Category Archives: News coverage

Media reports that may interest you

Our new “Freedom of Speech” policy

Our beloved Vice-Chancellor proposes a “free speech” policy under which all academics must treat other academics with “respect”. This is no doubt meant well, but the drafting is surprisingly vague and authoritarian for a university where the VC, the senior pro-VC, the HR pro-VC and the Registrary are all lawyers. The bottom line is that in future we might face disciplinary charges and even dismissal for mockery of ideas and individuals with which we disagree.

The policy was slipped out in March, when nobody was paying attention. There was a Discussion in June, at which my colleague Arif Ahmad spelled out the problems.

Vigorous debate is intrinsic to academia and it should be civil, but it is unreasonable to expect people to treat all opposing views with respect. Oxford’s policy spells this out. At the Discussion, Arif pointed out that “respect” must be changed to “tolerance” if we are to uphold the liberal culture that we have not just embraced but developed over several centuries.

At its first meeting this term, the University Council considered these arguments but decided to press ahead anyway. We are therefore calling a ballot on three amendments to the policy. If you’re a senior member of the University we invite you to sign up your support for them on the flysheets. The first amendment changes “respect” to “tolerance”; the second makes it harder to force university societies to disinvite speakers whose remarks may be controversial, and the third restricts the circumstances in which the university itself can ban speakers.

Liberalism is coming under attack from authoritarians of both left and right, yet it is the foundation on which modern academic life is built and our own university has contributed more than any other to its development over the past 811 years. If academics can face discipline for using tactics such as scorn, ridicule and irony to criticise folly, how does that sit with having such alumni as John Maynard Keynes and Charles Darwin, not to mention Bertrand Rusell, Douglas Adams and Salman Rushdie?

Is science being set up to take the blame?

Yesterday’s publication of the minutes of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) raises some interesting questions. An initial summary in yesterday’s Guardian has a timeline suggesting that it was the distinguished medics on SAGE rather than the Prime Minister who went from complacency in January and February to panic in March, and who ignored the risk to care homes until it was too late.

Is this a Machiavellian conspiracy by Dominic Cummings to blame the scientists, or is it business as usual? Having spent a dozen years on the university’s governing body and various of its subcommittees, I can absolutely get how this happened. Once a committee gets going, it can become very reluctant to change its opinion on anything. Committees can become sociopathic, worrying about their status, ducking liability, and finding reasons why problems are either somebody else’s or not practically soluble.

So I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading the minutes, and indeed we see the group worried about its power: on February 13th it wants the messaging to emphasise that official advice is both efficaceous and sufficient, to “reduce the likelihood of the public adopting unnecessary or contradictory behaviours”. Turf is defended: Public Health England (PHE) ruled on February 18th that it can cope with 5 new cases a week (meaning tracing 800 contacts) and hoped this might be increased to 50; they’d already decided the previous week that it wasn’t possible to accelerate diagnostic capacity. So far, so much as one might expect.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

Continue reading Is science being set up to take the blame?

Contact Tracing in the Real World

There have recently been several proposals for pseudonymous contact tracing, including from Apple and Google. To both cryptographers and privacy advocates, this might seem the obvious way to protect public health and privacy at the same time. Meanwhile other cryptographers have been pointing out some of the flaws.

There are also real systems being built by governments. Singapore has already deployed and open-sourced one that uses contact tracing based on bluetooth beacons. Most of the academic and tech industry proposals follow this strategy, as the “obvious” way to tell who’s been within a few metres of you and for how long. The UK’s National Health Service is working on one too, and I’m one of a group of people being consulted on the privacy and security.

But contact tracing in the real world is not quite as many of the academic and industry proposals assume.

First, it isn’t anonymous. Covid-19 is a notifiable disease so a doctor who diagnoses you must inform the public health authorities, and if they have the bandwidth they call you and ask who you’ve been in contact with. They then call your contacts in turn. It’s not about consent or anonymity, so much as being persuasive and having a good bedside manner.

I’m relaxed about doing all this under emergency public-health powers, since this will make it harder for intrusive systems to persist after the pandemic than if they have some privacy theater that can be used to argue that the whizzy new medi-panopticon is legal enough to be kept running.

Second, contact tracers have access to all sorts of other data such as public transport ticketing and credit-card records. This is how a contact tracer in Singapore is able to phone you and tell you that the taxi driver who took you yesterday from Orchard Road to Raffles has reported sick, so please put on a mask right now and go straight home. This must be controlled; Taiwan lets public-health staff access such material in emergencies only.

Third, you can’t wait for diagnoses. In the UK, you only get a test if you’re a VIP or if you get admitted to hospital. Even so the results take 1–3 days to come back. While the VIPs share their status on twitter or facebook, the other diagnosed patients are often too sick to operate their phones.

Fourth, the public health authorities need geographical data for purposes other than contact tracing – such as to tell the army where to build more field hospitals, and to plan shipments of scarce personal protective equipment. There are already apps that do symptom tracking but more would be better. So the UK app will ask for the first three characters of your postcode, which is about enough to locate which hospital you’d end up in.

