Category Archives: Politics

Camouflage or scary monsters: deceiving others about risk

I have just been at the Cambridge Risk and Uncertainty Conference which brings together people who educate the public about risks. They include public-health doctors trying to get people to eat better and exercise more, statisticians trying to keep governments honest about crime statistics, and climatologists trying to educate us about global warming – an eclectic and interesting bunch.

Most of the people in this community see their role as dispelling ignorance, or motivating the slothful. Yet in most of the cases we discussed, the public get risk wrong because powerful interests make a serious effort to scare them about some of life’s little hazards, or to reassure them about others. When this is put to the risk communication folks in a question – whether after a talk or in the corridor – they readily admit they’re up against a torrent of misleading marketing. But they don’t see what they’re doing as adversarial, and I strongly suspect that many risk interventions are less effective as a result.

In my talk (slides) I set this out as simply and starkly as I could. We spend too much on terrorism, because both the terrorists and the governments who’re supposed to protect us from them big up the threat; we spend too little on cybercrime, because everyone from the crooks through the police and the banks to the computer industry has their own reason to talk down the threat. I mentioned recent cases such as Wannacry as examples of how institutions communicate risk in self-serving, misleading ways. I discussed our own study of browser warnings, which suggests that people at least subconsciously know that most of the warnings they see are written to benefit others rather than them; they tune out all but the most specific.

What struck me with some force when preparing my talk, though, is that there’s just nobody in academia who takes a holistic view of adversarial risk communication. Many people look at some small part of the problem, from David Rios’ game-theoretic analysis of adversarial risk through John Mueller’s studies of terrorism risk and Alessandro Acquisti’s behavioural economics of privacy, through to criminologists who study pathways into crime and psychologists who study deception. Of all these, the literature on deception might be the most relevant, though we should also look at politics, propaganda, and studies of why people stubbornly persist in their beliefs – including the excellent work by Bénabou and Tirole on the value people place on belief. Perhaps the professionals whose job comes closest to adversarial risk communication are political spin doctors. So when should we talk about new facts, and when should we talk about who’s deceiving you and why?

Given the current concern over populism and the role of social media in the Brexit and Trump votes, it might be time for a more careful cross-disciplinary study of how we can change people’s minds about risk in the presence of smart and persistent adversaries. We know, for example, that a college education makes people much less susceptible to propaganda and marketing; but what is the science behind designing interventions that are quicker and cheaper in specific circumstances?

RIP smart meters

The Telegraph has just run an op-ed they asked me to write over the weekend, after I pointed out here on Friday that the Conservative manifesto had quietly downgraded the smart meter programme to a voluntary one.

Regular readers of Light Blue Touchpaper will have followed the smart meter story for almost a decade, back through the dishonest impact assessment to the fact that they pose a threat to critical infrastructure.

Manifestos and tech

The papers went to town yesterday on the Conservative manifesto but missed some interesting bits.

First, no-one seems to have noticed that the smart meter programme is being quietly put to death. We read on page 60 that everyone will be offered a smart meter by 2020. So a mandatory national programme has become voluntary, just like that. Regular readers of this blog will recall that the programme was sold in 2008 by Ed Milliband using a dishonest impact assessment, yet all the parties backed it after 2010, leaving no-one to point out that it was going to cost us all a fortune and never save any carbon. May says she wants to reduce energy costs; this was surely a no-brainer.

That was the good news for England. The good news for friends in rural Scotland is high-speed broadband for all by 2020. But there are some rather weird things in there too.

What on earth is “the right of businesses to insist on a digital signature”? Digital signatures are very 1998, and we already have the electronic signature directive. From whom will businesses be able to insist on a signature, and if I’m one of the legislated victims, how much do I have to pay to buy the apparatus?

All digital businesses will have “to support new digital proofs of identification”. That presumably means forcing firms to use Verify, a dysfunctional online authentication service whose roots lie in Blair’s obsession with identity. If a newspaper currently identifies its subscribers via a proprietary logon, will they have to offer Verify as an option? Will it have to be the only option, displacing Facebook and Twitter? The manifesto also says that local government will have to use Verify; and elsewhere that councils must publish planning applications and bus routes “without the hassle and delay that currently exists.” OK, so some councils could so with more competent webmasters, but don’t worry: “hundreds of leaders from the world of tech can come into government to help deliver better public services.”

The Land Registry, the Ordnance Survey and other quangos that do geography (our leader’s degree subject) will all band together to create the largest open repository of land data in the world. So where will the Ordnance Survey get its money from then? That small question killed the same idea in 2010 after Tim Berners-Lee sold it to Cameron.

There will be a levy on social media companies, like on gambling companies, to support awareness and preventive activity. And they must not direct users, even unintentionally, to hate speech. So will Facebook be fined whenever they let users like a xenophobic article in the Daily Mail?

No doubt in view of the delicacy of such regulatory decisions, Leveson II is killed; there will be a Data Use and Ethics Commission instead. It will advise regulators and develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence their data are being handled properly. Wow. We now have the Charter of Fundamental Rights to give us principles, the GDPR to give us rules, and the ECJ to hammer out the case law. Now the People don’t have confidence in such experts we’re going to let the Prime Minister of the day appoint a different lot.

