All posts by Frank Stajano

The Real Hustler

Paul Wilson, my esteemed coauthor on that paper on the psychology of scam victims that is currently attracting quite a bit of attention, has just started an entertaining and instructive new blog, The Real Hustler. If you liked our paper, you’ll probably enjoy Paul’s blog.

Well worth a bookmark and repeat visits for fans of the BBC TV series and for researchers who recognize the importance of the exciting new field of security psychology.

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.

Location privacy

I was recently asked for a brief (4-page) invited paper for a forthcoming special issue of the ACM SIGSPATIAL on privacy and security of location-based systems, so I wrote Foot-driven computing: our first glimpse of location privacy issues.

In 1989 at ORL we developed the Active Badge, the first indoor location system: an infrared transmitter worn by personnel that allowed you to tell which room the wearer was in. Every press and TV reporter who visited our lab worried about the intrusiveness of this technology; yet, today, all those people happily carry mobile phones through which they can be tracked anywhere they go. The significance of the Active Badge project was to give us a head start of a few years during which to think about location privacy before it affected hundreds of millions of people. (There is more on our early ubiquitous computing work at ORL in this free excerpt from my book.)
The ORL Active Badge

Location privacy is a hard problem to solve, first because ordinary people don’t seem to actually care, and second because there is a misalignment of incentives: those who could do the most to address the problem are the least affected and the least concerned about it. But we have a responsibility to address it, in the same way that designers of new vehicles have a responsibility to address the pollution and energy consumption issue.

Security issues in ubiquitous computing

I have written the security chapter for a multi-author volume on ubiquitous computing that will be published by Springer later this year. For me it was an opportunity to pull together some of the material I have been collecting for a possible second edition of my 2002 book on Security for Ubiquitous Computing—but of course a 30-page chapter can be nothing more than a brief introduction.

Anyway, here is a “release candidate” copy of the chapter, which will ship to the book editors in a couple of weeks. Comments are welcome, either on the chapter itself or, based on this preview, on what you’d like me to discuss in my own full-length book when I yield to the repeated pleas of John Wiley And Sons and sit down to write a new edition.

Forensic genomics

I recently presented a paper on Forensic genomics: kin privacy, driftnets and other open questions (co-authored with Lucia Bianchi, Pietro Liò and Douwe Korff) at WPES 2008, the Workshop for Privacy in the Electronic Society of ACM CCS, the ACM Computer and Communication Security conference. Pietro and I also gave a related talk here at the Computer Laboratory in Cambridge.

While genetics is concerned with the observation of specific sections of DNA, genomics is about studying the entire genome of an organism, something that has only become practically possible in recent years. In forensic genetics, which is the technology behind the large national DNA databases being built in several countries including notably UK and USA (Wallace’s outstanding article lucidly exposes many significant issues), investigators compare scene-of-crime samples with database samples by checking if they match, but only on a very small number of specific locations in the genome (e.g. 13 locations according to the CODIS rules). In our paper we explore what might change when forensic analysis moves from genetics to genomics over the next few decades. This is a problem that can only be meaningfully approached from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint and indeed our combined backgrounds cover computer security, bioinformatics and law.

CODIS markers
(Image from Wikimedia commons, in turn from NIST.)

Sequencing the first human genome (2003) cost 2.7 billion dollars and took 13 years. The US’s National Human Genome Research Institute has offered over 20 M$ worth of grants towards the goal of driving the cost of whole-genome sequencing down to a thousand dollars. This will enable personalized genomic medicine (e.g. predicting genetic risk of contracting specific diseases) but will also open up a number of ethical and privacy-related problems. Eugenetic abortions, genomic pre-screening as precondition for healthcare (or even just dating…), (mis)use of genomic data for purposes other than that for which it was collected and so forth. In various jurisdictions there exists legislation (such as the recent GINA in the US) that attempts to protect citizens from some of the possible abuses; but how strongly is it enforced? And is it enough? In the forensic context, is the DNA analysis procedure as infallible as we are led to believe? There are many subtleties associated with the interpretation of statistical results; when even professional statisticians disagree, how are the poor jurors expected to reach a fair verdict? Another subtle issue is kin privacy: if the scene-of-crime sample, compared with everyone in the database, partially matches Alice, this may be used as a hint to investigate all her relatives, who aren’t even in the database; indeed, some 1980s murders were recently solved in this way. “This raises compelling policy questions about the balance between collective security and individual privacy” [Bieber, Brenner, Lazer, 2006]. Should a democracy allow such a “driftnet” approach of suspecting and investigating all the innocents in order to catch the guilty?