Fifth, although the cryptographers – and now Google and Apple – are discussing more anonymous variants of the Singapore app, that’s not the problem. Anyone who’s worked on abuse will instantly realise that a voluntary app operated by anonymous actors is wide open to trolling. The performance art people will tie a phone to a dog and let it run around the park; the Russians will use the app to run service-denial attacks and spread panic; and little Johnny will self-report symptoms to get the whole school sent home.

Sixth, there’s the human aspect. On Friday, when I was coming back from walking the dogs, I stopped to chat for ten minutes to a neighbour. She stood halfway between her gate and her front door, so we were about 3 metres apart, and the wind was blowing from the side. The risk that either of us would infect the other was negligible. If we’d been carrying bluetooth apps, we’d have been flagged as mutual contacts. It would be quite intolerable for the government to prohibit such social interactions, or to deploy technology that would punish them via false alarms. And how will things work with an orderly supermarket queue, where law-abiding people stand patiently six feet apart?

Bluetooth also goes through plasterboard. If undergraduates return to Cambridge in October, I assume there will still be small-group teaching, but with protocols for distancing, self-isolation and quarantine. A supervisor might sit in a teaching room with two or three students, all more than 2m apart and maybe wearing masks, and the window open. The bluetooth app will flag up not just the others in the room but people in the next room too.

How is this to be dealt with? I expect the app developers will have to fit a user interface saying “You’re within range of device 38a5f01e20. Within infection range (y/n)?” But what happens when people get an avalanche of false alarms? They learn to click them away. A better design might be to invite people to add a nickname and a photo so that contacts could see who they are. “You are near to Ross [photo] and have been for five minutes. Are you maintaining physical distance?”

When I discussed this with a family member, the immediate reaction was that she’d refuse to run an anonymous app that might suddenly say “someone you’ve been near in the past four days has reported symptoms, so you must now self-isolate for 14 days.” A call from a public health officer is one thing, but not knowing who it was would just creep her out. It’s important to get the reactions of real people, not just geeks and wonks! And the experience of South Korea and Taiwan suggests that transparency is the key to public acceptance.

Seventh, on the systems front, decentralised systems are all very nice in theory but are a complete pain in practice as they’re too hard to update. We’re still using Internet infrastructure from 30 years ago (BGP, DNS, SMTP…) because it’s just too hard to change. Watch Moxie Marlinspike’s talk at 36C3 if you don’t get this. Relying on cryptography tends to make things even more complex, fragile and hard to change. In the pandemic, the public health folks may have to tweak all sorts of parameters weekly or even daily. You can’t do that with apps on 169 different types of phone and with peer-to-peer communications.

Personally I feel conflicted. I recognise the overwhelming force of the public-health arguments for a centralised system, but I also have 25 years’ experience of the NHS being incompetent at developing systems and repeatedly breaking their privacy promises when they do manage to collect some data of value to somebody else. The Google Deepmind scandal was just the latest of many and by no means the worst. This is why I’m really uneasy about collecting lots of lightly-anonymised data in a system that becomes integrated into a whole-of-government response to the pandemic. We might never get rid of it.

But the real killer is likely to be the interaction between privacy and economics. If the app’s voluntary, nobody has an incentive to use it, except tinkerers and people who religiously comply with whatever the government asks. If uptake remains at 10-15%, as in Singapore, it won’t be much use and we’ll need to hire more contact tracers instead. Apps that involve compulsion, such as those for quarantine geofencing, will face a more adversarial threat model; and the same will be true in spades for any electronic immunity certificate. There the incentive to cheat will be extreme, and we might be better off with paper serology test certificates, like the yellow fever vaccination certificates you needed for the tropics, back in the good old days when you could actually go there.

All that said, I suspect the tracing apps are really just do-something-itis. Most countries now seem past the point where contact tracing is a high priority; even Singapore has had to go into lockdown. If it becomes a priority during the second wave, we will need a lot more contact tracers: last week, 999 calls in Cambridge had a 40-minute wait and it took ambulances six hours to arrive. We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

The real trade-off between surveillance and public health is this. For years, a pandemic has been at the top of Britain’s risk register, yet far less was spent preparing for one than on anti-terrorist measures, many of which were ostentatious rather than effective. Worse, the rhetoric of terror puffed up the security agencies at the expense of public health, predisposing the US and UK governments to disregard the lesson of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015 — unlike the governments of China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, who paid at least some attention. What we need is a radical redistribution of resources from the surveillance-industrial complex to public health.

Our effort should go into expanding testing, making ventilators, retraining everyone with a clinical background from vet nurses to physiotherapists to use them, and building field hospitals. We must call out bullshit when we see it, and must not give policymakers the false hope that techno-magic might let them avoid the hard decisions. Otherwise we can serve best by keeping out of the way. The response should not be driven by cryptographers but by epidemiologists, and we should learn what we can from the countries that have managed best so far, such as South Korea and Taiwan.