The next government will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, so presumably all such services will have to use expensive networks such as the NHS-wide network from BT which will expect them to manage their own firewalls without telling them how to.

But don’t worry. It will become “as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically”. There is text about working “with international law enforcement agencies to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice” but our local police force isn’t allowed to do anything effective about online accommodation fraud committed by a gang in Germany. They have to work through the NCA – who don’t care. The manifesto signals more of the same: the NCA will get to eat the SFO, which does crimes over £100m, leaving them even less interested in online crooks who steal a thousand pounds of deposit from dozens of students a year.

In fact there is no signal anywhere in the manifesto that May understands the impact of volume cybercrime, even though it’s now most of the property crime in the UK. She rather prefers to boast of the falling crime over the past seven years, as if it were her achievement as Home Secretary. The simple fact is that crime has been going online like everything else, and until 2015 the online part of it wasn’t recorded properly. This was not the doing of Theresa May, but of Margaret Hodge.

The manifesto rather seems to have been drafted in a geek-free room. And let’s not spoil the party by mentioning the impact that tight immigration targets will have on the IT industry, or for that matter on higher education. Perhaps they want us to hope that they don’t really mean that part of it, but perhaps we’d better make a plan to open a campus in India or Canada, just in case.

Video on Edge

John Brockman of Edge interviewed me in London in March. The video of the interview, and a transcript, are now available on the Edge website. Edge runs big interviews with several dozen scientists a year, with particular interest in people who do cross-disciplinary work. For me, the interaction of economics, psychology and engineering is one of the things that makes security so fascinating, as well as the creativity driven by adversarial behaviour.

The topics covered include the last thirty years of progress (of lack of it) in information security, from the early beginnings, through the crypto wars and crime moving online, to the economics of security. We talked about how cryptography can help less developed countries; about managing complexity in big projects; about how network effects lead firms to design insecure products; about whether big data can undermine democracy by empowering elites; and about how in a future world of intelligent things, security may become more about safety than anything else. Finally I talk about our current big project, the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre.

John runs a literary agency, and he’s worked on books by many of the scientists who feature on his site. This makes me wonder: on what topic should I write my next book?

Government U-turn on Health Privacy

Now that everyone’s distracted with the supreme court case on Brexit, you can expect the government to sneak out something it’s ashamed of. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has decided to ignore the wishes of over a million people who opted out of having their hospital records given to third parties such as drug companies, and the ICO has decided to pretend that the anonymisation mechanisms he says he’ll use instead are sufficient. One gently smoking gun is the fifth bullet in a new webpage here, where the Department of Health claims that when it says the data are anonymous, your wishes will be ignored. The news has been broken in an article in the Health Services Journal (it’s behind a paywall, as a splendid example of transparency) with the Wellcome Trust praising the ICO’s decision not to take action against the Department. We are assured that “the data is seen as crucial for vital research projects”. The exchange of letters with privacy campaigners that led up to this decision can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

An early portent of this u-turn was reported here in 2014 when officials reckoned that the only way they could still do administrative tasks such as calculating doctors’ bonuses was to just pretend that the data are anonymous even though they know it isn’t really. Then, after the scandal showed that a billion records had been sold to over a thousand purchasers, we reported here how HES data had also been sold and how the minister seemed to have misled parliament about this.

I will be talking about ethics of all this on Thursday. Even if ministers claim that stolen medical records are OK to use, researchers must not act as if this is true; if patients end up trusting doctors as little as we trust politicians, then medical research will be in serious trouble. There is a video of a previous version of this talk here.

Meanwhile, if you’re annoyed that Jeremy Hunt proposes to ignore not just your privacy rights but your express wishes, you can send him a notice under Section 10 of the Data Protection Act forbidding him from disclosing your data. The Department has complied with such notices in the past, albeit with bad grace as they have no automated way to do it. If thousands of people serve such notices, they may finally have to stand up to the drug company lobbyists and write the missing software. For more, see here.

Security Economics MOOC

In two weeks’ time we’re starting an open course in security economics. I’m teaching this together with Rainer Boehme, Tyler Moore, Michel van Eeten, Carlos Ganan, Sophie van der Zee and David Modic.

Over the past fifteen years, we’ve come to realise that many information security failures arise from poor incentives. If Alice guards a system while Bob pays the cost of failure, things can be expected to go wrong. Security economics is now an important research topic: you can’t design secure systems involving multiple principals if you can’t get the incentives right. And it goes way beyond computer science. Without understanding how incentives play out, you can’t expect to make decent policy on cybercrime, on consumer protection or indeed on protecting critical national infrastructure

We first did the course last year as a paid-for course with EdX. Our agreement with them was that they’d charge for it the first time, to recoup the production costs, and thereafter it would be free.

So here it is as a free course. Spread the word!

Hacking the iPhone PIN retry counter

At our security group meeting on the 19th August, Sergei Skorobogatov demonstrated a NAND backup attack on an iPhone 5c. I typed in six wrong PINs and it locked; he removed the flash chip (which he’d desoldered and led out to a socket); he erased and restored the changed pages; he put it back in the phone; and I was able to enter a further six wrong PINs.

Sergei has today released a paper describing the attack.

During the recent fight between the FBI and Apple, FBI Director Jim Comey said this kind of attack wouldn’t work.