attacks. However our idea brings a new approach to the existing methods, and we hope that in the future we can find a practical implementation of our solutions, or a good scenario to use a physical T-Box which should not be affected by a powerful attacker.