Category Archives: Academic papers

Thinking of selling your old phone? Watch out!

Today we unveil two papers describing serious and widespread vulnerabilities in Android mobile phones. The first presents a Security Analysis of Factory Resets. Now that hundreds of millions of people buy and sell smartphones secondhand and use them for everything from banking to dating, it’s important to able to sanitize your phone. You need to clean it when you buy it, so you don’t get caught by malware; and even more when you sell it, so you don’t give away your bank credentials or other personal information. So does the factory reset function actually work? We bought a couple of dozen second-hand Android phones and tested them to find out.

The news is not at all good. We were able to retrieve the Google master cookie from the great majority of phones, which means that we could have logged on to the previous owner’s gmail account. The reasons for failure are complex; new phones are generally better than old ones, and Google’s own brand phones are better than the OEM offerings. However the vendors need to do a fair bit of work, and users need to take a fair amount of care.

Attacks on a sold phone that could not be properly sanitized are one example of what we call a “user-not-present” attack. Another is when your phone is stolen. Many security software vendors offer a facility to lock or wipe your phone remotely when this happens, and it’s a standard feature with mobile antivirus products. Do these ‘solutions’ work?

You guessed it. Antivirus software that relies on a faulty factory reset can only go so far, and there’s only so much you can do with a user process. The AV vendors have struggled with a number of design tradeoffs, but the results are not that impressive. See Security Analysis of Consumer-Grade Anti-Theft Solutions Provided by Android Mobile Anti-Virus Apps for the gory details. These failings mean that staff at firms which handle lots of second-hand phones (whether lost, stolen, sold or given to charity) could launch some truly industrial-scale attacks. These papers appear today at the Mobile Security Technology workshop at IEEE Security and Privacy.

Medical privacy seminar on May 4th

On Monday May 4th, the Dutch medical privacy campaigner Guido van’t Noordende will visit us in Cambridge. OK, it’s a bank holiday, but that’s the only day he’ll be in town. His talk will be on The Dutch electronic patient record system and beyond – towards physician-controlled decentralized medical record exchange.

Four years ago, Guido blocked an attempt to legislate for a central hub for medical records that would have enabled doctor A to see the records of doctor B on a simple pull model; there would have been a hub at the ministry with read access to everything. Other countries have wrestled with this problem, with greater and lesser degrees of success; for example, Norway just passed a medical data-sharing law and are starting to figure out what to build. In Britain of course we had the care.data fiasco. And in the Netherlands, they’re revisiting the issue once more. This will become a live issue in one country after another.

The announcement for Guido’s talk is here.

Another scandal about forensics

The FBI overstated forensic hair matches in nearly all trials up till 2000. 26 of their 28 examiners overstated forensic matches in ways that favoured prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far. 32 defendants were sentenced to death, of whom 14 were executed or died in prison.

In the District of Columbia, the only jurisdiction where defenders and prosecutors have re-investigated all FBI hair convictions, three of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony have been exonerated through DNA testing since 2009, and courts have cleared two more. All five served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder. The FBI examiners in question also taught 500 to 1,000 state and local crime lab analysts to testify in the same ways.

Systematically flawed forensic evidence should be familiar enough to readers of this blog. In four previous posts here I’ve described problems with the curfew tags that are used to monitor the movements of parolees and terrorism suspects in the UK. We have also written extensively on the unreliability of card payment evidence, particularly in banking disputes. However, payment evidence can also be relevant to serious criminal trials, of which the most shocking cases are probably those described here and here. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men were arrested after being wrongly suspected of buying indecent images of children, when in fact they were victims of credit card fraud. Having been an expert witness in one of those cases, I wrote to the former DPP Kier Starmer on his appointment asking him to open a formal inquiry into the police failure to understand credit card fraud, and to review cases as appropriate. My letter was ignored.

