All posts by Frank Stajano

Cambridge2Cambridge 2017

Following on from various other similar events we organised over the past few years, last week we hosted our largest ethical hacking competition yet, Cambridge2Cambridge 2017, with over 100 students from some of the best universities in the US and UK working together over three days. Cambridge2Cambridge was founded jointly by MIT CSAIL (in Cambridge Massachusetts) and the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (in the original Cambridge) and was first run at MIT in 2016 as a competition involving only students from these two universities. This year it was hosted in Cambridge UK and we broadened the participation to many more universities in the two countries. We hope in the future to broaden participation to more countries as well.

Cambridge 2 Cambridge 2017 from Frank Stajano Explains on Vimeo.

We assigned the competitors to teams that were mixed in terms of both provenance and experience. Each team had competitors from US and UK, and no two people from the same university; and each team also mixed experienced and less experienced players, based on the qualifier scores. We did so to ensure that even those who only started learning about ethical hacking when they heard about this competition would have an equal chance of being in the team that wins the gold. We then also mixed provenance to ensure that, during these three days, students collaborated with people they didn’t already know.

Despite their different backgrounds, what the attendees had in common was that they were all pretty smart and had an interest in cyber security. It’s a safe bet that, ten or twenty years from now, a number of them will probably be Security Specialists, Licensed Ethical Hackers, Chief Security Officers, National Security Advisors or other high calibre security professionals. When their institution or country is under attack, they will be able to get in touch with the other smart people they met here in Cambridge in 2017, and they’ll be in a position to help each other. That’s why the defining feature of the event was collaboration, making new friends and having fun together. Unlike your standard one-day hacking contest, the ambitious three-day programme of C2C 2017 allowed for social activities including punting on the river Cam, pub crawling and a Harry Potter style gala dinner in Trinity College.

In between competition sessions we had a lively and inspirational “women in cyber” panel, another panel on “securing the future digital society”, one on “real world pentesting” and a careers advice session. On the second day we hosted several groups of bright teenagers who had been finalists in the national CyberFirst Girls Competition. We hope to inspire many more women to take up a career path that has so far been very male-dominated. More broadly, we wish to inspire many young kids, girls or boys, to engage in the thrilling challenge of unravelling how computers work (and how they fail to work) in a high-stakes mental chess game of adversarial attack and defense.

Our platinum sponsors Leidos and NCC Group endowed the competition with over £20,000 of cash prizes, awarded to the best 3 teams and the best 3 individuals. Besides the main attack-defense CTF, fought on the Leidos CyberNEXS cyber range, our other sponsors offered additional competitions, the results of which were combined to generate the overall teams and individual scores. Here is the leaderboard, showing how our contestants performed. Special congratulations to Bo Robert Xiao of Carnegie Mellon University who, besides winning first place in both team and individuals, also went on to win at DEF CON in team PPP a couple of days later.

We are grateful to our supporters, our sponsors, our panelists, our guests, our staff and, above all, our 110 competitors for making this event a success. It was particularly pleasing to see several students who had already taken part in some of our previous competitions (special mention for Luke Granger-Brown from Imperial who earned medals at every visit). Chase Lucas from Dakota State University, having passed the qualifier but not having picked in the initial random selection, was on the reserve list in case we got funding to fly additional students; he then promptly offered to pay for his own airfare in order to be able to attend! Inter-ACE 2017 winner Io Swift Wolf from Southampton deserted her own graduation ceremony in order to participate in C2C (!), and then donated precious time during the competition to the CyberFirst girls who listened to her rapturously. Accumulating all that good karma could not go unrewarded, and indeed you can once again find her name in the leaderboard above. And I’ve only singled out a few, out of many amazing, dynamic and enthusiastic young people. Watch out for them: they are the ones who will defend the future digital society, including you and your family, from the cyber attacks we keep reading about in the media. We need many more like them, and we need to put them in touch with each other. The bad guys are organised, so we have to be organised too.

The event was covered by Sky News, ITV, BBC World Service and a variety of other media, which the official website and twitter page will undoubtedly collect in due course.

