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.
The FIPR 20th birthday seminar is taking place right now in the Cambridge Computer Lab, and the livestream is here.
I may or may not find time to liveblog the sessions in followups…
I’m at the 2018 Workshop on Security and Human Behavior which is being held this year at Carnegie Mellon University. For background, the workshop liveblogs and websites from 2008–17 are linked here.
As usual, I will try to liveblog the sessions in followups to this post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A new Computerphile video explains how we’ve worked out a much better way to track stolen bitcoin. Previous attempts to do this had got entangled in the problem of dealing with transactions that split bitcoin into change, or that consolidate smaller sums into larger ones, and with mining fees. The answer comes from an unexpected direction: a legal precedent in 1816. We discussed the technical details last week at the Security Protools Workshop; a preprint of our paper is here.
Previous attempts to track tainted coins had used either the “poison” or the “haircut” method. Suppose I open a new address and pay into it three stolen bitcoin followed by seven freshly-mined ones. Then under poison, the output is ten stolen bitcoin, while under haircut it’s ten bitcoin that are marked 30% stolen. After thousands of blocks, poison tainting will blacklist millions of addresses, while with haircut the taint gets diffused, so neither is very effective at tracking stolen property. Bitcoin due-diligence services supplant haircut taint tracking with AI/ML, but the results are still not satisfactory.
We discovered that, back in 1816, the High Court had to tackle this problem in Clayton’s case, which involved the assets and liabilities of a bank that had gone bust. The court ruled that money must be tracked through accounts on the basis of first-in, first out (FIFO); the first penny into an account goes to satisfy the first withdrawal, and so on.
Ilia Shumailov has written software that applies FIFO tainting to the blockchain and the results are impressive, with a massive improvement in precision. What’s more, FIFO taint tracking is lossless, unlike haircut; so in addition to tracking a stolen coin forward to find where it’s gone, you can start with any UTXO and trace it backwards to see its entire ancestry. It’s not just good law; it’s good computer science too.
We plan to make this software public, so that everybody can use it and everybody can see where the bad bitcoins are going.
I’m giving a further talk on Tuesday at a financial-risk conference in Paris.
Making security sustainable is a piece I wrote for Communications of the ACM and has just appeared in the Privacy and security column of their March issue. Now that software is appearing in durable goods, such as cars and medical devices, that can kill us, software engineering will have to come of age.
The notion that software engineers are not responsible for things that go wrong will be laid to rest for good, and we will have to work out how to develop and maintain code that will go on working dependably for decades in environments that change and evolve. And as security becomes ever more about safety rather than just privacy, we will have sharper policy debates about surveillance, competition, and consumer protection.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be durability. At present we have a hard time patching a phone that’s three years old. Yet the average age of a UK car at scrappage is about 14 years, and rising all the time; cars used to last 100,000 miles in the 1980s but now keep going for nearer 200,000. As the embedded carbon cost of a car is about equal to that of the fuel it will burn over its lifetime, we just can’t afford to scrap cars after five years, as do we laptops.
For durable safety-critical goods that incorporate software, the long-term software maintenance cost may become the limiting factor. Two things follow. First, software sustainability will be a big research challenge for computer scientists. Second, it will also be a major business opportunity for firms who can cut the cost.
This paper follows on from our earlier work for the European Commission on what happens to safety regulation in the future Internet of Things.