This is a paper of questions rather than one of solutions. We believe an informed public debate is needed before the expected transition from genetics to genomics takes place. We want to stimulate discussion and therefore we invite you to read the paper, make up your mind and support what you believe are the right answers.

The real hustle on BBC3: watch it!

For UK residents: BBC Three is re-running their wonderful 10-episode series “The Real Hustle” in which three skilled con artists give, with hidden cameras, a revealing and entertaining guided tour of the most popular scams used to rip off people today. Some computer-based (including keyloggers, bluejacking and bank card cloning), most not.

This series should be required viewing for all security professionals and most definitely for all security students. The only way to understand security is by understanding what crooks actually do. It’s also great fun.

Each episode is re-broadcast several times, from prime time to middle-of-the-night, so you usually get several chances to set your digital video recorder if the programme overlaps with something else you want to watch or record. Check the EPG.

Persec 2006 and Naccache on tapping mobile phones

Over the past couple of months I attended about half a dozen events around the world (Brussels, Pisa (x3), Tokyo, Cambridge, York, Milan), often as invited speaker, but failed to mention them here. While I won’t promise that I will ever catch up with the reporting, let me at least start.

I was, with Ari Juels of RSA Labs, program chair of IEEE PerSec 2006, the security workshop of the larger PerCom conference, held in March 2006 in Pisa, Italy. I previously mentioned the rfid virus paper by Rieback et al when it got the (second) best paper award: that was the paper I found most enjoyable of the ones in the main track.

Ari and I invited David Naccache as the keynote speaker of our workshop. This was, if I may say so myself, an excellent move: for me, his talk was by far the most interesting part of the whole workshop and conference. Now a professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, David was until recently a security expert at leading smartcard manufacturer Gemplus. Among other things, his talents allow him to help law enforcement agencies tap the bad guys’s cellphones, read the numbers in their phone books and find out where they have been.

His talk was very informative and entertaining, full of fascinating war stories such as the tricks used to steal covertly an expired session key from the phone of a suspect to decrypt a recorded phone call that had been intercepted earlier as cyphertext. The target was asleep in a hotel room, with his phone under recharge on his bed table, and the author and his agents were in the next room, doing their electronic warfare from across the wall. What do you do in a case like this? pretend to be the base station, reissue the old challenge so that the SIM generates the same session key, and then listen to the electromagnetic radiation from the pads of the SIM while the key is being transmitted to the handset via the SIM’s electric contacts. Brilliant. And just one in a rapid-fire sequence of other equally interesting real life stories.

David, like many of the other speakers at the workshop, has kindly allowed me to put up his paper and presentation slides on the workshop’s web site. It won’t be as good as his outstanding live talk, but you may still find it quite interesting.

On the same page you will also find two more papers by members of the Cambridge security group: one on multi-channel protocols by Ford-Long Wong and yours truly, and one attacking key distribution schemes in sensor networks by Tyler Moore.

Why so many CCTVs in UK? (again)

I previously blogged about Prof. Martin Gill’s brilliant talk on CCTV at the Institute of Criminology.

I invited him to give it again as a Computer Laboratory seminar. He will do so on Wed 2006-05-17, 14:15. If you are around, do come along—highly recommended, and open to all. Title and abstract follow.

CCTV in the UK: A failure of theory or a failure of practice?

Although CCTV was heralded as something of a silver bullet in the fight against crime (and by two Governments) scholarly research has questioned the extent to which it ‘works’. Martin Gill led the Home Office national evaluation on CCTV and has subsequently conducted more research with CCTV schemes across the country. In this talk he will outline the findings from the national evalaution and assess the views of the public, scheme workers and offenders’ perspectives (including showing film clips of offenders talking at crime scenes) to show just why CCTV has not worked out as many considered. Martin will relate these findings to the current development of a national strategy.

Cat with computer virus

Live from IEEE PerCom in Pisa, Italy: “Is your cat infected by a computer virus?“, the paper about writing a virus for RFID tags, by Melanie Rieback, Bruno Crispo (Cambridge security group alumnus) and Andrew Tanenbaum, which got huge press coverage following its “press release” yesterday, has just been given a “best paper for high impact” award. The official Mark Weiser award went to a system paper, but they made up this ad-hoc award for this one… I’m glad it got an award. Somewhat lighthearted and in part debatable, but it was definitely the paper I enjoyed the most.

The authors have a web site for it at (following the perverse fashion of buying a new top level domain for every new thing you do)