Inter-ACE national hacking competition today

Over 100 of the best students in cyber from the UK Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Research are gathered here at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory today for the second edition of our annual “Inter-ACE” hacking contest.

The competition is hosted on the CyberNEXS cyber-range of our sponsor Leidos, and involves earning points for hacking into each other’s machines while defending one’s own.   The competition has grown substantially from last year’s: you can follow it live on Twitter (@InterACEcyber) At the time of writing, we still don’t know who is going to take home the trophy. Can you guess who will?

The event has been made possible thanks to generous support from the National Cyber Security Centre, the Cabinet Office, Leidos and NCC Group.

CFP: Passwords 2016

Call for Papers
The 11th International Conference on Passwords

5-7 December 2016
Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

The Passwords conference was launched in 2010 as a response to
the lack of robustness and usability of current personal
authentication practices and solutions. Annual participation has
doubled over the past three years. Since 2014, the conference
accepts peer-reviewed papers.


Research papers and short papers:
– Title and abstract submission: EXTENDED TO 2016-08-22 2016-07-04  (23:59 UTC-11)
– Paper submission: EXTENDED TO 2016-08-29 2016-07-11 (23:59 UTC-11)
– Notification of acceptance: 2016-10-17 2016-09-05
– Camera-ready from authors: 2016-10-31 2016-09-19

Hacker Talks:
– Talk proposal submission: 2016-09-15 (23:59 UTC-11)
– Notification of acceptance: 2016-09-30


More than half a billion user passwords have been compromised
over the last five years, including breaches at internet
companies such as Target, Adobe, Heartland, Forbes, LinkedIn,
Yahoo, and LivingSocial. Yet passwords, PIN codes, and similar
remain the most prevalent method of personal
authentication. Clearly, we have a systemic problem.

This conference gathers researchers, password crackers, and
enthusiastic experts from around the globe, aiming to better
understand the challenges surrounding the methods personal
authentication and passwords, and how to adequately solve these
problems. The Passwords conference series seek to provide a
friendly environment for participants with plenty opportunity to
communicate with the speakers before, during, and after their


We seek original contributions that present attacks, analyses,
designs, applications, protocols, systems, practical experiences,
and theory. Submitted papers may include, but are not limited to,
the following topics, all related to passwords and

– Technical challenges and issues:
– Cryptanalytic attacks
– Formal attack models
– Cryptographic protocols
– Dictionary attacks
– Digital forensics
– Online attacks/Rate-limiting
– Side-channel attacks
– Administrative challenges:
– Account lifecycle management
– User identification
– Password resets
– Cross-domain and multi-enterprise system access
– Hardware token administration
– Password “replacements”:
– 2FA and multifactor authentication
– Risk-based authentication
– Password managers
– Costs and economy
– Biometrics
– Continous authentication
– FIDO – U2F
– Deployed systems:
– Best practice reports
– Incident reports/Lessons learned
– Human factors:
– Usability
– Design & UX
– Social Engineering
– Memorability
– Accessibility
– Pattern predictability
– Gestures and graphical patterns
– Psychology
– Statistics (languages, age, demographics…)
– Ethics


Papers must be submitted as PDF using the Springer LNCS format
for Latex. Abstract and title must be submitted one week ahead of
the paper deadline.

We seek submissions for review in the following three categories:

– Research Papers
– Short Papers
– “Hacker Talks” (talks without academic papers attached)

RESEARCH PAPERS should describe novel, previously unpublished
technical contributions within the scope of the call. The papers
will be subjected to double-blind peer review by the program
committee. Paper length is limited to 16 pages (LNCS format)
excluding references and well-marked appendices. The paper
submitted for review must be anonymous, hence author names,
affiliations, acknowledgements, or obvious references must be
temporarily edited out for the review process. The program
committee may reject non-anonymized papers without reading
them. The submitted paper (in PDF format) must follow the
template described by Springer at

SHORT PAPERS will also be subject to peer review, where the
emphasis will be put on work in progress, hacker achievements,
industrial experiences, and incidents explained, aiming at
novelty and promising directions. Short paper submissions should
not be more than 6 pages in standard LNCS format in total. A
short paper must be labeled by the subtitle “Short
Paper”. Accepted short paper submissions may be included in the
conference proceedings. Short papers do not need to be
anonymous. The program committee may accept full research papers
as short papers.

