All posts by Ross Anderson

Bitcoin Redux: crypto crime, and how to tackle it

Bitcoin Redux explains what’s going wrong in the world of cryptocurrencies. The bitcoin exchanges are developing into a shadow banking system, which do not give their customers actual bitcoin but rather display a “balance” and allow them to transact with others. However if Alice sends Bob a bitcoin, and they’re both customers of the same exchange, it just adjusts their balances rather than doing anything on the blockchain. This is an e-money service, according to European law, but is the law enforced? Not where it matters. We’ve been looking at the details.

In March we wrote about how to trace stolen bitcoin, describing new tools that enable us to track crime proceeds on the blockchain with more precision than before. We waited for victims of bitcoin theft and fraud to come to us, so we could test our tools on real cases. However in most of them it was not clear that the victims had ever owned any bitcoin at all.

There are basically three ways you could try to hold a bitcoin. You could buy one from an exchange and get them to send it to a wallet you host yourself, but almost nobody does that.

You could buy one from an exchange and get the exchange to keep the keys for you, so that the asset was unique to you and they were only guarding it for you – just like when you buy gold and the bullion merchant then charges you a fee to guard your gold in his vault. If the merchant goes bust, you can turn up at the vault with your receipt and demand your gold back.

Or you could buy one from an exchange and have them owe you a bitcoin – just as when you put your money in the bank. The bank doesn’t have a stack of banknotes in the vault with your name on it; and if it goes bust you have to stand in line with the other creditors.

It seems that most people who buy bitcoin think that they’re operating under the gold merchant model, while most exchanges operate under the bank model. This raises a whole host of issues around solvency, liquidity, accounting practices, money laundering, risk and trust. The details matter, and the more we look at them, the worse it seems.

This paper will appear at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security later this month. It contains eight recommendations for what governments should be doing to clean up this mess.

New security lecturer

We’re delighted to announce that the new security lectureship we advertised has been offered to Alice Hutchings, and she’s accepted. We had 52 applicants of whom we shortlisted three for interview.

Alice works in the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre and her background is in criminology. Her publications are here. Her appointment will build on our strengths in research on cybercrime, and will complement and extend our multidisciplinary work in the economics and psychology of security.

Failure to protect: kids’ data in school

If you care about children’s rights, data protection or indeed about privacy in general, then I’d suggest you read this disturbing new report on what’s happening in Britain’s schools.

In an ideal world, schools should be actively preparing pupils to be empowered citizens in a digital world that is increasingly riddled with exploitative and coercive systems. Instead, the government is forcing schools to collect data that are then sold or given to firms that exploit it, with no meaningful consent. There is not even the normal right to request subject access to you can check whether the information about you is right and have it corrected if it’s wrong.

Yet the government has happily given the Daily Telegraph fully-identified pupil information so that it can do research, presumably on how private schools are better than government ones, or how grammar schools are better than comprehensives. You just could not make this up.

The detective work to uncover such abuses has been done by the NGO Defenddigitalme, who followed up some work we did a decade and more ago on the National Pupil Database in our Database State report and our earlier research on children’s databases. Defenddigitalme are campaigning for subject access rights, the deletion of nationality data, and a code of practice. Do read the report and if you think it’s outrageous, write to your MP and say so. Our elected representatives make a lot of noise about protecting children; time to call them on it.

Happy Birthday FIPR!

On May 29th there will be a lively debate in Cambridge between people from NGOs and GCHQ, academia and Deepmind, the press and the Cabinet Office. Should governments be able to break the encryption on our phones? Are we entitled to any privacy for our health and social care records? And what can be done about fake news? If the Internet’s going to be censored, who do we trust to do it?

The occasion is the 20th birthday of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, which was launched on May 29th 1998 to campaign against what became the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Tony Blair wanted to be able to treat all URLs as traffic data and collect everyone’s browsing history without a warrant; we fought back, and our “big browser” amendment defined traffic data to be only that part of the URL needed to identify the server. That set the boundary. Since then, FIPR has engaged in research and lobbying on export control, censorship, health privacy, electronic voting and much else.

After twenty years it’s time to take stock. It’s remarkable how little the debate has shifted despite everything moving online. The police and spooks still claim they need to break encryption but still can’t support that with real evidence. Health administrators still want to sell our medical records to drug companies without our consent. Governments still can’t get it together to police cybercrime, but want to censor the Internet for all sorts of other reasons. Laws around what can be said or sold online – around copyright, pornography and even election campaign funding – are still tussle spaces, only now the big beasts are Google and Facebook rather than the copyright lobby.

A historical perspective might perhaps be of some value in guiding future debates on policy. If you’d like to join in the discussion, book your free ticket here.

Euro S&P

I am at the IEEE Euro Security and Privacy Conference in London.

