Category Archives: News coverage

Media reports that may interest you

Our Christmas message for troublemakers: how to do anonymity in the real world

On the 5th of December I gave a talk at a journalists’ conference on what tradecraft means in the post-Snowden world. How can a journalist, or for that matter an MP or an academic, protect a whistleblower from being identified even when MI5 and GCHQ start trying to figure out who in Whitehall you’ve been talking to? The video of my talk is now online here. There is also a TV interview I did later, which can be found here, while the other conference talks are here.



Curfew tags – the gory details

In previous posts I told the story of how Britain’s curfew tagging system can fail. Some prisoners are released early provided they wear a tag to enforce a curfew, which typically means that they have to stay home from 7pm to 7am; some petty offenders get a curfew instead of a prison sentence; and some people accused of serious crimes are tagged while on bail. In dozens of cases, curfewees had been accused of tampering with their tags, but had denied doing so. In a series of these cases, colleagues and I were engaged as experts, but when we demanded tags for testing, the prosecution was withdrawn and the case collapsed. In the most famous case, three men accused of terrorist offences were released; although one has since absconded, the other two are now free in the UK.

This year, a case finally came to trial. Our client, to whom we must refer simply as “Special Z”, was accused of tag tampering, which he denied vigorously. I was instructed as an expert along with my colleague Dr James Dean of Materials Science. Here is my expert report, together with James’s report and addendum, as well as a video of a tag being removed using much less than the amount of force required by the system specification.

The judge was not ready to set a precedent that could have thrown the UK tagging system into chaos. However, I understand our client has now been released on other grounds. Although the court did order us to hand back all the tags, and fragments of broken tags, so as to protect G4S’s intellectual property, it did not make a secrecy order on our expert reports. We publish them here in the hope that they might provide useful guidance to defendants in similar cases in the future, and to policymakers when tagging contracts come up for renewal, whether in the UK or overseas.

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.

Spooks behaving badly

Like many in the tech world, I was appalled to see how the security and intelligence agencies’ spin doctors managed to blame Facebook for Lee Rigby’s murder. It may have been a convenient way of diverting attention from the many failings of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ documented by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its report yesterday, but it will be seriously counterproductive. So I wrote an op-ed in the Guardian.

Britain spends less on fighting online crime than Facebook does, and only about a fifth of what either Google or Microsoft spends (declaration of interest: I spent three months working for Google on sabbatical in 2011, working with the click fraud team and on the mobile wallet). The spooks’ approach reminds me of how Pfizer dealt with Viagra spam, which was to hire lawyers to write angry letters to Google. If they’d hired a geek who could have talked to the abuse teams constructively, they’d have achieved an awful lot more.

The likely outcome of GCHQ’s posturing and MI5’s blame avoidance will be to drive tech companies to route all the agencies’ requests past their lawyers. This will lead to huge delays. GCHQ already complained in the Telegraph that they still haven’t got all the murderers’ Facebook traffic; this is no doubt due to the fact that the Department of Justice is sitting on a backlog of requests for mutual legal assistance, the channel through which such requests must flow. Congress won’t give the Department enough money for this, and is content to play chicken with the Obama administration over the issue. If GCHQ really cares, then it could always pay the Department of Justice to clear the backlog. The fact that all the affected government departments and agencies use this issue for posturing, rather than tackling the real problems, should tell you something.

Pico part I: Russian hackers stole a billion passwords? True or not, with Pico you wouldn’t worry about it.

In last week’s news (August 2014) we heard that Russian hackers stole 1.2 billion passwords. Even though such claims sound somewhat exaggerated, and not correlated with a proportional amount of fraudulent access to user accounts, password compromise is always a pain for the web sites involved—more so when it causes direct reputation damage by having the company name plastered on the front page of the Financial Times, as happened to eBay on 22 May 2014 after they lost to cybercriminals the passwords of over 100 million users. Shortly before that, in April 2014, it was the Heartbleed bug that forced password resets on allegedly 66% of all websites. And last year, in November 2013, it was Adobe who lost the passwords of 150 million users. Keep going back and you’ll find many more incidents. With alarming frequency we hear of some major security exploit that compromises an enormous number of passwords and embarrasses web sites into asking their users to pick a new password.

Note the irony: despite the complaints from some arrogant security experts that users are too lazy or too dumb to pick strong passwords, when such attacks take place, all users must change their passwords, not just those with a weak one. Even the diligent users who went to the trouble of following complicated instructions and memorizing “avKpt9cpGwdp”, not to mention typing it every day, are punished, for a sin they didn’t commit (the insecurity of the web site) just as much as the allegedly lazy ones who picked “p@ssw0rd” or “1234”. This is fundamentally unfair.

