Monthly Archives: October 2020

Our new “Freedom of Speech” policy

Our beloved Vice-Chancellor proposes a “free speech” policy under which all academics must treat other academics with “respect”. This is no doubt meant well, but the drafting is surprisingly vague and authoritarian for a university where the VC, the senior pro-VC, the HR pro-VC and the Registrary are all lawyers. The bottom line is that in future we might face disciplinary charges and even dismissal for mockery of ideas and individuals with which we disagree.

The policy was slipped out in March, when nobody was paying attention. There was a Discussion in June, at which my colleague Arif Ahmad spelled out the problems.

Vigorous debate is intrinsic to academia and it should be civil, but it is unreasonable to expect people to treat all opposing views with respect. Oxford’s policy spells this out. At the Discussion, Arif pointed out that “respect” must be changed to “tolerance” if we are to uphold the liberal culture that we have not just embraced but developed over several centuries.

At its first meeting this term, the University Council considered these arguments but decided to press ahead anyway. We are therefore calling a ballot on three amendments to the policy. If you’re a senior member of the University we invite you to sign up your support for them on the flysheets. The first amendment changes “respect” to “tolerance”; the second makes it harder to force university societies to disinvite speakers whose remarks may be controversial, and the third restricts the circumstances in which the university itself can ban speakers.

Liberalism is coming under attack from authoritarians of both left and right, yet it is the foundation on which modern academic life is built and our own university has contributed more than any other to its development over the past 811 years. If academics can face discipline for using tactics such as scorn, ridicule and irony to criticise folly, how does that sit with having such alumni as John Maynard Keynes and Charles Darwin, not to mention Bertrand Rusell, Douglas Adams and Salman Rushdie?

SRI and Cambridge release CHERI software stack for Arm Morello

For the last ten years, SRI International and the University of Cambridge have been working to develop CHERI (Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions), a DARPA-sponsored processor architecture security technology implementing efficient fine-grained memory protection and scalable software compartmentalization. You can learn more about CHERI in our Introduction to CHERI technical report, which describes the architectural, microarchitectural, formal modelling, and software approaches we have created.

For the last six of those years, we have been collaborating closely with Arm to create an adaptation of CHERI to the ARMv8-A architecture, which is slated to appear in Arm’s prototype Morello processor, System-on-Chip (SoC), and board in Q1 2022. Richard Grisenthwaite, Arm’s Principal Architect, announced this joint work at the UKRI Digital Security by Design (DSbD) workshop in September 2019. DSbD is a UKRI / Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) research programme contributing to the creation of the Morello board, and CHERI is the Digital Security by Design Technology that underlies the programme. Our collaboration with Arm has been an enormously exciting experience, involving daily engagement Arm’s architects, microarchitects, and software designers. This included hosting several members of Arm’s team at our lab in Cambridge over multiple years, as we brought together our long-term research on architectural and software security with their experience in industrial architecture, processor designs, and transition.

Today, Richard Grisenthwaite announced that Arm is releasing their first simulator for the Morello architecture, the Morello FVP (Fixed Virtual Platform), and also an open-source software stack that includes their adaptation of our CHERI Clang/LLVM to Morello and early work on Morello support for Android. These build on the Morello architecture specification, released in late September 2020. SRI and Cambridge are releasing a first developer preview release of the CHERI reference software stack ported to Morello – intended to show a rich integration of CHERI into a contemporary OS design, as well as demonstration applications. This stack includes CheriBSD, a BSD-licensed reference design and open-source applications adapted to CHERI including OpenSSH, nginx, and WebKit.

For this first developer preview release, we have focused on bringing CHERI C/C++ memory protection to Morello. Our CheriABI process environment, which allows the full UNIX userspace to run with fine-grained spatial memory safety, is fully functional on Morello. This work has been the recent subject of a report from the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC), Microsoft’s internal red team and security response organization, describing how CHERI has to potential to deterministically prevent over 2/3 of critical Microsoft software security vulnerabilities. CheriBSD/Morello brings that work over from our research CHERI-MIPS and CHERI-RISC-V platforms to Arm’s Morello. We demonstrated CheriBSD/Morello mitigating several memory-safety vulnerabilities in the EPSRC Digital Security by Design (DSbD) workshop yesterday, talking to 9 UK universities that have been funded to do research building on CHERI and Morello.