The Washington Post article argues cogently that the USA lacks, and needs, a mechanism to deal with systematic failures of the justice system, particularly when these are related to its inability to cope with technology. The same holds here too. In addition to the hundreds of men wrongly arrested for child porn offences in Operation Ore, there have been over two hundred prosecutions for curfew tag tampering, no doubt with evidence similar to that offered in cases where we secured acquittals. There have been scandals in the past over DNA and fingerprints, as I describe in my book. How many more scandals are waiting to break? And as everything goes online, digital evidence will play an ever larger role, leading to more systematic failures in future. How should we try to forestall them?

Security Protocols 2015

I’m at the 23rd Security Protocols Workshop, whose theme this year is is information security in fiction and in fact. Engineering is often inspired by fiction, and vice versa; what might we learn from this?

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

Talk in Oxford at 5pm today on the ethics and economics of privacy in a world of Big Data

Today at 5pm I’ll be giving the Bellwether Lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute. My topic is Big Conflicts: the ethics and economics of privacy in a world of Big Data.

I’ll be discussing a recent Nuffield Bioethics Council report of which I was one of the authors. In it, we asked what medical ethics should look like in a world of ‘Big Data’ and pervasive genomics. It will take the law some time to catch up with what’s going on, so how should researchers behave meanwhile so that the people whose data we use don’t get annoyed or surprised, and so that we can defend our actions if challenged? We came up with four principles, which I’ll discuss. I’ll also talk about how they might apply more generally, for example to my own field of security research.

There exists a classical model of the photon after all

Many people assume that quantum mechanics cannot emerge from classical phenomena, because no-one has so far been able to think of a classical model of light that is consistent with Maxwell’s equations and reproduces the Bell test results quantitatively.

Today Robert Brady and I unveil just such a model. It turns out that the solution was almost in plain sight, in James Clerk Maxwell’s 1861 paper On Phyiscal Lines of Force in which he derived Maxwell’s equations, on the assumption that magnetic lines of force were vortices in a fluid. Updating this with modern knowledge of quantised magnetic flux, we show that if you model a flux tube as a phase vortex in an inviscid compressible fluid, then wavepackets sent down this vortex obey Maxwell’s equations to first order; that they can have linear or circular polarisation; and that the correlation measured between the polarisation of two cogenerated wavepackets is exactly the same as is predicted by quantum mechanics and measured in the Bell tests.

This follows work last year in which we explained Yves Couder’s beautiful bouncing-droplet experiments. There, a completely classical system is able to exhibit quantum-mechanical behaviour as the wavefunction ψ appears as a modulation on the driving oscillation, which provides coherence across the system. Similarly, in the phase vortex model, the magnetic field provides the long-range order and the photon is a modulation of it.

We presented this work yesterday at the 2015 Symposium of the Trinity Mathematical Society. Our talk slides are here and there is an audio recording here.

If our sums add up, the consequences could be profound. First, it will explain why quantum computers don’t work, and blow away the security ‘proofs’ for entanglement-based quantum cryptosystems (we already wrote about that here and here). Second, if the fundamental particles are just quasiparticles in a superfluid quantum vacuum, there is real hope that we can eventually work out where all the mysterious constants in the Standard Model come from. And third, there is no longer any reason to believe in multiple universes, or effects that propagate faster than light or backward in time – indeed the whole ‘spooky action at a distance’ to which Einstein took such exception. He believed that action in physics was local and causal, as most people do; our paper shows that the main empirical argument against classical models of reality is unsound.

Media coverage “to freeze or not to freeze” paper

On the 5th of January this year we presented a paper on the automatic detection of deception based on full-body movements at HICSS (Hawaii), which we blogged about here at LBT. We measured the movements of truth tellers and liars using full-body motion capture suits and found that liars move more than truth tellers; when combined with interviewing techniques designed to increase the cognitive load of liars, but not of truth tellers, liars even moved almost twice as much as truth tellers. These results indicate that absolute movement, when measured automatically, may potentially be a reliable cue to deceit. We are now aiming to find out if this increase in body movements when lying is stable across situations and people. Simultaneously, we are developing two lines of technology that will make this method more usable in practice. First, we are building software to analyse behaviors in real-time. This will enable us to analyse behavior whilst it is happening (i.e., during the interview), instead of afterwards. Second, we are investigating remote ways to analyse behavior, so interviewees will not have to wear a body-suit when being interviewed. We will keep you updated on new developments.