Symposium on Post-Bitcoin Cryptocurrencies

I am at the Symposium on Post-Bitcoin Cryptocurrencies in Vienna and will try to liveblog the talks in follow-ups to this post.

The introduction was by Bernhard Haslhofer of AIT, who maintains the graphsense.info toolkit and runs the Titanium project on bitcoin forensics jointly with Rainer Boehme of Innsbruck. Rainer then presented an economic analysis arguing that criminal transactions were pretty well the only logical app for bitcoin as it’s permissionless and trustless; if you have access to the courts then there are better ways of doing things. However in the post-bitcoin world of ICOs and smart contracts, it’s not just the anti-money-laundering agencies who need to understand cryptocurrency but the securities regulators and the tax collectors. Yet there is a real policy tension. Governments hype blockchains; Austria uses them to auction sovereign bonds. Yet the only way in for the citizen is through the swamp. How can the swamp be drained?

Privacy for Tigers

As mobile phone masts went up across the world’s jungles, savannas and mountains, so did poaching. Wildlife crime syndicates can not only coordinate better but can mine growing public data sets, often of geotagged images. Privacy matters for tigers, for snow leopards, for elephants and rhinos – and even for tortoises and sharks. Animal data protection laws, where they exist at all, are oblivious to these new threats, and no-one seems to have started to think seriously about information security.

So we have been doing some work on this, and presented some initial ideas via an invited talk at Usenix Security in August. A video of the talk is now online.

The most serious poaching threats involve insiders: game guards who go over to the dark side, corrupt officials, and (now) the compromise of data and tools assembled for scientific and conservation purposes. Aggregation of data makes things worse; I might not care too much about a single geotagged photo, but a corpus of thousands of such photos tells a poacher where to set his traps. Cool new AI tools for recognising individual animals can make his work even easier. So people developing systems to help in the conservation mission need to start paying attention to computer security. Compartmentation is necessary, but there are hundreds of conservancies and game reserves, many of which are mutually mistrustful; there is no central authority at Fort Meade to manage classifications and clearances. Data sharing is haphazard and poorly understood, and the limits of open data are only now starting to be recognised. What sort of policies do we need to support, and what sort of tools do we need to create?

This is joint work with Tanya Berger-Wolf of Wildbook, one of the wildlife data aggregation sites, which is currently redeveloping its core systems to incorporate and test the ideas we describe. We are also working to spread the word to both conservators and online service firms.

BBC Horizon documentary: A Week without lying, the honesty experiment

Together with Ronald Poppe, Paul Taylor, and Gordon Wright, Sophie van der Zee (previously employed at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory), took a plunge and tested their automated lie detection methods in the real world. How well do the lie detection methods that we develop and test under very controlled circumstances in the lab, perform in the real world? And what happens to you and your social environment when you constantly feel monitored and attempt to live a truthful life? Is living a truthful life actually something we should desire? Continue reading BBC Horizon documentary: A Week without lying, the honesty experiment

The two-time pad: midwife of information theory?

The NSA has declassified a fascinating account by John Tiltman, one of Britain’s top cryptanalysts during world war 2, of the work he did against Russian ciphers in the 1920s and 30s.

In it, he reveals (first para, page 8) that from the the time the Russians first introduced one-time pads in 1928, they actually allowed these pads to be used twice.

This was still a vast improvement on the weak ciphers and code books the Russians had used previously. Tiltman notes ruefully that “We were hardly able to read anything at all except in the case of one or two very stereotyped proforma messages”.

Now after Gilbert Vernam developed encryption using xor with a key tape, Joseph Mauborgne suggested using it one time only for security, and this may have seemed natural in the context of a cable company. When the Russians developed their manual system (which may have been inspired by the U.S. work or a German one-time pad developed earlier in the 1920s) they presumably reckoned that using them twice was safe enough.

They were spectacularly wrong. The USA started Operation Venona in 1943 to decrypt messages where one-time pads had been reused, and this later became one of the first applications of computers to cryptanalysis, leading to the exposure of spies such as Blunt and Cairncross. The late Bob Morris, chief scientist at the NSA, used to warn us enigmatically of “The Two-time pad”. The story up till now was that the Russians must have reused pads under pressure of war, when it became difficult to get couriers through to embassies. Now it seems to have been Russian policy all along.

Many people have wondered what classified war work might have inspired Claude Shannon to write his stunning papers at the end of WW2 in which he established the mathematical basis of cryptography, and of information more generally.

Good research usually comes from real problems. And here was a real problem, which demanded careful clarification of two questions. Exactly why was the one-time pad good and the two-time pad bad? And how can you measure the actual amount of information in an English (or Russian) plaintext telegram: is it more or less than half the amount of information you might squeeze into that many bits? These questions are very much sharper for the two-time pad than for rotor machines or the older field ciphers.

That at least was what suddenly struck me on reading Tiltman. Of course this is supposition; but perhaps there are interesting documents about Shannon’s war work to be flushed out with freedom of information requests. (Hat tip: thanks to Dave Banisar for pointing us at the Tiltman paper.)

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.