We have an aggressive planned quarterly release schedule through the end of 2021 when a full release will ship alongside the Morello board, adapting various CheriBSD security features to Morello:

DateReleaseKey features
October 2020Developer PreviewCheriABI pure-capability userspace implementing spatial memory safety.
December 2020Update 1Pure-capability kernel implementing spatial memory safety.
March 2021Update 2Userspace heap temporal memory safety based on Cornucopia (in collaboration with Microsoft Research).
June 2021Update 3Userspace software compartmentalization based on the CHERI co-process model.
October 2021Update 4Userspace software compartmentalization based on a run-time linker model.
Late 2021Full releaseAny updates required to operate well on the shipping Morello board.
CHERI software stack – working release schedule for 2020-2021

Getting started with CheriBSD/Morello is easy (if you have a tolerance for experimental architectural simulators, experimental operating systems, and experimental compilers!). Visit our CHERI Morello software web page to learn more about this work, and then our CheriBSD/Morello distribution page to download our build environment. You can automatically install Arm’s FVP, cross-develop in our docker-based SDK on macOS or Linux, and SSH into the simulated host to try things out.

CHERI is the work of a large research team at SRI International and the University of Cambridge, as well as numerous industrial collaborators at Arm, Google, Microsoft, and elsewhere. My co-investigators, Peter G. Neumann (SRI), Simon W. Moore (Cambridge), Peter Sewell (Cambridge), and I are immensely grateful for their contributions: CHERI would simply not have been possible without your collective effort – thank you! We are also grateful to our sponsors over an extended period, including DARPA, UKRI, Google, and Arm.

How does an illicit cybercrime market evolve: A longitudinal study

Online underground marketplaces are an essential part of the cybercrime economy. They often act as a cash-out market, enabling the trade in illicit goods and services between pseudonymous members. To understand their characteristics, previous research mostly uses vendor ratings, public feedback, sometimes private messages, friend status, and post content. However, most research lacks comprehensive (and important) data about transactions made by the forum members.

Our recent paper (original talk here) published at the Internet Measurement Conference (IMC’20) examines how an online illicit marketplace evolves over time (especially its performance as an infrastructure for trust), including a significant shift through the COVID-19 pandemic. This study draws insights from a novel, rich and powerful dataset containing hundreds of thousands contractual transactions made by members of HackForums — the most popular online cybercrime community. The data includes a two-year historical record of the contract system, originally adopted in June 2018 as an attempt to mitigate scams and frauds occurring between untrusted parties. As well as contractual arrangements, the dataset includes thousands of associated members, threads, posts on the forum, which provide additional context. To study the longitudinal maturation of this marketplace, we split the timespan into three eras: Set-up, Stable, and COVID-19. These eras are defined by two important external milestones: the enforcement of the new forum’s policy in March 2019, and the declaration of the global pandemic in March 2020.

We applied a range of analysis and statistical modelling approaches to outline the maturation of economic and social characteristics of the market since the day it was introduced. We find the market has centralised over time, with a small proportion of ‘power users’ involved in the majority of transactions. In term of trading activities, currency exchange and payments account for the largest proportion of both contracts and users involved, followed by giftcards and accounts/licenses. The other popular products include automated bots, hacking tutorials, remote access tools (RATs), and eWhoring packs. Contracts are settled faster over time, with the completion time dropping from around 70 hours in the early months to less than 10 hours during the COVID-19 Era in June 2020.

We quantitatively estimate a lower bound total trading value of over 6 million USD for public and private transactions. With regards to payment methods preferably used within the market, Bitcoin and PayPal dominate the others at all times in terms of both trading values and number of contracts involved. A subset of new members joining the market face the ‘cold start’ problem, which refers to the difficulties of how to establish and build up a reputation base while initially having no reputation. We find that the majority of these build up their profile by participating in low-level currency exchanges, while some instead establish themselves by offering products and services.

To examine the behaviours of members over time, we use Latent Transition Analysis to discover hidden groups among the forum’s members, including how members move between groups and how they change across the lifetime of the market. In the Set-up Era, we see users gradually shift to the new system with a large number of ‘small scale’ users involved in one-off transactions, and few ‘power-users’. In the Stable Era, we see a shift in the composition and scale of the market when contracts become compulsory, with a growth of ‘business-to-consumer’ trades by ‘power-users’. In the COVID-19 Era, the market further concentrates around already-existing ‘power-users’, who are party to multiple transactions with others.

Overall, the marketplace provides a range of trust capabilities to facilitate trade between pseudonymous parties with the control is becoming further centralised with administrators acting as third-party arbitrators. The platform is clearly being used as a cash-out market, with most trades involving the exchange of currencies. In term of the three eras, the big picture shows two significant rises in the market’s activities in response to two major events that happened at the beginning of Stable and COVID-19 eras. Particularly, we observe a stimulus (rather than transformation) in trading activities during the pandemic: the same kinds of transactions, users, and behaviours, but at increased volumes. By looking at the context of forum posts at that time, we see a period of mass boredom and economic change, when some members are no longer at school while others have become unemployed or are unable to go to work. A need to make money and the availability of time in their hand to do so may be a factor resulting in the increase of trading activities seen at this time.

Some limitations of our dataset include no ground truth verification, in which we have no way to verify if transactions actually proceed as set out in the contractual agreements. Furthermore, the dataset contains a large number of private contracts (around 88%), in which we only can observe minimal information. The dataset is available to academic researchers through the Cambridge Cybercrime Center‘s data-sharing agreements.

