Category Archives: Banking security

The security of the banking system, as well as hardware and software commonly used in such installations

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.

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.

On the measurement of banking fraud

Kidnapping is not an easy crime to be successful at…

… it is of course easy to grab the heiress from outside the nightclub at 3am. It’s easy to incarcerate her at the remote farmhouse. If you pick the right henchmen then it’s easy to cut off her ear and post it off to the frantic family.

Thereafter it gets very difficult — you must communicate directly several times and you must physically go and pick up the bag of money. These last two tasks are extremely difficult to manage successfully which is why police forces solve kidnap cases so often (in its first 5 years the Metropolitan Police Kidnap Unit solved 100% of their cases).

Theft from online bank accounts also has its difficulties. It remains relatively easy to gain access to a victim’s bank account and to issue instructions on their behalf. Last decade this was all about “phishing” — gathering credentials by creating fake websites; more recently credentials have been compromised by means of “man-in-the-browser” malware: you think you are paying your gas bill and that’s what your browser tells you is occurring. In practice you’re approving a money transfer to a criminal.

However, moving the money to another account does not mean that the criminal has got away with it. If the bank notices a suspicious pattern of transfers then they can investigate, and when they see the tell-tale signs of fraud then the transfers (which were only changes to computer records) can be trivially reversed. It is only when the criminal can extract folding money from an ATM, or can move the money abroad in such a way that it will never be repatriated that they have been truly successful. So like kidnap, theft from bank accounts is somewhat harder to pull off than one might initially think.

This has turned out to be a surprise to the Treasury Select Committee.

Last month I was asked to give oral evidence to them and the very first question related to how much fraud there was relating to online banking. I explained that the banks collated figures showing how much money was actually “lost” (viz: the amount that the banks ended up, usually anyway, reimbursing to the unfortunate customers who had been defrauded).

However, industry insiders say that about twice this amount is moved to another account but — and this is basically Very Good News — it is then transferred back so there is no actual loss to anyone. We don’t know the exact figures here, because they are not collated and published.

Furthermore, the bank should also be measuring “money at risk” that is the total amount in the compromised accounts. If their security measures failed and criminals stole every last penny then these would be actual losses — an order of magnitude more, perhaps, than the published figures.

The Select Committee chairman is now writing to the banks to ask if this is all true and what the “true” fraud figures might be. If the banks reply with detailed information then we might finally understand quite how difficult bank fraud is. I fully expect the story will run something along the lines that <n> accounts with 10,000 pounds in them are comprised, that the crooks fraudulently transfer 995 pounds from most, but not all of these <n> — but that half the time the fraudulent transaction is reversed.

If this analysis is correct then online banking fraud is a still, on average, much more lucrative than kidnapping — but we must make up our mind as to whether to measure it using the figures of 10,000 or 995 or “about half of 995 is permanently lost”. There’s justification to every way of measuring the problem — but it it’s important to understand the limitations of any single measurement; failure to do so will mean that the banks will not deploy the right level of security measures — and the politicians will fail to give the issue an appropriate level of  consideration.

EMV: Why Payment Systems Fail

In the latest edition of Communications of the ACM, Ross Anderson and I have an article in the Inside Risks column: “EMV: Why Payment Systems Fail” (DOI 10.1145/2602321).

Now that US banks are deploying credit and debit cards with chips supporting the EMV protocol, our article explores what lessons the US should learn from the UK experience of having chip cards since 2006. We address questions like whether EMV would have prevented the Target data breach (it wouldn’t have), whether Chip and PIN is safer for customers than Chip and Signature (it isn’t), whether EMV cards can be cloned (in some cases, they can) and whether EMV will protect against online fraud (it won’t).

While the EMV specification is the same across the world, they way each country uses it varies substantially. Even individual banks within a country may make different implementation choices which have an impact on security. The US will prove to be an especially interesting case study because some banks will be choosing Chip and PIN (as the UK has done) while others will choose Chip and Signature (as Singapore did). The US will act as a natural experiment addressing the question of whether Chip and PIN or Chip and Signature is better, and from whose perspective?

The US is also distinctive in that the major tussle over payment card security is over the “interchange” fees paid by merchants to the banks which issue the cards used. Interchange fees are about an order of magnitude higher than losses due to fraud, so while security is one consideration in choosing different sets of EMV features, the question of who pays how much in fees is a more important factor (even if the decision is later claimed to be justified by security). We’re already seeing results of this fight in the courts and through legislation.

