Category Archives: Academic papers

Hacking the iPhone PIN retry counter

At our security group meeting on the 19th August, Sergei Skorobogatov demonstrated a NAND backup attack on an iPhone 5c. I typed in six wrong PINs and it locked; he removed the flash chip (which he’d desoldered and led out to a socket); he erased and restored the changed pages; he put it back in the phone; and I was able to enter a further six wrong PINs.

Sergei has today released a paper describing the attack.

During the recent fight between the FBI and Apple, FBI Director Jim Comey said this kind of attack wouldn’t work.

USENIX Security Best Paper 2016 – The Million Key Question … Origins of RSA Public Keys

Petr Svenda et al from Masaryk University in Brno won the Best Paper Award at this year’s USENIX Security Symposium with their paper classifying public RSA keys according to their source.

I really like the simplicity of the original assumption. The starting point of the research was that different crypto/RSA libraries use slightly different elimination methods and “cut-off” thresholds to find suitable prime numbers. They thought these differences should be sufficient to detect a particular cryptographic implementation and all that was needed were public keys. Petr et al confirmed this assumption. The best paper award is a well-deserved recognition as I’ve worked with and followed Petr’s activities closely.

The authors created a method for efficient identification of the source (software library or hardware device) of RSA public keys. It resulted in a classification of keys into more than dozen categories. This classification can be used as a fingerprint that decreases the anonymity of users of Tor and other privacy enhancing mailers or operators.

Bit Length of Largest Prime Factors of p-1
The graphs extracted from: The Million Key Question – Investigating The Origins of RSA Public Keys (follow the link for more).

All that is a result of an analysis of over 60 million freshly generated keys from 22 open- and closed-source libraries and from 16 different smart-cards. While the findings are fairly theoretical, they are demonstrated with a series of easy to understand graphs (see above).

I can’t see an easy way to exploit the results for immediate cyber attacks. However, we started looking into practical applications. There are interesting opportunities for enterprise compliance audits, as the classification only requires access to datasets of public keys – often created as a by-product of internal network vulnerability scanning.

An extended version of the paper is available from

Yet another Android side channel: input stealing for fun and profit

At PETS 2016 we presented a new side-channel attack in our paper Don’t Interrupt Me While I Type: Inferring Text Entered Through Gesture Typing on Android Keyboards. This was part of Laurent Simon‘s thesis, and won him the runner-up to the best student paper award.

We found that software on your smartphone can infer words you type in other apps by monitoring the aggregate number of context switches and the number of hardware interrupts. These are readable by permissionless apps within the virtual procfs filesystem (mounted under /proc). Three previous research groups had found that other files under procfs support side channels. But the files they used contained information about individual apps– e.g. the file /proc/uid_stat/victimapp/tcp_snd contains the number of bytes sent by “victimapp”. These files are no longer readable in the latest Android version.

We found that the “global” files – those that contain aggregate information about the system – also leak. So a curious app can monitor these global files as a user types on the phone and try to work out the words. We looked at smartphone keyboards that support “gesture typing”: a novel input mechanism democratized by SwiftKey, whereby a user drags their finger from letter to letter to enter words.

This work shows once again how difficult it is to prevent side channels: they come up in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways. Fortunately, we think there is an easy fix: Google should simply disable access to all procfs files, rather than just the files that leak information about individual apps. Meanwhile, if you’re developing apps for privacy or anonymity, you should be aware that these risks exist.

Might Brexit make us more dishonest?

When Lying Feels the Right Thing to Do reports three studies we did on what made people less or more likely to submit fraudulent insurance claims. Our first study found that people were more likely to cheat when rejected; the other two showed that rejected claimants were just as likely to cheat when this didn’t lead to financial gain, but that they felt more strongly when there was no money involved.

Our research was conducted as part of a broader research programme to investigate the deterrence of deception; our goal was to understand how to design better websites. However we can’t help wondering whether it might shine some light on the UK’s recent political turmoil. The Brexit campaigners were minorities of both main political parties and their anti-EU rhetoric had been rejected by the political mainstream for years; they had ideological rather than selfish motives. They ran a blatantly deceptive campaign, persisting in obvious untruths but abandoning them promptly after winning the vote. Rejection is not the only known factor in situational deception; it’s known, for example, that people with unmet goals are more likely to cheat than people who are simply doing their best, and that one bad apple can have a cascading effect. But it still makes you think.

The outcome and aftermath of the referendum have left many people feeling rejected, from remain voters through people who will lose financially to foreign residents of the UK. Our research shows that feelings of rejection can increase cheating by 15-30%; perhaps this might have measurable effects in some sectors. How one might disentangle this from the broader effects of diminished social solidarity, and from politicians simply setting a bad example, could be an interesting problems for social scientists.

Royal Society report on cybersecurity research

The Royal Society has just published a report on cybersecurity research. I was a member of the steering group that tried to keep the policy team headed in the right direction. Its recommendation that governments preserve the robustness of encryption is welcome enough, given the new Russian law on access to crypto keys; it was nice to get, given the conservative nature of the Society. But I’m afraid the glass is only half full.

