All posts by Ross Anderson

Security and Human Behaviour 2020

I’ll be liveblogging the workshop on security and human behaviour, which is online this year. My liveblogs will appear as followups to this post. This year my program co-chair is Alice Hutchings and we have invited a number of eminent criminologists to join us. Edited to add: here are the videos of the sessions.

How to jam neural networks

Deep neural networks (DNNs) have been a very active field of research for eight years now, and for the last five we’ve seen a steady stream of adversarial examples – inputs that will bamboozle a DNN so that it thinks a 30mph speed limit sign is a 60 instead, and even magic spectacles to make a DNN get the wearer’s gender wrong.

So far, these attacks have targeted the integrity or confidentiality of machine-learning systems. Can we do anything about availability?

Sponge Examples: Energy-Latency Attacks on Neural Networks shows how to find adversarial examples that cause a DNN to burn more energy, take more time, or both. They affect a wide range of DNN applications, from image recognition to natural language processing (NLP). Adversaries might use these examples for all sorts of mischief – from draining mobile phone batteries, though degrading the machine-vision systems on which self-driving cars rely, to jamming cognitive radar.

So far, our most spectacular results are against NLP systems. By feeding them confusing inputs we can slow them down over 100 times. There are already examples in the real world where people pause or stumble when asked hard questions but we now have a dependable method for generating such examples automatically and at scale. We can also neutralize the performance improvements of accelerators for computer vision tasks, and make them operate on their worst case performance.

One implication is that engineers designing real-time systems that use machine learning will have to pay more attention to worst-case behaviour; another is that when custom chips used to accelerate neural network computations use optimisations that increase the gap between worst-case and average-case outcomes, you’d better pay even more attention.

Is science being set up to take the blame?

Yesterday’s publication of the minutes of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) raises some interesting questions. An initial summary in yesterday’s Guardian has a timeline suggesting that it was the distinguished medics on SAGE rather than the Prime Minister who went from complacency in January and February to panic in March, and who ignored the risk to care homes until it was too late.

Is this a Machiavellian conspiracy by Dominic Cummings to blame the scientists, or is it business as usual? Having spent a dozen years on the university’s governing body and various of its subcommittees, I can absolutely get how this happened. Once a committee gets going, it can become very reluctant to change its opinion on anything. Committees can become sociopathic, worrying about their status, ducking liability, and finding reasons why problems are either somebody else’s or not practically soluble.

So I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading the minutes, and indeed we see the group worried about its power: on February 13th it wants the messaging to emphasise that official advice is both efficaceous and sufficient, to “reduce the likelihood of the public adopting unnecessary or contradictory behaviours”. Turf is defended: Public Health England (PHE) ruled on February 18th that it can cope with 5 new cases a week (meaning tracing 800 contacts) and hoped this might be increased to 50; they’d already decided the previous week that it wasn’t possible to accelerate diagnostic capacity. So far, so much as one might expect.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

Continue reading Is science being set up to take the blame?

Three Paper Thursday – GDPR anniversary edition

This is a guest contribution from Daniel Woods.

This coming Monday will mark two years since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect. It prompted an initial wave of cookie banners that drowned users in assertions like “We value your privacy”. Website owners hoped that collecting user consent would ensure compliance and ward off the lofty fines.

Article 6 of the GDPR describes how organisations can establish a legal basis for processing personal data. Putting aside a selection of `necessary’ reasons for doing so, data processing can only be justified by collecting the user’s consent to “the processing of his or her personal data for one or more specific purposes”. Consequently, obtaining user consent could be the difference between suffering a dizzying fine or not.

The law changed the face of the web and this post considers one aspect of the transition. Consent Management Providers (CMPs) emerged offering solutions for websites to embed. Many of these use a technical standard described in the Transparency and Consent Framework. The standard was developed by the Industry Advertising Body, who proudly claim it is is “the only GDPR consent solution built by the industry for the industry”.

