Category Archives: News coverage

Media reports that may interest you

Responsible vulnerability disclosure in Europe

There is a report out today from the European economics think-tank CEPS on how responsible vulnerability disclosure might be harmonised across Europe. I was one of the advisers to this effort which involved not just academics and NGOs but also industry.

It was inspired in part by earlier work reported here on standardisation and certification in the Internet of Things. What happens to car safety standards once cars get patched once a month, like phones and laptops? The answer is not just that safety becomes a moving target, rather than a matter of pre-market testing; we also need a regime whereby accidents, hazards, vulnerabilities and security breaches get reported. That will mean responsible disclosure not just to OEMs and component vendors, but also to safety regulators, standards bodies, traffic police, insurers and accident victims. If we get it right, we could have a learning system that becomes steadily safer and more secure. But we could also get it badly wrong.

Getting it might will involve significant organisational and legal changes, which we discussed in our earlier report and which we carry forward here. We didn’t get everything we wanted; for example, large software vendors wouldn’t support our recommendation to extend the EU Product Liability Directive to services. Nonetheless, we made some progress, so today’s report can be seen a second step on the road.

Failure to protect: kids’ data in school

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.

Happy Birthday FIPR!

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.

Don’t blame Cambridge for Facebook’s privacy crisis

Mark Zuckerberg tried to blame Cambridge University in his recent testimony before the US Senate, saying “We do need to understand whether there was something bad going on in Cambridge University overall, that will require a stronger action from us.”

The New Scientist invited me to write a rebuttal piece, and here it is.

Dr Kogan tried to get approval to use the data his company had collected from Facebook users in academic research. The psychology ethics committee refused permission, and when he appealed to the University Ethics Committee (declaration: I’m a member) this refusal was upheld. Although he’d got consent from the people who ran his app, the same could not be said of their Facebook “friends” from whom most of the data were collected.

The deceptive behaviour here has been by Facebook, which creates the illusion of privacy in order to get its users to share more data. There has been a lot of work on the economics and psychology of privacy over the past decade and we now understand the dynamics of advertising markets better than we used to.

One big question is the “privacy paradox”. Why do people say they care about privacy, yet behave otherwise? Part of the answer is about context; and part of it is about learning. Over time, more and more people are starting to pay attention to online privacy settings, despite attempts by Facebook and other online advertising firms to keep changing privacy settings to confuse people.

With luck, the Facebook scandal will be a “flashbulb moment” that will drive lots more people to start caring about their privacy online. It will certainly provide interesting new data to privacy researchers.

Making security sustainable

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.

Is this research ethical?

The Economist features face recognition on its front page, reporting that deep neural networks can now tell whether you’re straight or gay better than humans can just by looking at your face. The research they cite is a preprint, available here.

Its authors Kosinski and Wang downloaded thousands of photos from a dating site, ran them through a standard feature-extraction program, then classified gay vs straight using a standard statistical classifier, which they found could tell the men seeking men from the men seeking women. My students pretty well instantly called this out as selection bias; if gay men consider boyish faces to be cuter, then they will upload their most boyish photo. The paper authors suggest their finding may support a theory that sexuality is influenced by fetal testosterone levels, but when you don’t control for such biases your results may say more about social norms than about phenotypes.

Quite apart from the scientific value of the research, which is perhaps best assessed by specialists, I’m concerned with the ethics and privacy aspects. I am surprised that the paper doesn’t report having been through ethical review; the authors consider that photos on a dating website are public information and appear to assume that privacy issues simply do not arise.

Yet UK courts decided, in Campbell v Mirror, that privacy could be violated even by photos taken on the public street, and European courts have come to similar conclusions in I v Finland and elsewhere. For example, a Catholic woman is entitled to object to the use of her medical record in research on abortifacients and contraceptives even if the proposed use is fully anonymised and presents no privacy risk whatsoever. The dating site users would be similarly entitled to object to their photos being used in research to which they might have an ethical objection, even if they could not be identified from their photos. There are surely going to be people who object to research in any nature vs nurture debate, especially on a charged topic such as sexuality. And the whole point of the Economist’s coverage is that face-recognition technology is now good enough to work at population scale.

What do LBT readers think?

Is the City force corrupt, or just clueless?

This week brought an announcement from a banking association that “identity fraud” is soaring to new levels, with 89,000 cases reported in the first six months of 2017 and 56% of all fraud reported by its members now classed as “identity fraud”.

So what is “identity fraud”? The announcement helpfully clarifies the concept:

“The vast majority of identity fraud happens when a fraudster pretends to be an innocent individual to buy a product or take out a loan in their name. Often victims do not even realise that they have been targeted until a bill arrives for something they did not buy or they experience problems with their credit rating. To carry out this kind of fraud successfully, fraudsters need access to their victim’s personal information such as name, date of birth, address, their bank and who they hold accounts with. Fraudsters get hold of this in a variety of ways, from stealing mail through to hacking; obtaining data on the ‘dark web’; exploiting personal information on social media, or though ‘social engineering’ where innocent parties are persuaded to give up personal information to someone pretending to be from their bank, the police or a trusted retailer.”