In the meantime, we received quite a lot of national and international media attention. Here is some tv and radio coverage on our work by Dailymotion, Fox (US), BBC world radio, Zoomin TV (NL), WNL Vandaag de dag (NL, deel 2, starts at 5:20min), RTL Boulevard (NL), Radio 2 (NL), BNR (NL), Radio 538 (NL). Our work was also covered by newspapers, websites and blogs, including the Guardian, the Register, the Telegraph, the Telegraph incl. polygraphthe Daily Mail, Mail Online, Cambridge News, King’s College Cambridge, Lancaster University, Security Lancaster, Bruce Schneier’s blog, International Business TimesRT,   PC World, PC Advisor, Engadget, News Nation, Techie News, ABP Live, TweakTown, Computer WorldMyScience, King World News, La Celosia (Spanish),de Morgen (BE), NRC (NL), Algemeen Dagblad (NL), de Volkskrant (NL), KIJK (NL), and RTV Utrecht (NL).

 

 

A dubious article for a dubious journal

This morning I received a request to review a manuscript for the “Journal of Internet and Information Systems“. That’s standard for academics — you regularly get requests to do some work for the community for free!

However this was a little out of the ordinary in that the title of the manuscript was “THE ASSESSING CYBER CRIME AND IT IMPACT ON INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY IN NIGERIA” which is not, I feel, particularly grammatical English. I’d expect an editor to have done something about that before I was sent the manuscript…

I stared hard at the email headers (after all I’d just been sent some .docx files out of the blue) and it seems that the Journals Review Department of academicjournals.org uses Microsoft’s platform for their email (so no smoking gun from a spear-fishing point of view). So I took some appropriate precautions and opened the manuscript file.

It was dreadful … and read like it had been copied from somewhere else and patched together — indeed one page appeared twice! However, closer examination suggested it had been scanned rather than copy-typed.

For example:

The primary maturation of malicious agents attacking information system has changed over time from pride and prestige to financial again.

Which, some searches will show you comes from page 22 of Policing Cyber Crime written by Petter Gottschalk in 2010 — a book I haven’t read so I’ve no idea how good it is. Clearly “maturation” should be “motivation”, “system” should “systems” and “again” should be “gain”.

Much of the rest of the material (I didn’t spend a long time on it) was from the same source. Since the book is widely available for download in PDF format (though I do wonder how many versions were authorised), it’s pretty odd to have scanned it.

I then looked harder at the Journal itself — which is one of a group of 107 open-access journals. According to this report they were at one time misleadingly indicating an association with Elsevier, although they didn’t do that on the email they sent me.

The journals appear on “Beall’s list“: a compendium of questionable, scholarly open-access publishers and journals. That is, publishing your article in one of these venues is likely to make your CV look worse rather than better.

In traditional academic publishing the author gets their paper published for free and libraries pay (quite substantial amounts) to receive the journal, which the library users can then read for free, but the article may not be available to non-library users. The business model of “open-access” is that the author pays for having their paper published, and then it is freely available to everyone. There is now much pressure to ensure that academic work is widely available and so open-access is very much in vogue.

There are lots of entirely legitimate open-access journals with exceedingly high standards — but also some very dubious journals which are perceived of as accepting most anything and just collecting the money to keep the publisher in the style to which they have become accustomed (as an indication of the money involved, the fee charged by the Journal of Internet and Information Systems is $550).

I sent back an email to the Journal saying “Even a journal with your reputation should not accept this item“.