All of the following studies either directly measure websites implementing this standard or explore the theoretical implications of standardising consent. The first paper looks at how the design of consent dialogues shape the consent signal sent by users. The second paper identifies disparities between the privacy preferences communicated via cookie banners and the consent signals stored by the website. The third paper uses coalitional game theory to explore which firms extract the value from consent coalitions in which websites share consent signals.

Continue reading Three Paper Thursday – GDPR anniversary edition

Contact Tracing in the Real World

There have recently been several proposals for pseudonymous contact tracing, including from Apple and Google. To both cryptographers and privacy advocates, this might seem the obvious way to protect public health and privacy at the same time. Meanwhile other cryptographers have been pointing out some of the flaws.

There are also real systems being built by governments. Singapore has already deployed and open-sourced one that uses contact tracing based on bluetooth beacons. Most of the academic and tech industry proposals follow this strategy, as the “obvious” way to tell who’s been within a few metres of you and for how long. The UK’s National Health Service is working on one too, and I’m one of a group of people being consulted on the privacy and security.

But contact tracing in the real world is not quite as many of the academic and industry proposals assume.

First, it isn’t anonymous. Covid-19 is a notifiable disease so a doctor who diagnoses you must inform the public health authorities, and if they have the bandwidth they call you and ask who you’ve been in contact with. They then call your contacts in turn. It’s not about consent or anonymity, so much as being persuasive and having a good bedside manner.

I’m relaxed about doing all this under emergency public-health powers, since this will make it harder for intrusive systems to persist after the pandemic than if they have some privacy theater that can be used to argue that the whizzy new medi-panopticon is legal enough to be kept running.

Second, contact tracers have access to all sorts of other data such as public transport ticketing and credit-card records. This is how a contact tracer in Singapore is able to phone you and tell you that the taxi driver who took you yesterday from Orchard Road to Raffles has reported sick, so please put on a mask right now and go straight home. This must be controlled; Taiwan lets public-health staff access such material in emergencies only.

Third, you can’t wait for diagnoses. In the UK, you only get a test if you’re a VIP or if you get admitted to hospital. Even so the results take 1–3 days to come back. While the VIPs share their status on twitter or facebook, the other diagnosed patients are often too sick to operate their phones.

Fourth, the public health authorities need geographical data for purposes other than contact tracing – such as to tell the army where to build more field hospitals, and to plan shipments of scarce personal protective equipment. There are already apps that do symptom tracking but more would be better. So the UK app will ask for the first three characters of your postcode, which is about enough to locate which hospital you’d end up in.

Fifth, although the cryptographers – and now Google and Apple – are discussing more anonymous variants of the Singapore app, that’s not the problem. Anyone who’s worked on abuse will instantly realise that a voluntary app operated by anonymous actors is wide open to trolling. The performance art people will tie a phone to a dog and let it run around the park; the Russians will use the app to run service-denial attacks and spread panic; and little Johnny will self-report symptoms to get the whole school sent home.

Sixth, there’s the human aspect. On Friday, when I was coming back from walking the dogs, I stopped to chat for ten minutes to a neighbour. She stood halfway between her gate and her front door, so we were about 3 metres apart, and the wind was blowing from the side. The risk that either of us would infect the other was negligible. If we’d been carrying bluetooth apps, we’d have been flagged as mutual contacts. It would be quite intolerable for the government to prohibit such social interactions, or to deploy technology that would punish them via false alarms. And how will things work with an orderly supermarket queue, where law-abiding people stand patiently six feet apart?

Bluetooth also goes through plasterboard. If undergraduates return to Cambridge in October, I assume there will still be small-group teaching, but with protocols for distancing, self-isolation and quarantine. A supervisor might sit in a teaching room with two or three students, all more than 2m apart and maybe wearing masks, and the window open. The bluetooth app will flag up not just the others in the room but people in the next room too.

How is this to be dealt with? I expect the app developers will have to fit a user interface saying “You’re within range of device 38a5f01e20. Within infection range (y/n)?” But what happens when people get an avalanche of false alarms? They learn to click them away. A better design might be to invite people to add a nickname and a photo so that contacts could see who they are. “You are near to Ross [photo] and have been for five minutes. Are you maintaining physical distance?”