Now back when I worked in banking, if someone went to Barclays, pretended to be me, borrowed £10,000 and legged it, that was “impersonation”, and it was the bank’s money that had been stolen, not my identity. How did things change?

The members of this association are banks and credit card issuers. In their narrative, those impersonated are treated as targets, when the targets are actually those banks on whom the impersonation is practised. This is a precursor to refusing bank customers a “remedy” for “their loss” because “they failed to protect themselves.”
Now “dishonestly making a false representation” is an offence under s2 Fraud Act 2006. Yet what is the police response?

The Head of the City of London Police’s Economic Crime Directorate does not see the banks’ narrative as dishonest. Instead he goes along with it: “It has become normal for people to publish personal details about themselves on social media and on other online platforms which makes it easier than ever for a fraudster to steal someone’s identity.” He continues: “Be careful who you give your information to, always consider whether it is necessary to part with those details.” This is reinforced with a link to a police website with supposedly scary statistics: 55% of people use open public wifi and 40% of people don’t have antivirus software (like many security researchers, I’m guilty on both counts). This police website has a quote from the Head’s own boss, a Commander who is the National Police Coordinator for Economic Crime.

How are we to rate their conduct? Given that the costs of the City force’s Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit are borne by the banks, perhaps they feel obliged to sing from the banks’ hymn sheet. Just as the MacPherson report criticised the Met for being institutionally racist, we might perhaps describe the City force as institutionally corrupt. There is a wide literature on regulatory capture, and many other examples of regulators keen to do the banks’ bidding. And it’s not just the City force. There are disgraceful examples of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and GCHQ endorsing the banks’ false narrative. However people are starting to notice, including the National Audit Office.

Or perhaps the police are just clueless?

History of the Crypto Wars in Britain

Back in March I gave an invited talk to the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Society on the Crypto Wars. They have just put the video online here.

We spent much of the 1990s pushing back against attempts by the intelligence agencies to seize control of cryptography. From the Clipper Chip through the regulation of trusted third parties to export control, the agencies tried one trick after another to make us all less secure online, claiming that thanks to cryptography the world of intelligence was “going dark”. Quite the opposite was true; with communications moving online, with people starting to carry mobile phones everywhere, and with our communications and traffic data mostly handled by big firms who respond to warrants, law enforcement has never had it so good. Twenty years ago it cost over a thousand pounds a day to follow a suspect around, and weeks of work to map his contacts; Ed Snowden told us how nowadays an officer can get your location history with one click and your address book with another. In fact, searches through the contact patterns of whole populations are now routine.

The checks and balances that we thought had been built in to the RIP Act in 2000 after all our lobbying during the 1990s turned out to be ineffective. GCHQ simply broke the law and, after Snowden exposed them, Parliament passed the IP Act to declare that what they did was all right now. The Act allows the Home Secretary to give secret orders to tech companies to do anything they physically can to facilitate surveillance, thereby delighting our foreign competitors. And Brexit means the government thinks it can ignore the European Court of Justice, which has already ruled against some of the Act’s provisions. (Or perhaps Theresa May chose a hard Brexit because she doesn’t want the pesky court in the way.)

Yet we now see the Home Secretary repeating the old nonsense about decent people not needing privacy along with law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Why doesn’t she just sign the technical capability notices she deems necessary and serve them?

In these fraught times it might be useful to recall how we got here. My talk to the Ethics in Mathematics Society was a personal memoir; there are many links on my web page to relevant documents.

Compartmentation is hard, but the Big Data playbook makes it harder still

A new study of Palantir’s systems and business methods makes sobering reading for people interested in what big data means for privacy.

Privacy scales badly. It’s OK for the twenty staff at a medical practice to have access to the records of the ten thousand patients registered there, but when you build a centralised system that lets every doctor and nurse in the country see every patient’s record, things go wrong. There are even sharper concerns in the world of intelligence, which agencies try to manage using compartmentation: really sensitive information is often put in a compartment that’s restricted to a handful of staff. But such systems are hard to build and maintain. Readers of my book chapter on the subject will recall that while US Naval Intelligence struggled to manage millions of compartments, the CIA let more of their staff see more stuff – whereupon Aldrich Ames betrayed their agents to the Russians.

After 9/11, the intelligence community moved towards the CIA model, in the hope that with fewer compartments they’d be better able to prevent future attacks. We predicted trouble, and Snowden duly came along. As for civilian agencies such as Britain’s NHS and police, no serious effort was made to protect personal privacy by compartmentation, with multiple consequences.