What does puzzle me is why anyone would submit a plagiarised article to an open-access journal with a poor reputation. Paying money to get your ripped-off material published in a dubious journal doesn’t seem to be good tactics for anyone. Perhaps it’s just that the journal wants to list me (enrolling my reputation) as one of their reviewers? Or perhaps I was spear-phished after all? Time will tell!

Can we have medical privacy, cloud computing and genomics all at the same time?

Today sees the publication of a report I helped to write for the Nuffield Bioethics Council on what happens to medical ethics in a world of cloud-based medical records and pervasive genomics.

As the information we gave to our doctors in private to help them treat us is now collected and treated as an industrial raw material, there has been scandal after scandal. From failures of anonymisation through unethical sales to the care.data catastrophe, things just seem to get worse. Where is it all going, and what must a medical data user do to behave ethically?

We put forward four principles. First, respect persons; do not treat their confidential data like were coal or bauxite. Second, respect established human-rights and data-protection law, rather than trying to find ways round it. Third, consult people who’ll be affected or who have morally relevant interests. And fourth, tell them what you’ve done – including errors and security breaches.

The collection, linking and use of data in biomedical research and health care: ethical issues took over a year to write. Our working group came from the medical profession, academics, insurers and drug companies. We had lots of arguments. But it taught us a lot, and we hope it will lead to a more informed debate on some very important issues. And since medicine is the canary in the mine, we hope that the privacy lessons can be of value elsewhere – from consumer data to law enforcement and human rights.

Financial Cryptography 2015

I will be trying to liveblog Financial Cryptography 2015.

The opening keynote was by Gavin Andresen, chief scientist of the Bitcoin Foundation, and his title was “What Satoshi didn’t know.” The main unknown six years ago when bitcoin launched was whether it would bootstrap; Satoshi thought it might be used as a spam filter or a practical hashcash. In reality it was someone buying a couple of pizzas for 10,000 bitcoins. Another unknown when Gavin got involved in 2010 was whether it was legal; if you’d asked the SEC then they might have classified it as a Ponzi scheme, but now their alerts are about bitcoin being used in Ponzi schemes. The third thing was how annoying people can be on the Internet; people will abuse your system for fun if it’s popular. An example was penny flooding, where you send coins back and forth between your sybils all day long. Gavin invented “proof of stake”; in its early form it meant prioritising payers who turn over coins less frequently. The idea was that scarcity plus utility equals value; in addition to the bitcoins themselves, another scarce resources emerges as the old, unspent transaction outputs (UTXOs). Perhaps these could be used for further DoS attack prevention or a pseudonymous identity anchor.

It’s not even clear that Satoshi is or was a cryptographer; he used only ECC / ECDSA, hashes and SSL (naively), he didn’t bother compressing public keys, and comments suggest he wasn’t up on the latest crypto research. In addition, the rules for letting transactions into the chain are simple; there’s no subtlety about transaction meaning, which is mixed up with validation and transaction fees; a programming-languages guru would have done things differently. Bitcoin now allows hashes of redemption scripts, so that the script doesn’t have to be disclosed upfront. Another recent innovation is using invertible Bloom lookup tables (IBLTs) to transmit expected differences rather than transmitting all transactions over the network twice. Also, since 2009 we have FHE, NIZLPs and SNARKs from the crypto research folks; the things on which we still need more research include pseudonymous identity, practical privacy, mining scalability, probabilistic transaction checking, and whether we can use streaming algorithms. In questions, Gavin remarked that regulators rather like the idea that there was a public record of all transactions; they might be more negative if it were completely anonymous. In the future, only recent transactions will be universally available; if you want the old stuff you’ll have to store it. Upgrading is hard though; Gavin’s big task this year is to increase the block size. Getting everyone in the world to update their software at once is not trivial. People say: “Why do you have to fix the software? Isn’t bitcoin done?”

I’ll try to blog the refereed talks in comments to this post.