HACKER TALKS are presentations without an academic paper
attached. They will typically explain new methods, techniques,
tools, systems, or services within the Passwords scope. Proposals
for Hacker Talks can be submitted by anybody (“hackers”,
academics, students, enthusiasts, etc.) in any format, but
typically will include a brief (2-3 paragraphs) description of
the talk’s content and the person presenting. They will be
evaluated by a separate subcommittee led by Per Thorsheim,
according to different criteria than those used for the refereed

At least one of the authors of each accepted paper must register
and present the paper at the workshop. Papers without a full
registration will be withdrawn from the proceedings and from the
workshop programme.

Papers that pass the peer review process and that are presented
at the workshop will be included in the event proceedings,
published by Springer in the Lecture Notes in Computer
Science (LNCS) series.

Papers must be unpublished and not being considered elsewhere for
publication. Plagiarism and self-plagiarism will be treated as a
serious offense.  Program committee members may submit papers but
program chairs may not.  The time frame for each presentation
will be either 30 or 45 minutes, including Q&A. Publication will
be by streaming, video and web.


– General chair: Per Thorsheim, God Praksis AS (N)
– Program co-chair and host: Markus Dürmuth, Ruhr-University Bochum (DE)
– Program co-chair: Frank Stajano, University of Cambridge (UK)


– Adam Aviv, United States Naval Academy (USA)
– Lujo Bauer, Carnegie Mellon University (USA)
– Jeremiah Blocki, Microsoft Research/Purdue University (USA)
– Joseph Bonneau, Stanford University (USA)
– Heather Crawford, Florida Institute of Technology (USA)
– Bruno Crispo, KU Leuven (B) and University of Trento (IT)
– Serge Egelman, ICSI and University of California at Berkeley (USA)
– David Freeman, LinkedIn (USA)
– Simson Garfinkel, NIST (USA)
– Tor Helleseth, University of Bergen (N)
– Cormac Herley, Microsoft Research (USA)
– Graeme Jenkinson, University of Cambridge (UK)
– Mike Just, Heriot-Watt University (UK)
– Stefan Lucks, Bauhaus-University Weimar (D)
– Paul van Oorschot, Carleton University (CA)
– Angela Sasse, University College London (UK)
– Elizabeth Stobert, ETH Zurich (CH)


– Per Thorsheim, God Praksis AS (N)
– Stig F. Mjolsnes, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (N)
– Frank Stajano, University of Cambridge (UK)

More and updated information can be found at the conference website

And the winners are…


The Inter-ACE Cyberchallenge on Saturday was fantastic. The event saw nearly twice as many competitors as attended the C2C competition in Boston recently, engaged in solving the most artful challenges. It was great to see so many students interested in cyber security making the effort to travel from the four corners of the UK, a few from as far away as Belfast!

IMG_5373The competition was played out on a “Risk-style” world map, and competing teams had to fight each other for control of several countries, each protected by a fiendish puzzle. A number of universities had also submitted guest challenges, and it was great that so many teams got involved in this creative process too. To give one example; The Cambridge team had designed a challenge based around a historically accurate enigma machine, with this challenge protecting the country of Panama. Competitors had to brute-force the settings of the enigma machine to decode a secret message. Other challenges were based around the core CTF subject areas of web application security, binary reverse engineering and exploitation, forensics, and crypto. Some novice teams may have struggled to compete, but they would have learned a lot, and hopefully developed an appetite for more competition. There were also plenty of teams present with advanced tool sets and a solid plan, with these preparations clearly paying off in the final scores.


Between the 10 teams, their coaches, the organisers and the reporters, the lab was bustling with excitement and that intense feeling of hackers “in the zone” for the whole afternoon.