When I discussed this with a family member, the immediate reaction was that she’d refuse to run an anonymous app that might suddenly say “someone you’ve been near in the past four days has reported symptoms, so you must now self-isolate for 14 days.” A call from a public health officer is one thing, but not knowing who it was would just creep her out. It’s important to get the reactions of real people, not just geeks and wonks! And the experience of South Korea and Taiwan suggests that transparency is the key to public acceptance.

Seventh, on the systems front, decentralised systems are all very nice in theory but are a complete pain in practice as they’re too hard to update. We’re still using Internet infrastructure from 30 years ago (BGP, DNS, SMTP…) because it’s just too hard to change. Watch Moxie Marlinspike’s talk at 36C3 if you don’t get this. Relying on cryptography tends to make things even more complex, fragile and hard to change. In the pandemic, the public health folks may have to tweak all sorts of parameters weekly or even daily. You can’t do that with apps on 169 different types of phone and with peer-to-peer communications.

Personally I feel conflicted. I recognise the overwhelming force of the public-health arguments for a centralised system, but I also have 25 years’ experience of the NHS being incompetent at developing systems and repeatedly breaking their privacy promises when they do manage to collect some data of value to somebody else. The Google Deepmind scandal was just the latest of many and by no means the worst. This is why I’m really uneasy about collecting lots of lightly-anonymised data in a system that becomes integrated into a whole-of-government response to the pandemic. We might never get rid of it.

But the real killer is likely to be the interaction between privacy and economics. If the app’s voluntary, nobody has an incentive to use it, except tinkerers and people who religiously comply with whatever the government asks. If uptake remains at 10-15%, as in Singapore, it won’t be much use and we’ll need to hire more contact tracers instead. Apps that involve compulsion, such as those for quarantine geofencing, will face a more adversarial threat model; and the same will be true in spades for any electronic immunity certificate. There the incentive to cheat will be extreme, and we might be better off with paper serology test certificates, like the yellow fever vaccination certificates you needed for the tropics, back in the good old days when you could actually go there.

All that said, I suspect the tracing apps are really just do-something-itis. Most countries now seem past the point where contact tracing is a high priority; even Singapore has had to go into lockdown. If it becomes a priority during the second wave, we will need a lot more contact tracers: last week, 999 calls in Cambridge had a 40-minute wait and it took ambulances six hours to arrive. We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

The real trade-off between surveillance and public health is this. For years, a pandemic has been at the top of Britain’s risk register, yet far less was spent preparing for one than on anti-terrorist measures, many of which were ostentatious rather than effective. Worse, the rhetoric of terror puffed up the security agencies at the expense of public health, predisposing the US and UK governments to disregard the lesson of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015 — unlike the governments of China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, who paid at least some attention. What we need is a radical redistribution of resources from the surveillance-industrial complex to public health.

Our effort should go into expanding testing, making ventilators, retraining everyone with a clinical background from vet nurses to physiotherapists to use them, and building field hospitals. We must call out bullshit when we see it, and must not give policymakers the false hope that techno-magic might let them avoid the hard decisions. Otherwise we can serve best by keeping out of the way. The response should not be driven by cryptographers but by epidemiologists, and we should learn what we can from the countries that have managed best so far, such as South Korea and Taiwan.

FC 2020

I’m at Financial Cryptography 2020 and will try to liveblog some of the talks in followups to this post.

The keynote was given by Allison Nixon, Chief Research Officer of Unit221B, on “Fraudsters Taught Us that Identity is Broken”.