I was disappointed that the final report went along with the GCHQ line that security breaches should not be reported to affected data subjects, as in the USA, but to the agencies, as mandated in the EU’s NIS directive. Its call for an independent review of the UK’s cybersecurity needs may also achieve little. I was on John Beddington’s Blackett Review five years ago, and the outcome wasn’t published; it was mostly used to justify a budget increase for GCHQ. Its call for UK government work on standards is irrelevant post-Brexit; indeed standards made in Europe will probably be better without UK interference. Most of all, I cannot accept the report’s line that the government should help direct cybersecurity research. Most scientists agree that too much money already goes into directed programmes and not enough into responsive-mode and curiosity-driven research. In the case of security research there is a further factor: the stark conflict of interest between bona fide researchers, whose aim is that some of the people should enjoy some security and privacy some of the time, and agencies engaged in programmes such as Operation Bullrun whose goal is that this should not happen. GCHQ may want a “more responsive cybersecurity agenda”; but that’s the last thing people like me want them to have.

The report has in any case been overtaken by events. First, Brexit is already doing serious harm to research funding. Second, Brexit is also doing serious harm to the IT industry; we hear daily of listings posptoned, investments reconsidered and firms planning to move development teams and data overseas. Third, the Investigatory Powers bill currently before the House of Lords highlights the fact that surveillance debate in the West these days is more about access to data at rest and about whether the government can order firms to hack their customers.

While all three arms of the US government have drawn back on surveillance powers following the Snowden revelations, Theresa May has taken the hardest possible line. Her Investigatory Powers Bill will give her successors as Home Secretary sweeping powers to order firms in the UK to hand over data and help GCHQ hack their customers. Brexit will shield these powers from challenge in the European Court of Justice, making it much harder for a UK company to claim “adequacy” for its data protection arrangements in respect of EU data subjects. This will make it still less attractive for an IT company to keep in the UK either data that could be seized or engineering staff who could be coerced. I am seriously concerned that, together with Brexit, this will be the double whammy that persuades overseas firms not to invest in the UK, and that even causes some UK firms to leave. In the face of this massive self-harm, the measures suggested by the report are unlikely to help much.

Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 14.48.54
If you use an adblocker, you are probably familiar with messages of the kind shown above, asking you to either disable your adblocker, or to consider supporting the host website via a donation or subscription. This is the battle du jour in the ongoing adblocking arms race — and it’s one we explore in our new report Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race.

The reasons for the rising popularity of adblockers include improved browsing experience, better privacy, and protection against malvertising. As a result, online advertising revenue is gravely threatened by adblockers, prompting publishers to actively detect adblock users, and subsequently block them or otherwise coerce the user to disable the adblocker — practices we refer to as anti-adblocking. While there has been a degree of sound and fury on the topic, until now we haven’t been able to understand the scale, mechanism and dynamics of anti-adblocking. This is the gap we have started to address, together with researchers from the University of Cambridge, Stony Brook University, University College London, University of California Berkeley, Queen Mary University of London and International Computer Science Institute (Berkeley). We address some of these questions by leveraging a novel approach for identifying third-party services shared across multiple websites to present a first characterization of anti-adblocking across the Alexa Top-5K websites.

We find that at least 6.7% of Alexa Top-5K websites employ anti-adblocking, with the practices finding adoption across a diverse mix of publishers; particularly publishers of “General News”, “Blogs/Wiki”, and “Entertainment” categories. It turns out that these websites owe their anti-adblocking capabilities to 14 unique scripts pulled from 12 unique domains. Unsurprisingly, the most popular domains are those that have skin in the game — Google, Taboola, Outbrain, Ensighten and Pagefair — the latter being a company that specialises in anti-adblocking services. Then there are in-house anti-adblocking solutions that are distributed by a domain to client websites belonging to the same organisation: TripAdvisor distributes an anti-adblocking script to its eight websites with different country code top-level domains, while adult websites (all hosted by MindGeek) turn to DoublePimp. Finally, we visited a sample website for each anti-adblocking script via AdBlock Plus, Ghostery and Privacy Badger, and discovered that half of the 12 anti-adblocking suppliers are counter-blocked by at least one adblocker — suggesting that the arms race has already entered the next level.

It is hard to say how many levels deeper the adblocking arms race might go. While anti-adblocking may provide temporary relief to publishers, it is essentially band-aid solution to mask a deeper issue — the disequilibrium between ads (and, particularly, their behavioural tracking back-end) and information. Any long term solution must address the reasons that brought users to adblockers in the first place. In the meantime, as the arms race continues to escalate, we hope that studies such as ours will bring transparency to this opaque subject, and inform policy that moves us out of the current deadlock.


“Ad-Blocking and Counter Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Races” by Rishab Nithyanand, Sheharbano Khattak, Mobin Javed, Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Marjan Falahrastegar, Julia E. Powles, Emiliano De Cristofaro, Hamed Haddadi, and Steven J. Murdoch. arXiv:1605.05077v1 [cs.CR], May 2016.

This post also appears on the UCL Information Security group blog, Bentham’s Gaze.

Exploring the provision of online booter services

A manuscript authored by myself and Richard Clayton has recently been published as an advance access paper in the criminology journal Deviant Behavior.

This research uses criminological theories to study those who operate ‘booter services’: websites that illegally offer denial of service attacks for a fee. We interviewed those operating the sites, and found that booter services provide ‘easy money’ for the young males that run them. The operators claim they provide legitimate services for network testing, despite acknowledging that their services are used to attack other targets. Booter services are advertised through the online communities where the skills are learned and definitions favorable toward offending are shared. Some financial services proactively frustrate the provision of booter services, by closing the accounts used for receiving payments.

For those accessing the paper from universities, you may find the paper here. The ‘accepted manuscript’, which is the final version of the paper before it has been typeset, can be accessed here.