My team has been working on Pico, an ambitious project to replace passwords with a fairer system that does not require remembering secrets. The primary goal of Pico is to be easier to use than remembering a bunch of PINs and passwords; but, incidentally, it’s also meant to be much more secure. On that note, because Pico uses public key cryptography, if a Pico-based web site is compromised, then its users do not need to change their login credentials. The attackers can only steal the users’ public keys, not their private keys, and therefore are not able to impersonate them, neither at that site nor anywhere else (besides the fact that, to protect your privacy, your Pico uses a different key pair for every one of your accounts). This alone, even aside from any usability improvements, should be a good enough reason for web sites to convert to Pico.

We didn’t blog it then, but a few months ago we produced a short introductory video of our vision for Pico. On the Pico web site, besides that video and others, there are also frequently asked questions and, for those wanting to probe more deeply, a growing collection of technical papers.


This is the first part in a series on the Pico project: my research associates will follow it up with further developments. Pico was recently featured in The Observer and on Sophos’s Naked Security blog, and is about to feature on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Tuesday 19 August at 17:00 (broadcast on Thursday 21 August 2014, with a slight cut; currently on iPlayer, starting at 46:28 . Full version broadcast on BBC World Service and downloadable, for a while, from the BBC Global News Podcast, starting at 21:37 ).

Update: the Pico web site now has a page with press coverage.

Largest ever civil government IT disaster

Last year I taught a systems course to students on the university’s Masters of Public Policy course (this is like an MBA but for civil servants). For their project work, I divided them into teams of three or four and got them to write a case history of a public-sector IT project that went wrong.

The class prize was won by Oliver Campion-Awwad, Alexander Hayton, Leila Smith and Mark Vuaran for The National Programme for IT in the NHS – A Case History. It’s now online, not just to acknowledge their excellent work and to inspire future MPP students, but also as a resource for people interested in what goes wrong with large public-sector IT projects, and how to do better in future.

Regular readers of this blog will recall a series of posts on this topic and related ones; yet despite the huge losses the government doesn’t seem to have learned much at all.

There is more information on our MPP course here, while my teaching materials are available here. With luck, the next generation of civil servants won’t be quite as clueless.

Why bouncing droplets are a pretty good model of quantum mechanics – seminar

Today Robert Brady and I will be giving a seminar in Cambridge where we will explain Yves Couder’s beautiful bouncing droplet experiments. Droplets bouncing on a vibrating fluid bath show many of the weird phenomena of quantum mechanics including tunneling, diffraction and quantized orbits.

We published a paper on this in January and blogged it at the time, but now we have more complete results. The two-dimensional model of electromagnetism that we see in bouncing droplets goes over to three dimensions too, giving us a better model of transverse sound in superfluids and a better explanation of the Bell test results. Here are the slides.

The talk will be at 4pm in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences.

Post-Snowden: the economics of surveillance

After 9/11, we worked on the economics of security, in an attempt to bring back some rationality. Next followed the economics of privacy, which Alessandro Acquisti and others developed to explain why people interact with social media the way they do. A year after the Snowden revelations, it’s time to talk about the economics of surveillance.

In a new paper I discuss how information economics applies to the NSA and its allies, just as it applies to Google and Microsoft. The Snowden papers reveal that the modern world of signals intelligence exhibits strong network effects which cause surveillance platforms to behave much like operating systems or social networks. So while India used to be happy to buy warplanes from Russia (and they still do), they now share intelligence with the NSA as it has the bigger network. Networks also tend to merge, so we see the convergence of intelligence with law enforcement everywhere, from PRISM to the UK Communications Data Bill.

There is an interesting cultural split in that while the IT industry understands network effects extremely well, the international relations community pays almost no attention to it. So it’s not just a matter of the left coast thinking Snowden a whistleblower and the right coast thinking him a traitor; there is a real gap in the underlying conceptual analysis.

That is a shame. The global surveillance network that’s currently being built by the NSA, GCHQ and its collaborator agencies in dozens of countries may become a new international institution, like the World Bank or the United Nations, but more influential and rather harder to govern. And just as Britain’s imperial network of telegraph and telephone cables survived the demise of empire, so the global surveillance network may survive America’s pre-eminence. Mr Obama might care to stop and wonder whether the amount of privacy he extends to a farmer in the Punjab today might be correlated with with amount of privacy the ruler of China will extend to his grandchildren in fifty years’ time. What goes around, comes around.

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?