Allison started by showing the Mitchell and Webb clip. In a world where even Jack Dorsey got his twitter hacked via incoming SMS, what is identity? Your thief becomes you. Abuse of old-fashioned passports was rare as they were protected by law; now they’re your email address (which you got by lying to an ad-driven website) and phone number (which gets taken away and given to a random person if you don’t pay your bill). If lucky you might have a signing key (generated on a general purpose computer, and hard to revoke – that’s what bitcoin theft is often about). The whole underlying system is wrong. Email domains, like phone numbers, lapse if you forget to pay your bill; fraudsters actively look for custom domains and check if yours has lapsed, while relying parties mostly don’t. Privacy regulations in most countries prevent you from looking up names from phone numbers; many have phone numbers owned by their employers. Your email address can be frozen or removed because of spam if you’re bad or are hacked, while even felons are not deprived of their names. Evolution is not an intelligent process! People audit password length but rarely the password reset policy: many use zero-factor auth, meaning information that’s sort-of public like your SSN. In Twitter you reset your password then message customer support asking them to remove two-factor, and they do, so long as you can log on! This is a business necessity as too many people lose their phone or second factor, so this customer-support backdoor will never be properly closed. Many bitcoin exchanges have no probation period, whether mandatory or customer option. SIM swap means account theft so long as phone number enables password reset – she also calls this zero-factor authentication.

SIM swap is targeted, unlike most password-stuffing attacks, and compromises people who comply with all the security rules. Allison tried hard to protect herself against this fraud but mostly couldn’t as the phone carrier is the target. This can involve data breaches at the carrier, insider involvement and the customer service back door. Email domain abuse is similar; domain registrars are hacked or taken over. Again, the assumptions made about the underlying infrastructure are wrong. Your email can be reset by your phone number and vice versa. Your private key can be stolen via your cloud backups. Both identity vendors and verifiers rely on unvetted third parties; vendors can’t notify verifiers of a hack. The system failure is highlighted by the existence of criminal markets in identity.

There are unrealistic expectations too. As a user of a general-purpose computer, you have no way to determine whether your machine is suitable for storing private keys, and almost 100% of people are unable to comply with security advice. That tells you it’s the system that’s broken. It’s a blame game, and security advice is as much cargo cult as anything else.

What would a better identity system look like? There would be an end to ever-changing advice; you’d be notified if your information got stolen, just as you know if your physical driving license is stolen; there would be an end to unreasonable expectations of both humans and computers; the legal owner of the identity would be the person identified and would be non-transferable and irrevocable; it would not depend on the integrity of 3rd-party systems like DNS and CAs and patch management mechanisms; we’ll know we’re there once the criminal marketplace vanishes.

Questions: What might we do about certificate revocation? A probation period is the next thing to do, as how people learn of a SIM swap is a flood of password reset messages in email, and then it’s a race. I asked whether rather than fixing the whole world, we should fix it one relying party at a time? Banks give you physical tokens after all, as they’re regulated and have to eat the losses. Allison agreed; in 2019 she talked about SIM swap to many banks but had no interest from any crypto exchange. Curiously, the lawsuits tend to target carriers rather than the exchanges. What about SS7? There are sophisticated Russian criminal gangs doing such attacks, but they require a privileged position in the network, like BGP attacks. What about single signon? The market is currently in flux and might eventually settle on a few vendors. What about SMS spoofing attacks? Allison hasn’t seen them in 4g marketplaces or in widespread criminal use. Caller-ID spoofing is definitely used, by bad guys who organise SWATting. Should we enforce authentication tokens? The customer service department will be inundated with people who have lost theirs and that will become the backdoor. Would blockchains help? No, they’re just an audit log, and the failures are upstream. The social aspect is crucial: people know how to protect their physical cash in their wallet, and a proper solution to the identity problem must work like that. It’s not an impossible task, and might involve a chip in your driver’s license. It’s mostly about getting the execution right.

Security Engineering, and Sustainability

Yesterday I got the audience at the 36th Chaos Computer Congress in Leipzig to vote on the cover art for the third edition of my textbook on Security Engineering: you can see the result here.

It was a privilege to give a talk at 36C3; as the theme was sustainability, I spoke on The Sustainability of Safety, Security and Privacy. This is a topic on which I’ve written and spoken several times in recent years, but we now have some progress to report. The EU has changed the rules to require that if you sell goods with digital components (whether embedded software, associated cloud services or smartphone apps) then these have to be maintained for as long as the customer might reasonably expect.