Palantir’s systems were developed to help the intelligence community link, fuse and visualise data from multiple sources, and are now sold to police forces too. It should surprise no-one to learn that they do not compartment information properly, whether within a single force or even between forces. The organised crime squad’s secret informants can thus become visible to traffic cops, and even to cops in other forces, with tragically predictable consequences. Fixing this is hard, as Palantir’s market advantage comes from network effects and the resulting scale. The more police forces they sign up the more data they have, and the larger they grow the more third-party databases they integrate, leaving private-sector competitors even further behind.

This much we could have predicted from first principles but the details of how Palantir operates, and what police forces dislike about it, are worth studying.

What might be the appropriate public-policy response? Well, the best analysis of competition policy in the presence of network effects is probably Lina Khan’s, and her analysis would suggest in this case that police intelligence should be a regulated utility. We should develop those capabilities that are actually needed, and the right place for them is the Police National Database. The public sector is better placed to commit the engineering effort to do compartmentation properly, both there and in other applications where it’s needed, such as the NHS. Good engineering is expensive – but as the Los Angeles Police Department found, engaging Palantir can be more expensive still.

National Audit Office confirms that police, banks, Home Office pass the buck on fraud

The National Audit Office has found as follows:

“For too long, as a low value but high volume crime, online fraud has been overlooked by government, law enforcement and industry. It is now the most commonly experienced crime in England and Wales and demands an urgent response. While the Department is not solely responsible for reducing and preventing online fraud, it is the only body that can oversee the system and lead change. The launch of the Joint Fraud Taskforce in February 2016 was a positive step, but there is still much work to be done. At this stage it is hard to judge that the response to online fraud is proportionate, efficient or effective.”

Our regular readers will recall that over ten years ago the government got the banks to agree with the police that fraud would be reported to the bank first. This ensured that the police and the government could boast of falling fraud figures, while the banks could direct such fraud investigations as did happen. This was roundly criticized by the Science and Technology Committee (here and here) but the government held firm. Over the succeeding decade, dissident criminologists started pointing out that fraud was not falling, just going online like everything else, and the online stuff was being ignored. Successive governments just didn’t want to know; for most of the period in question the Home Secretary was one Theresa May, who so impressed her party by “cutting crime” even though she’d cut 20,000 police jobs that she got a promotion.

But pigeons come home to roost eventually, and over the last two years the Office of National Statistics has been moving to more honest crime figures. The NAO report bears close study by anyone interested in cybercrime, in crime generally, and in how politicians game the crime figures. It makes clear that the Home Office doesn’t know what’s going on (or doesn’t really want to) and hopes that other people (such as banks and the IT industry) will solve the problem.

Government has made one or two token gestures such as setting up Action Fraud, and the NAO piously hopes that the latest such (the Joint Fraud Taskforce) could be beefed up to do some good.

I’m afraid that the NAO’s recommendations are less impressive. Let me give an example. The main online fraud bothering Cambridge University relates to bogus accommodation; about fifty times a year, a new employee or research student turns up to find that the apartment they rented doesn’t exist. This is an organised scam, run by crooks in Germany, that affects students elsewhere in the UK (mostly in London) and is netting £5-10m a year. The cybercrime guy in the Cambridgeshire Constabulary can’t do anything about this as only the National Crime Agency in London is allowed to talk to the German police; but he can’t talk to the NCA directly. He has to go through the Regional Organised Crime Unit in Bedford, who don’t care. The NCA would rather do sexier stuff; they seem to have planned to take over the Serious Fraud Office, as that was in the Conservative manifesto for this year’s election.

Every time we look at why some scam persists, it’s down to the institutional economics – to the way that government and the police forces have arranged their targets, their responsibilities and their reporting lines so as to make problems into somebody else’s problems. The same applies in the private sector; if you complain about fraud on your bank account the bank may simply reply that as their systems are secure, it’s your fault. If they record it at all, it may be as a fraud you attempted to commit against them. And it’s remarkable how high a proportion of people prosecuted under the Computer Misuse Act appear to have annoyed authority, for example by hacking police websites. Why do we civilians not get protected with this level of enthusiasm?

Many people have lobbied for change; LBT readers will recall numerous articles over the last ten years. Which? made a supercomplaint to the Payment Services Regulator, and got the usual bland non-reassurance. Other members of the old establishment were less courteous; the Commissioner of the Met said that fraud was the victims’ fault and GCHQ agreed. Such attitudes hit the poor and minorities the hardest.

The NAO is just as reluctant to engage. At p34 it says of the Home Office “The Department … has to influence partners to take responsibility in the absence of more formal legal or contractual levers.” But we already have the Payment Services Regulations; the FCA explained in response to the Tesco Bank hack that the banks it regulates should make fraud victims good. And it has always been the common-law position that in the absence of gross negligence a banker could not debit his customer’s account without the customer’s mandate. What’s lacking is enforcement. Nobody, from the Home Office through the FCA to the NAO, seems to want to face down the banks. Rather than insisting that they obey the law, the Home Office will spend another £500,000 on a publicity campaign, no doubt to tell us that it’s all our fault really.