I have nothing but praise for our partners Facebook, who worked hard on setting the challenges and making the CTF game run smoothly, as well as feeding the participants with pizza and endowing the prizes with hacking books and goodie bags.


The biggest thanks go to the ACE-CSRs who enthusiastically supported this initiative despite the short notice. 40 students came to Cambridge to compete in the live event in teams of 4, and another 40+ competed remotely in the individuals.


In retrospect we should have organised a “best T-shirt” competition. I especially liked Facebook t-shirts “Fix more, whine less” and “s/sleep/hack/g” but the one I would have voted overall winner (despite not technically being a T-shirt) was Southampton’s Shakespearian boolean logic.


It is with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that I announce the winners, as Cambridge won the gold in both the team and individual events.


Team event:

  • 1st place (Gold): University of Cambridge
    Stella Lau, Will Shackleton, Cheng Sun, Gábor Szarka
  • 2nd place (Silver): Imperial College London
    Matthieu Buffet, Jiarou Fan, Luke Granger-Brown, Antoine Vianey-Liaud
  • 3rd place (Bronze): University of Southampton
    Murray Colpman, Kier Davis, Yordan Ganchev, Mohit Gupta


Individual event:

  • 1st place (Gold): Dimitrije Erdeljan, University of Cambridge
  • 2nd place (Silver): Emma Espinosa, University of Oxford
  • 3rd place (Bronze): David Young, University of Southampton


I shall ignore allegations of having rigged the game except to say that yes, we did train our students rather extensively in preparation for the previously-mentioned Cambridge 2 Cambridge event with MIT. All of our winners are Cambridge undergraduates in computer science who had done well in the qualifiers for C2C. Two of them had actually been to Boston, where Gábor had been on the winning team overall and earned one gold and two silver medals, while Will (also former UK Cyber Security Challenge winner) had earned one gold, one silver and two bronze medals. Well deserved thanks also to my modest but irreplaceable collaborator Graham Rymer who designed and delivered an effective and up-to-date ethical hacking course to our volunteers. The Cambridge success in this weekend’s competition gives promising insights into the effectiveness of this training which we are gearing up to offering to all our undergraduates and potentially to other interested audiences in the future.


We are once again grateful to everyone who took part. We are also grateful to the Cabinet Office, to EPSRC and to GCHQ for support that will allow us to keep the event running and we hereby invite all the ACEs to sharpen their hacking tools for next year and come back to attempt to reconquer the trophy from us.

Inter-ACE cyberchallenge at Cambridge

The best student hackers from the UK’s 13 Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Research are coming to Cambridge for the first Inter-ACE Cyberchallenge tomorrow, Saturday 23 April 2016.