EMV is coming to the US, so it is important that banks, customers, merchants and regulators know the likely consequences and how to manage the risks, learning from the lessons of the UK and elsewhere. Discussion of these and further issues can be found in our article.

The pre-play vulnerability in Chip and PIN

Today we have published a new paper: “Chip and Skim: cloning EMV cards with the pre-play attack”, presented at the 2014 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. The paper analyses the EMV protocol, the leading smart card payment system with 1.62 billion cards in circulation, and known as “Chip and PIN” in English-speaking countries. As a result of the Target data breach, banks in the US (which have lagged behind in Chip and PIN deployment compared to the rest of the world) have accelerated their efforts to roll out Chip and PIN capable cards to their customers.

However, our paper shows that Chip and PIN, as currently implemented, still has serious vulnerabilities, which might leave customers at risk of fraud. Previously we have shown how cards can be used without knowing the correct PIN, and that card details can be intercepted as a result of flawed tamper-protection. Our new paper shows that it is possible to create clone chip cards which normal bank procedures will not be able to distinguish from the real card.

When a Chip and PIN transaction is performed, the terminal requests that the card produces an authentication code for the transaction. Part of this transaction is a number that is supposed to be random, so as to stop an authentication code being generated in advance. However, there are two ways in which the protection can by bypassed: the first requires that the Chip and PIN terminal has a poorly designed random generation (which we have observed in the wild); the second requires that the Chip and PIN terminal or its communications back to the bank can be tampered with (which again, we have observed in the wild).

To carry out the attack, the criminal arranges that the targeted terminal will generate a particular “random” number in the future (either by predicting which number will be generated by a poorly designed random number generator, by tampering with the random number generator, or by tampering with the random number sent to the bank). Then the criminal gains temporary access to the card (for example by tampering with a Chip and PIN terminal) and requests authentication codes corresponding to the “random” number(s) that will later occur. Finally, the attacker loads the authentication codes on to the clone card, and uses this card in the targeted terminal. Because the authentication codes that the clone card provides match those which the real card would have provided, the bank cannot distinguish between the clone card and the real one.

Because the transactions look legitimate, banks may refuse to refund victims of fraud. So in the paper we discuss how bank procedures could be improved to detect whether this attack has occurred. We also describe how the Chip and PIN system could be improved. As a result of our research, work has started on mitigating one of the vulnerabilities we identified; the certification requirements for random number generators in Chip and PIN terminals have been improved, though old terminals may still be vulnerable. Attacks making use of tampered random number generators or communications are more challenging to prevent and have yet to be addressed.

Update (2014-05-20): There is press coverage of this paper in The Register, SC Magazine UK and Schneier on Security.
Update (2014-05-21): Also now covered in The Hacker News.

Small earthquake, not many dead (yet)

The European Court of Justice decision in the Google case will have implications way beyond search engines. Regular readers of this blog will recall stories of banks hounding innocent people for money following payment disputes, and a favourite trick is to blacklist people with credit reference agencies, even while disputes are still in progress (or even after the bank has actually lost a court case). In the past, the Information Commissioner refused to do anything about this abuse, claiming that it’s the bank which is the data controller, not the credit agency. The court now confirms that this view was quite wrong. I have therefore written to the Information Commissioner inviting him to acknowledge this and to withdraw the guidance issued to the credit reference agencies by his predecessor.

I wonder what other information intermediaries will now have to revise their business models?

Ghosts of Banking Past

Bank names are so tricksy — they all have similar words in them… and so it’s common to see phishing feeds with slightly the wrong brand identified as being impersonated.

However, this story is about how something the way around has happened, in that AnonGhost, a hacker group, believe that they’ve defaced “Yorkshire Bank, one of the largest United Kingdom bank” and there’s some boasting about this to be found at

However, it rather looks to me as if they’ve hacked an imitation bank instead! A rather less glorious exploit from the point of view of potential admirers.
Continue reading Ghosts of Banking Past

Financial cryptography 2014

I will be trying to liveblog Financial Cryptography 2014. I just gave a keynote talk entitled “EMV – Why Payment Systems Fail” summarising our last decade’s research on what goes wrong with Chip and PIN. There will be a paper on this out in a few months; meanwhile here’s the slides and here’s our page of papers on bank security.

The sessions of refereed papers will be blogged in comments to this post.