Three paper Thursday: COVID-19 and cybercrime

For a slightly different Three Paper Thursday, I’m pulling together some of the work done by our Centre and others around the COVID-19 pandemic and how it, and government responses to it, are reshaping the cybercrime landscape. 

The first thing to note is that there appears to be a nascent academic consensus emerging that the pandemic, or more accurately, lockdowns and social distancing, have indeed substantially changed the topology of crime in contemporary societies, leading to an increase in cybercrime and online fraud. The second is that this large-scale increase in cybercrime appears to be the result of a growth in existing cybercrime phenomena rather than the emergence of qualitatively new exploits, scams, attacks, or crimes. This invites reconsideration not only of our understandings of cybercrime and its relation to space, time, and materiality, but additionally to our understandings of what to do about it.

Continue reading Three paper Thursday: COVID-19 and cybercrime

Three Paper Thursday: Applying natural language processing to underground forums

Underground forums contain discussions and advertisements of various topics, including general chatter, hacking tutorials, and sales of items on marketplaces. While off-the-shelf natural language processing (NLP) techniques may be applied in this domain, they are often trained on standard corpora such as news articles and Wikipedia. 

It isn’t clear how well these models perform with the noisy text data found on underground forums, which contains evolving domain-specific lexicon, misspellings, slang, jargon, and acronyms. I explored this problem with colleagues from the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre and the Computer Laboratory, in developing a tool for detecting bursty trending topics using a Bayesian approach of log-odds. The approach uses a prior distribution to detect change in the vocabulary used in forums, for filtering out consistently used jargon and slang. The paper has been accepted to the 2020 Workshop on Noisy User-Generated Text (ACL) and the preprint is available online.

Other more commonly used approaches of identifying known and emerging trends range from simple keyword detection using a dictionary of known terms, to statistical methods of topic modelling including TF-IDF and Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA). In addition, the NLP landscape has been changing over the last decade [1], with a shift to deep learning using neural models, such as word2vec and BERT.

In this Three Paper Thursday, we look at how past papers have used different NLP approaches to analyse posts in underground forums, from statistical techniques to word embeddings, for identifying and define new terms, generating relevant warnings even when the jargon is unknown, and identifying similar threads despite relevant keywords not being known.

[1] Gregory Goth. 2016. Deep or shallow, NLP is breaking out. Commun. ACM 59, 3 (March 2016), 13–16. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/2874915

Continue reading Three Paper Thursday: Applying natural language processing to underground forums

Three Paper Thursday: Broken Hearts and Empty Wallets

This is a guest post by Cassandra Cross.

Romance fraud (also known as romance scams or sweetheart swindles) affects millions of individuals globally each year. In 2019, the Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3) (USA) had over US$475 million reported lost to romance fraud. Similarly, in Australia, victims reported losing over $AUD80 million and British citizens reported over £50 million lost in 2018. Given the known under-reporting of fraud overall, and online fraud more specifically, these figures are likely to only be a minority of actual losses incurred.

Romance fraud occurs when an offender uses the guise of a legitimate relationship to gain a financial advantage from their victim. It differs from a bad relationship, in that from the outset, the offender is using lies and deception to obtain monetary rewards from their partner. Romance fraud capitalises on the fact that a potential victim is looking to establish a relationship and exhibits an express desire to connect with someone. Offenders use this to initiate a connection and start to build strong levels of trust and rapport.

As with all fraud, victims experience a wide range of impacts in the aftermath of victimisation. While many believe these to be only financial, in reality, it extends to a decline in both physical and emotional wellbeing, relationship breakdown, unemployment, homelessness, and in extreme cases, suicide. In the case of romance fraud, there is the additional trauma associated with grieving both the loss of the relationship as well as any funds they have transferred. For many victims, the loss of the relationship can be harder to cope with than the monetary aspect, with victims experiencing large degrees of betrayal and violation at the hands of their offender.

Sadly, there is also a large amount of victim blaming that exists with both romance fraud and fraud in general. Fraud is unique in that victims actively participate in the offence, through the transfer of money, albeit under false pretences. As a result, they are seen to be culpable for what occurs and are often blamed for their own circumstances. The stereotype of fraud victims as greedy, gullible and naïve persists, and presents as a barrier to disclosure as well as inhibiting their ability to report the incident and access any support services.

Given the magnitude of losses and impacts on romance fraud victims, there is an emerging body of scholarship that seeks to better understand the ways in which offenders are able to successfully target victims, the ways in which they are able to perpetrate their offences, and the impacts of victimisation on the individuals themselves. The following three articles each explore different aspects of romance fraud, to gain a more holistic understanding of this crime type.

Continue reading Three Paper Thursday: Broken Hearts and Empty Wallets