The event is organized by the University of Cambridge in partnership with Facebook. It is loosely patterned on other inter-university sport competitions, in that each university enters a team of four students and the winning team takes home a trophy that gets engraved with the name of their university and is then passed on to the next winning team the following year.
Participation in the Inter-ACE cyberchallenge is open only to Universities accredited as ACEs under the EPSRC/GCHQ scheme. 10 of the 13 ACEs have entered this inaugural edition: alphabetically, Imperial College, Queens University Belfast, Royal Holloway University of London, University College London, University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge (hosting), University of Kent, University of Oxford, University of Southampton, University of Surrey. The challenges are set and administered by Facebook, but five of the ten competing insitutions have also sent Facebook an optional “guest challenge” for others to solve.
The players compete in a CTF involving both “Jeopardy-style” and “attack-defense-style” aspects. Game progress is visualized on a world map somewhat reminiscent of Risk, where teams attempt to conquer and re-conquer world countries by solving associated challenges.
We designed the Inter-ACE cyberchallenge riding on the success of the Cambridge2Cambridge cybersecurity challenge we ran in collaboration with MIT last March. In that event, originally planned following a January 2015 joint announcement by US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, six teams of students took part in a 24-hour Capture-The-Flag involving several rounds and spin-out individual events such as “rapid fire” (where challengers had to break into four different vulnerable binaries under time pressure) and “lock picking”, also against the clock and against each other. The challenges were expertly set and administered by ForAllSecure, a cybersecurity spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University.
C2C Updated Header- 3.7.16-1
With generous support from the UK consulate in Boston we were able to fly 10 Cambridge students to MIT. By design, we mixed people from both universities in each team, to promote C2C as an international cooperation and a bridge-building exercise. Thanks to the generosity of the many sponsors of the event, particularly Microsoft who funded the cash prizes, the winning team “Johnny Cached”, consisting of two MIT and two Cambridge students, walked away with 15,000 USD. Many other medals were awarded for various achievements throughout the event. Everyone came back with a sense of accomplishement and with connections with new like-minded and highly skilled friends across the pond.
In both the C2C and the Inter-ACE I strived to design the rules in a way that would encourage participation not just from the already-experienced but also from interested inexperienced students who wanted to learn more. So, in C2C I designed a scheme where (following a pre-selection to rank the candidates) each team would necessarily include both experienced players and novices; whereas in Inter-ACE, where each University clearly had the incentive of picking their best players to send to Cambridge to represent them, I asked our technical partners Facebook to provide a parallel online competition that could be entered into remotely by individual students who were not on their ACE’s team. This way nobody who wanted to play is left out.
Industry and government (ours, but probably also those of whatever other country you’re reading this blog post from) concur that we need more cybersecurity experts. They can’t hire the good ones fast enough. A recent Washington post article lamented that “Universities aren’t doing enough to train the cyberdefenders America desperately needs”. Well, some of us are, and are taking the long term view.
As an educator, I believe the role of a university is to teach the solid foundations, the timeless principles, and especially “learning how to learn”, rather than the trick of the day; so I would not think highly of a hacking-oriented university course that primarily taught techniques destined to become obsolete in a couple of years. On the other hand, a total disconnect between theory and practice is also inappropriate. I’ve always introduced my students to lockpicking at the end of my undergraduate security course, both as a metaphor for the attack-defense interplay that is at the core of security (a person unskilled at picking locks has no hope of building a new lock that can withstand determined attacks; you can only beat the bad guys if you’re better than them) and to underline that the practical aspects of security are also relevant, and even fun. It has always been enthusiastically received, and has contributed to make more students interested in security.
I originally accepted to get involved in organizing Cambridge 2 Cambridge, with my esteemed MIT colleague Dr Howie Shrobe, precisely because I believe in the educational value of exposing our students to practical hands-on security. The C2C competition was run as a purely vocational event for our students, something they did during evenings and weekends if they were interested, and on condition it would not interfere with their coursework. However, taking on the role of co-organizing C2C allowed me, with thanks to the UK Cabinet Office, to recruit a precious full time collaborator, experienced ethical hacker Graham Rymer, who has since been developing a wealth of up-to-date training material for C2C. My long term plan, already blessed by the department, is to migrate some of this material into practical exercises for our official undergraduate curriculum, starting from next year. I think it will be extremely beneficial for students to get out of University with a greater understanding of the kind of adversaries they’re up against when they become security professionals and are tasked to defend the infrastructure of the organization that employs them.
Another side benefit of these competitions, as already remarked, is the community building, the forging of links between students. We don’t want merely to train individuals: we want to create a new generation of security professionals, a strong community of “good guys”. And if they met each other at the Inter-ACE when they were little, they’re going to have a much stronger chance of actively collaborating ten years later when they’re grown-ups and have become security consultants, CISOs or heads of homeland security back wherever they came from. Sometimes I have to fight with narrow-minded regulations that would only, say, offer scholarships in security to students who could pass security clearance. Well, playing by such rules makes the pool too small. For as long as I have been at Cambridge, the majority of the graduates and faculty in our security research group have been “foreigners” (myself included, of course). A university that only worked with students (and staff, for that matter) from its own country would be at a severe disadvantage compared to those, like Cambridge, that accept and train the best in the whole world. I believe we can only nurture and bring out the best student hackers in the UK in a stimulating environment where their peers are the best student hackers from anywhere else in the world. We need to take the long term view and understand that we cannot reach critical mass without this openness. We must show how exciting cybersecurity is to those clever students who don’t know it yet, whatever their gender, prior education, social class, background, even (heaven forbid) those scary foreigners, hoo hoo, because it’s only by building a sufficiently large ecosystem of skilled, competent and ethically trained good guys that employers will have enough good applicants “of their preferred profile” in the pool they want to fish in for recruitment purposes.
My warmest thanks to my academic colleagues leading the other ACE-CSRs who have responded so enthusiastically to this call at very short notice, and to the students who have been so keen to come to Cambridge for this Inter-ACE despite it being so close to their exam season. Let’s celebrate this diversity of backgrounds tomorrow and forge links between the best of the good guys, wherever they’re from. Going forward, let’s attract more and more brilliant young students to cybersecurity, to join us in the fight to make the digital society safe for all, within and across borders.

