Monthly Archives: June 2017

Regulatory capture

Today’s newspapers report that the cladding on the Grenfell Tower, which appears to have been a major factor in the dreadful loss of life there, was banned in Germany and permitted in America only for low-rise buildings. It would have cost only £2 more per square meter to use fire-resistant cladding instead.

The tactical way of looking at this is whether the landlords or the builders were negligent, or even guilty of manslaughter, for taking such a risk in order to save £5000 on an £8m renovation job. The strategic approach is to ask why British regulators are so easily bullied by the industries they are supposed to police. There is a whole literature on regulatory capture but Britain seems particularly prone to it.

Regular readers of this blog will recall many cases of British regulators providing the appearance of safety, privacy and security rather than the reality. The Information Commissioner is supposed to regulate privacy but backs away from confronting powerful interests such as the tabloid press or the Department of Health. The Financial Ombudsman Service is supposed to protect customers but mostly sides with the banks instead; the new Payment Systems Regulator seems no better. The MHRA is supposed to regulate the safety of medical devices, yet resists doing anything about infusion pumps, which kill as many people as cars do.

Attempts to fix individual regulators are frustrated by lobbyists, or even by fear of lobbyists. For example, my colleague Harold Thimbleby has done great work on documenting the hazards of infusion pumps; yet when he applied to be a non-executive director of the MHRA he was not even shortlisted. I asked a civil servant who was once responsible for recommending such appointments to the Secretary of State why ministers never seemed to appoint people like Harold who might make a real difference. He replied wearily that ministers would never dream of that as “the drug companies would make too much of a fuss”.

In the wake of this tragedy there are both tactical and strategic questions of blame. Tactically, who decided that it was OK to use flammable cladding on high-rise buildings, when other countries came to a different conclusion? Should organisations be fined, should people be fired, and should anyone go to prison? That’s now a matter for the public inquiry, the police and the courts.

Strategically, why is British regulators so cosy with the industries they regulate, and what can be done about that? My starting point is that the appointment of regulators should no longer be in the gift of ministers. I propose that regulatory appointments be moved from the Cabinet Office to an independent commission, like the Judicial Appointments Commission, but with a statutory duty to hire the people most likely to challenge groupthink and keep the regulator effective. That is a political matter – a matter for all of us.

Camouflage or scary monsters: deceiving others about risk

I have just been at the Cambridge Risk and Uncertainty Conference which brings together people who educate the public about risks. They include public-health doctors trying to get people to eat better and exercise more, statisticians trying to keep governments honest about crime statistics, and climatologists trying to educate us about global warming – an eclectic and interesting bunch.

Most of the people in this community see their role as dispelling ignorance, or motivating the slothful. Yet in most of the cases we discussed, the public get risk wrong because powerful interests make a serious effort to scare them about some of life’s little hazards, or to reassure them about others. When this is put to the risk communication folks in a question – whether after a talk or in the corridor – they readily admit they’re up against a torrent of misleading marketing. But they don’t see what they’re doing as adversarial, and I strongly suspect that many risk interventions are less effective as a result.

In my talk (slides) I set this out as simply and starkly as I could. We spend too much on terrorism, because both the terrorists and the governments who’re supposed to protect us from them big up the threat; we spend too little on cybercrime, because everyone from the crooks through the police and the banks to the computer industry has their own reason to talk down the threat. I mentioned recent cases such as Wannacry as examples of how institutions communicate risk in self-serving, misleading ways. I discussed our own study of browser warnings, which suggests that people at least subconsciously know that most of the warnings they see are written to benefit others rather than them; they tune out all but the most specific.

What struck me with some force when preparing my talk, though, is that there’s just nobody in academia who takes a holistic view of adversarial risk communication. Many people look at some small part of the problem, from David Rios’ game-theoretic analysis of adversarial risk through John Mueller’s studies of terrorism risk and Alessandro Acquisti’s behavioural economics of privacy, through to criminologists who study pathways into crime and psychologists who study deception. Of all these, the literature on deception might be the most relevant, though we should also look at politics, propaganda, and studies of why people stubbornly persist in their beliefs – including the excellent work by Bénabou and Tirole on the value people place on belief. Perhaps the professionals whose job comes closest to adversarial risk communication are political spin doctors. So when should we talk about new facts, and when should we talk about who’s deceiving you and why?

Given the current concern over populism and the role of social media in the Brexit and Trump votes, it might be time for a more careful cross-disciplinary study of how we can change people’s minds about risk in the presence of smart and persistent adversaries. We know, for example, that a college education makes people much less susceptible to propaganda and marketing; but what is the science behind designing interventions that are quicker and cheaper in specific circumstances?

Second Annual Cybercrime Conference

The Cambridge Cybercrime Centre is organising another one day conference on cybercrime on Thursday, 13th July 2017.

In future years we intend to focus on research that has been carried out using datasets provided by the Cybercrime Centre, but just as last year (details here, liveblog here) we have a stellar group of invited speakers who are at the forefront of their fields:

They will present various aspects of cybercrime from the point of view of criminology, policy, security economics, law and policing.

This one day event, to be held in the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge will follow immediately after (and will be in the same venue as) the “Tenth International Conference on Evidence Based Policing” organised by the Institute of Criminology which runs on the 11th and 12th July 2016.

Full details (and information about booking) is here.

When safety and security become one

What happens when your car starts getting monthly upgrades like your phone and your laptop? It’s starting to happen, and the changes will be profound. We’ll be able to improve car safety as we learn from accidents, and fixing a flaw won’t mean spending billions on a recall. But if you’re writing navigation code today that will go in the 2020 Landrover, how will you be able to ship safety and security patches in 2030? In 2040? In 2050? At present we struggle to keep software patched for three years; we have no idea how to do it for 30.

Our latest paper reports a project that Éireann Leverett, Richard Clayton and I undertook for the European Commission into what happens to safety in this brave new world. Europe is the world’s lead safety regulator for about a dozen industry sectors, of which we studied three: road transport, medical devices and the electricity industry.

Up till now, we’ve known how to make two kinds of fairly secure system. There’s the software in your phone or laptop which is complex and exposed to online attack, so has to be patched regularly as vulnerabilities are discovered. It’s typically abandoned after a few years as patching too many versions of software costs too much. The other kind is the software in safety-critical machinery which has tended to be stable, simple and thoroughly tested, and not exposed to the big bad Internet. As these two worlds collide, there will be some rather large waves.

Regulators who only thought in terms of safety will have to start thinking of security too. Safety engineers will have to learn adversarial thinking. Security engineers will have to think much more about ease of safe use. Educators will have to start teaching these subjects together. (I just expanded my introductory course on software engineering into one on software and security engineering.) And the policy debate will change too; people might vote for the FBI to have a golden master key to unlock your iPhone and read your private messages, but they might be less likely to vote them a master key to take over your car or your pacemaker.

Researchers and software developers will have to think seriously about how we can keep on patching the software in durable goods such as vehicles for thirty or forty years. It’s not acceptable to recycle cars after seven years, as greedy carmakers might hope; the embedded carbon cost of a car is about equal to its lifetime fuel burn, and reducing average mileage from 200,000 to 70,000 would treble the car industry’s CO2 emissions. So we’re going to have to learn how to make software sustainable. How do we do that?

Our paper is here; there’s a short video here and a longer video here.