The keynote talk was by Sunny Consolvo, who runs Google’s security and privacy UX team, and her topic was user-facing threats to privacy and security. Her first theme was browser warnings, which try to stop users doing what they want to; it’s an interruption, it’s technical and there’s no obvious way forward other than clicking through the warning. In 2013 their SSL warning had a clickthrough rate of 68% while their more explicit and graphic malware warning had only 23% clickthrough. Mozilla’s SSL warning had a much lower 33%, with an icon of a policeman and more explicit tests. After four years of experimenting with watching eyes, corporate styling / branding and extra steps – none of which worked very well – they tried a strategy of clear instruction, attractive preferred choice, and unattractive alternative. The text had less jargon, a low reading level, brevity, specifics, an illustration and colour. Her CHI15 paper shows that the new design did much better, from 69% CTR to 41%. It turns out that many factors are at play; a strong signal is site quality, but this leads many people to continue anyway to sites they have come to trust. The malware clickthrough rate is now down to 5%, and SSL to 21%. That cost five years of a huge team effort, with back-end stuff too as well as UX. It involved huge internal fights, such as with a product manager who wanted the warning to say “this site contains malware” rather than “the site you’re trying to get to contains malware” as it was shorter. Her recent papers are here, here, and here.

A second thread of work is a longitudonal survey of public opinion on privacy ranging from government surveillance to cyber-bullying. This has run since 2015 in sixteen countries. 84% of respondents thought limiting access to online but not public data is very or extremely important. 84% were concerned about hackers vs 55% worried about governments and 53% companies. 20% of Germans are very angry about government access to personal data versus 10% of Brits. Most people believe national security justifies data access (except in South Korea) while no country’s people believes the government should have access to police non-violent crime. Most people everywhere support targeted monitoring but nowhere is there majority support for bulk surveillance. In Germany 53% believed everyone should have the right to send anonymous encrypted email while in the UK it’s 39%. Germans were pessimistic about technology with only 4% believing it was possible to be completely anonymous online. Over 88% believe that freedom of expression is very or extremely important and less than 1% unimportant; but over 70% didn’t believe that cyberbullying should be allowed. Opinions are more varied on extremist religious content, with 10.9% agreeing it should be allowed and 21% saying “it depends”.

Her third thread was intimate partner abuse, which has been experienced by 27% of women and 11% of men. There are typically three phases: a physical control phase where the abuser has access to the survivor’s device and may install malware, or even destroy devices; an escape phase which is high-risk as they try to find a new home, a job and so on; and a life-apart phase when they might want to shield location, email address and phone numbers to escape harassment, and may have lifelong concerns. Risks are greater for poorer people who may not be able to just buy a new phone. Sunny gave some case stories of extreme mate guarding and survivors’ strategies such as using a neighbour’s phone or a computer in a library or at work. It takes seven escape attempts on average to get to life apart. After escape, a survivor may have to restrict childrens’ online activities and sever mutual relationships; letting your child post anything can leak the school location and lead to the abuser turning up. She may have to change career as it can be impossible to work as a self-employed professional if she can no longer advertise. The takeaway is that designers should focus on usability during times of high stress and high risk; they should allow users to have multiple accounts; they should design things so that someone reviewing your history should not be able to tell you deleted anything; they should push 2-factor authentication, unusual activity notifications, and incognito mode. They should also think about how a survivor can capture evidence for use in divorce and custody cases while minimising the trauma. Finally she suggests serious research on other abuse survivors of different age groups and in different countries. For more see her paper here.

I will try to liveblog the rest of the talks in followups to this post.

What you get is what you C

We have a new paper on compiler security appearing this morning at EuroS&P.

Up till now, writers of crypto and security software not only have to fight the bad guys. We also have to deal with compiler writers, who every so often dream up some new optimisation routine which spots the padding instructions that we put in to make our crypto algorithms run in constant time, or the tricks that we use to ensure that sensitive data will be zeroised when a function returns. All of a sudden some critical code is optimised away, your code is insecure, and you scramble to figure out how to outwit the compiler once more.

So while you’re fighting the enemy in front, the compiler writer is a subversive fifth column in your rear.

It’s time that our toolsmiths were our allies rather than our enemies. We have therefore worked out what’s needed for a software writer to tell a compiler that a loop really must be executed in constant time, or that a variable really must be set to zero when a function returns. Languages like C have no way of expressing programmer intent, so we do this by means of code annotations.

Doing it properly turns out to be surprisingly tricky, but we now have a working proof of concept in the form of plugins for LLVM. For more details, and links to the code, see the web page of Laurent Simon, the lead author; the talk slides are here. This is the first technical contribution in our research programme on sustainable security.

Ethics of mathematics

I’m at the world’s first conference on ethics in mathematics and will be speaking in half an hour. Here are my slides. I will be describing the course I teach to second-year computer scientists on Economics, Law and Ethics. Courses on ethics are mandatory for computer scientists while economics is mandatory for engineers; my innovation has been to combine them. My experience is that teaching them together adds real value. We can explain coherently why society needs rules via discussions of game theory, and then of network effects, asymmetric information and other market failures typical of the IT industry; we can then discuss the limitations of law and regulation; and this sets the stage for both principled and practical discussions of ethics.