Three exciting job openings in security usability

We are looking for three more people to join the Cambridge security group. Two job adverts, intended for postgrads or postdocs, are already out now. A third one, specifically aimed at a final year undergraduate or master student, strong on programming but with no significant work experience, is currently making its way through the HR pipeline and should appear soon. Please pass this on to anyone potentially interested.

With the Pico project (see website for videos, papers and more) we wish to liberate humanity from the usability and security problems of passwords. We are looking for a UX designer to help us in our quest to produce a user-centred, effective and pleasant to use solution and for two software engineers with a security mindset to help us build it and make it robust against attacks. Would you like to join us and contribute to eliminating the annoyance and frustration of passwords from the daily experience of billions of computer users?
  1. User experience (UX) designer
    Research Associate or Assistant (with/without PhD)
    Start date: ASAP
    Details and link to application form:
  2. Senior software engineer / software engineer
    Research Associate or Assistant (with/without PhD)
    Start date: ASAP
    Details and link to application form:
  3. Software engineer
    Research assistant (having just completed a bachelor or master in CS/EE)
    Start date: June 2016
    Watch this space: the ad should go live within a week or so

Double bill: Password Hashing Competition + KeyboardPrivacy

Two interesting items from Per Thorsheim, founder of the PasswordsCon conference that we’re hosting here in Cambridge this December (you still have one month to submit papers, BTW).

First, the Password Hashing Competition “have selected Argon2 as a basis for the final PHC winner”, which will be “finalized by end of Q3 2015”. This is about selecting a new password hashing scheme to improve on the state of the art and make brute force password cracking harder. Hopefully we’ll have some good presentations about this topic at the conference.

Second, and unrelated: Per Thorsheim and Paul Moore have launched a privacy-protecting Chrome plugin called Keyboard Privacy to guard your anonymity against websites that look at keystroke dynamics to identify users. So, you might go through Tor, but the site recognizes you by your typing pattern and builds a typing profile that “can be used to identify you at other sites you’re using, were identifiable information is available about you”. Their plugin intercepts your keystrokes, batches them up and delivers them to the website at a constant pace, interfering with the site’s ability to build a profile that identifies you.

Commercialising academic research

At the 2014 annual conference of the Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber-Security Research I was invited to give a talk on commercialising research from the viewpoint of an academic. I did that by distilling the widsom and experience of five of my Cambridge colleagues who had started a company (or several). The talk was well received at the conference and may be instructive both for academics with entrepreneurial ambitions and for other universities that aspire to replicate the “Cambridge phenomenon” elsewhere.

Screenshot from 2015-01-12 14:45:04

A recording of the presentation, Commercialising research: the academic’s perspective from Frank Stajano Explains, is available on Vimeo.

Passwords’14 in Trondheim

Passwords^14 is part of a lively and entertaining conference series started by password hacker Per Thorsheim in 2010 and devoted solely to passwords.

Up to now it was mostly invited talks and hacks but this year we’re also having scientific papers, which will be peer-reviewed. Proceedings will be published in Springer LNCS. Submission deadline 27 October 2014.

Call for papers:

Conference site:

See you in Trondheim, Norway, 8-10 December 2014.