Category Archives: Authentication

Security Protocols 2016

I’m at the 24th security protocols workshop in Brno (no, not Borneo, as a friend misheard it, but in the Czech republic; a two-hour flight rather than a twenty-hour one). We ended up being bumped to an old chapel in the Mendel museum, a former monastery where the monk Gregor Mendel figured out genetics from the study of peas, and for the prosaic reason that the Canadian ambassador pre-empted our meeting room. As a result we had no wifi and I have had to liveblog from the pub, where we are having lunch. The session liveblogs will be in followups to this post, in the usual style.

My Yahoo! password histograms are now available (with differential privacy!)

5 years ago, I compiled a dataset of password histograms representing roughly 70 million Yahoo! users. It was the largest password dataset ever compiled for research purposes. The data was a key component of my PhD dissertation the next year and motivated new statistical methods for which I received the 2013 NSA Cybersecurity Award.

I had always hoped to share the data publicly. It consists only of password histograms, not passwords themselves, so it seemed reasonably safe to publish. But without a formal privacy model, Yahoo! didn’t agree. Given the history of deanonymization work, caution is certainly in order. Today, thanks to new differential privacy methods described in a paper published at NDSS 2016 with colleagues Jeremiah Blocki and Anupam Datta, a sanitized version of the data is publicly available.

Continue reading My Yahoo! password histograms are now available (with differential privacy!)

Can we crowdsource trust?

Your browser contains a few hundred root certificates. Many of them were put there by governments; two (Verisign and Comodo) are there because so many merchants trust them that they’ve become ‘too big to fail’. This is a bit like where people buy the platform with the most software – a pattern of behaviour that let IBM and then Microsoft dominate our industry in turn. But this is not how trust should work; it leads to many failures, some of them invisible.

What’s missing is a mechanism where trust derives from users, rather than from vendors, merchants or states. After all, the power of a religion stems from the people who believe in it, not from the government. Entities with godlike powers that are foisted on us by others and can work silently against us are not gods, but demons. What can we do to exorcise them?

Do You Believe in Tinker Bell? The Social Externalities of Trust explores how we can crowdsource trust. Tor bridges help censorship victims access the Internet freely, and there are not enough of them. We want to motivate lots of people to provide them, and the best providers are simply those who help the most victims. So trust should flow from the support of the users, and it should be hard for powerful third parties to pervert. Perhaps a useful mascot is Tinker Bell, the fairy in Peter Pan, whose power waxes and wanes with the number of children who believe in her.

Double bill: Password Hashing Competition + KeyboardPrivacy

Two interesting items from Per Thorsheim, founder of the PasswordsCon conference that we’re hosting here in Cambridge this December (you still have one month to submit papers, BTW).

First, the Password Hashing Competition “have selected Argon2 as a basis for the final PHC winner”, which will be “finalized by end of Q3 2015”. This is about selecting a new password hashing scheme to improve on the state of the art and make brute force password cracking harder. Hopefully we’ll have some good presentations about this topic at the conference.

Second, and unrelated: Per Thorsheim and Paul Moore have launched a privacy-protecting Chrome plugin called Keyboard Privacy to guard your anonymity against websites that look at keystroke dynamics to identify users. So, you might go through Tor, but the site recognizes you by your typing pattern and builds a typing profile that “can be used to identify you at other sites you’re using, were identifiable information is available about you”. Their plugin intercepts your keystrokes, batches them up and delivers them to the website at a constant pace, interfering with the site’s ability to build a profile that identifies you.

Passwords 2015 call for papers

The  9th International Conference on Passwords will be held at Cambridge, UK on 7-9 December 2015.

Launched in 2010 by Per Thorsheim,  Passwordscon is a lively and entertaining conference series dedicated solely to passwords. Passwordscon’s unique mix of refereed papers and hacker talks encourages a kind of cross-fertilization that I’m sure you’ll find both entertaining and fruitful.

Paper submissions are due by 7 September 2015. Selected papers will be included in the event proceedings, published by Springer in the Lecture Notes in Computer Science (LNCS) series.

We hope to see lots of you there!

Graeme Jenkinson, Local arrangements chair

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.

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.

Why password managers (sometimes) fail

We are asked to remember far too many passwords. This problem is most acute on the web. And thus, unsurprisingly, it is on the web that technical solutions have had most success in replacing users’ ad hoc coping strategies. One of the longest established and most widely adopted technical solutions is a password manager: software that remembers passwords and submits them on the user’s behalf. But this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. In our recent work on bootstrapping adoption of the Pico system [1], we’ve come to appreciate just how hard life is for developers and maintainers of password managers.

In a paper we are about to present at the Passwords 2014 conference in Trondheim, we introduce our proposal for Password Manager Friendly (PMF) semantics [2]. PMF semantics are designed to give developers and maintainers of password managers a bit of a break and, more importantly, to improve the user experience.

Continue reading Why password managers (sometimes) fail

Nikka – Digital Strongbox (Crypto as Service)

Imagine, somewhere in the internet that no-one trusts, there is a piece of hardware, a small computer, that works just for you. You can trust it. You can depend on it. Things may get rough but it will stay there to get you through. That is Nikka, it is the fixed point on which you can build your security and trust. [Now as a Kickstarter project]

You may remember our proof-of-concept implementation of a password protection for servers – Hardware Scrambling (published here in March). The password scrambler was a small dongle that could be plugged to a Linux computer (we used Raspberry Pi). Its only purpose was to provide a simple API for encrypting passwords (but it could be credit cards or anything else up to 32 bytes of length). The beginning of something big?

It received some attention (Ars Technica, Slashdot, LWN, …), certainly more than we expected at the time. Following discussions have also taught us a couple of lessons about how people (mostly geeks in this contexts) view security – particularly about the default distrust expressed by those who discussed articles describing our password scrambler.

We eventually decided to build a proper hardware cryptographic platform that could be used for cloud applications. Our requirements were simple. We wanted something fast, “secure” (CC EAL5+ or even FIPS140-2 certified), scalable, easy to use (no complicated API, just one function call) and to be provided as a service so no-one has to pay upfront the price of an HSM if they just want to have a go at using proper cryptography for their new or old application. That was the beginning of Nikka.


This is our concept: Nikka comprises a set of powerful servers installed in secure data centres. These servers can create clusters delivering high-availability and scalability for their clients. Secure hardware forms the backbone of each server that provides an interface for simple use. The second part of Nikka are user applications, plugins, and libraries for easy deployment and everyday “invisible” use. Operational procedures, processes, policies, and audit logs then guarantee that what we say is actually being done.

2014-07-04 08.17.35We have been building it for a few months now and the scalable cryptographic core seems to work. We have managed to run long-term tests of 150 HMAC transactions per second (HMAC & RNG for password scrambling) on a small development platform while fully utilising available secure hardware. The server is hosted at ideaSpace and we use it to run functional, configuration and load tests.

We have never before designed a system with so many independent processes – the core is completely asynchronous (starting with Netty for a TCP interface) and we have quickly started to appreciate detailed trace logging we’ve implemented from the very beginning. Each time we start digging we find something interesting. Real-time visualisation of the performance is quite nice as well.

Nikka is basically a general purpose cryptographic engine with middleware layer for easy integration. The password HMAC is this time used only as one of test applications. Users can share or reserve processing units that have Common Criteria evaluations or even FIPS140-2 certification – with possible physical hardware separation of users.

If you like what you have read so far, you can keep reading, watching, supporting at Kickstarter. It has been great fun so far and we want to turn it into something useful in 2015. If it sounds interesting – maybe you would like to test it early next year, let us know! @DanCvrcek