2020 Caspar Bowden Award

You are invited to submit nominations for the 2020 Caspar Bowden Award for Outstanding Research in Privacy Enhancing Technologies. The Caspar Bowden PET award is presented annually to researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the theory, design, implementation, or deployment of privacy enhancing technology. It is awarded at the annual Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (PETS), and carries a cash prize as well as a physical award monument.

Any paper by any author written in the area of privacy enhancing technologies is eligible for nomination. However, the paper must have appeared in a refereed journal, conference, or workshop with proceedings published in the period from April 1, 2018 until March 31, 2020.

Note that we do not accept nominations for publications in conference proceedings when the dates of the conference fall outside of the nomination window. For example, a IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (“Oakland”) paper made available on IEEE Xplore prior to the March 31 deadline would not be eligible, as the conference happens in May. Please note that PETS is associated with a journal publication, PoPETs, so any PoPETs paper published in an issue appearing before the March 31 deadline is eligible (which typically means only Issue 1 of the current year).

Anyone can nominate a paper by sending an email message to award-chairs20@petsymposium.org containing the following:
. Paper title
. Author(s)
. Author(s) contact information
. Publication venue and full reference
. Link to an available online version of the paper
. A nomination statement of no more than 500 words.

All nominations must be submitted by April 5, 2020. The award committee will select one or two winners among the nominations received. Winners must be present at the PET Symposium in order to receive the Award. This requirement can be waived only at the discretion of the PET advisory board. The complete Award rules including eligibility requirements can be found here.

Caspar Bowden PET Award Chairs (award-chairs20@petsymposium.org)

Simone Fischer-Hübner, Karlstad University
Ross Anderson, University of Cambridge

Caspar Bowden PET Award Committee

Erman Ayday, Bilkent University
Nataliia Bielova, Inria
Sonja Buchegger, KTH
Ian Goldberg, University of Waterloo
Rachel Greenstadt, NYU
Marit Hansen, Unabhängiges Datenschutzzentrum Schleswig Holstein -ULD
Dali Kaafar, CSIRO
Eran Toch, Tel Aviv University
Carmela Troncoso, EPFL
Matthew Wright, Rochester Institute of Technology

More information about the Caspar Bowden PET award (including past winners) is available here.

Rental scams

One of the cybercrimes that bothers us at Cambridge is accommodation fraud. Every October about 1% the people who come as grad students or postdocs rent an apartment that just doesn’t exist. Sites like Craigslist are full of ads that are just too good to be true. While the university does what it can to advise new hires and admissions to use our own accommodation services if they cannot check out an apartment personally, perhaps 50 new arrivals still turn up to find that they have nowhere to live, their money is gone, and the police aren’t interested. This is not a nice way to start your PhD.

Some years ago a new postdoc, Sophie van der Zee, almost fell for such a scam, and then got to know someone here who had actually become a victim. She made this into a research project, and replied to about a thousand scam ads. We analysed the persuasion techniques that the crooks used.

Here at last is our analysis: The gift of the gab: Are rental scammers skilled at the arts of persuasion? We found that most of the techniques the scammers used are straight from the standard marketing textbook (Cialdini) rather than from the lists of more exotic scam techniques compiled by fraud researchers such as Stajano and Wilson. The only significant exception was appeals to sympathy. Most of the scammers were operating out of West Africa in what appears to have one or more boilerhouse sales operations. They work from scripts, very much like people selling insurance or home improvements.

Previous cybercrime research looked at both high-value targeted operations and scale attackers who compromise machines in bulk. This is an example of fraud lying between the “first class” and “economy class” versions of cybercrime.

Rental scams are still a problem for new staff and students. Since this work was done, things have changed somewhat, in that most of the scams are now run by an operator using slick websites who, according to the local police, appears to be based in Germany. We have repeatedly tried, and failed, to persuade the police (local and Met), the NCA and the NCSC to have his door broken down. Unfortunately the British authorities appear to lack the motivation to extradite foreigners who commit small frauds at scale. So if you want to steal a few million a year, take it from a few thousand people, a thousand pounds at a time. So long as you stay overseas there seems to be little risk of arrest.