Category Archives: Security engineering

Bad security, good security, case studies, lessons learned

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.

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.

Testing the usability of offline mobile payments

Last September we spent some time in Nairobi figuring out whether we could make offline phone payments usable. Phone payments have greatly improved the lives of millions of poor people in countries like Kenya and Bangladesh, who previously didn’t have bank accounts at all but who can now send and receive money using their phones. That’s great for the 80% who have mobile phone coverage, but what about the others?

Last year I described how we designed and built a prototype system to support offline payments, with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and took it to Africa to test it. Offline payments require both the sender and the receiver to enter some extra digits to ensure that the payer and the payee agree on who’s paying whom how much. We worked as hard as we could to minimise the number of digits and to integrate them into the familar transaction flow. Would this be good enough?

Our paper setting out the results was accepted to the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS), the leading security usability event. This has now started and the paper’s online; the lead author, Khaled Baqer, will be presenting it tomorrow. As we noted last year, the DigiTally pilot was a success. For the data and the detailed analysis, please see our paper:

DigiTally: Piloting Offline Payments for Phones, Khaled Baqer, Ross Anderson, Jeunese Adrienne Payne, Lorna Mutegi, Joseph Sevilla, 13th Symposium on Usable Privacy & Security (SOUPS 2017), pp 131–143

When safety and security become one

What happens when your car starts getting monthly upgrades like your phone and your laptop? It’s starting to happen, and the changes will be profound. We’ll be able to improve car safety as we learn from accidents, and fixing a flaw won’t mean spending billions on a recall. But if you’re writing navigation code today that will go in the 2020 Landrover, how will you be able to ship safety and security patches in 2030? In 2040? In 2050? At present we struggle to keep software patched for three years; we have no idea how to do it for 30.

Our latest paper reports a project that Éireann Leverett, Richard Clayton and I undertook for the European Commission into what happens to safety in this brave new world. Europe is the world’s lead safety regulator for about a dozen industry sectors, of which we studied three: road transport, medical devices and the electricity industry.

Up till now, we’ve known how to make two kinds of fairly secure system. There’s the software in your phone or laptop which is complex and exposed to online attack, so has to be patched regularly as vulnerabilities are discovered. It’s typically abandoned after a few years as patching too many versions of software costs too much. The other kind is the software in safety-critical machinery which has tended to be stable, simple and thoroughly tested, and not exposed to the big bad Internet. As these two worlds collide, there will be some rather large waves.

Regulators who only thought in terms of safety will have to start thinking of security too. Safety engineers will have to learn adversarial thinking. Security engineers will have to think much more about ease of safe use. Educators will have to start teaching these subjects together. (I just expanded my introductory course on software engineering into one on software and security engineering.) And the policy debate will change too; people might vote for the FBI to have a golden master key to unlock your iPhone and read your private messages, but they might be less likely to vote them a master key to take over your car or your pacemaker.

Researchers and software developers will have to think seriously about how we can keep on patching the software in durable goods such as vehicles for thirty or forty years. It’s not acceptable to recycle cars after seven years, as greedy carmakers might hope; the embedded carbon cost of a car is about equal to its lifetime fuel burn, and reducing average mileage from 200,000 to 70,000 would treble the car industry’s CO2 emissions. So we’re going to have to learn how to make software sustainable. How do we do that?

Our paper is here; there’s a short video here and a longer video here.

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?

Pico in the Wild: Replacing Passwords, One Site at a Time

The Pico team have just returned from Paris, where Kat Krol presented at both EuroS&P and the affiliated EuroUSEC workshop on usable security.

Pico is an ERC-funded project, led by Frank Stajano, to liberate humanity from passwords. It lets you log into devices and websites without having to remember any secrets. It relies on “something you have”: in the current prototype, that’s your smartphone, potentially coupled with other wearables, though high-security niche applications could use a dedicated token instead.

Our latest paper presents a new study performed in collaboration with the website, where we invited users to test out the Pico authentication app for logging in to the site. A QR code was displayed on the Gyazo login page for the duration of the trial, allowing users to access their images simply by scanning the QR code and avoiding the need to enter a username or password.

Participants used Pico for two weeks, during which time we collected feedback using telemetry data, questionnaires and phone interviews. Our aim was to conduct a trial with high ecological validity, avoiding the usual lab-based studies which can run the risk of collecting intentions rather than actual behaviour.

Some of the key results from the paper are that participants liked the idea of Pico and generally found it to be secure and less cognitively demanding than passwords. However, some disliked the need to scan QR codes and suggested replacing them with another modality of interaction. There was also a general consensus that participants wanted to see Pico extended for use with more sites. The pain of password entry on any particular site isn’t so great, but when you scale it up to the plurality of sites we all routinely have to deal with, it becomes a much more serious burden.

The study attracted participants from all over the world, including Brazil, Greece, Japan, Latvia, Spain and the United States. However, it also highlighted some of the challenges of performing experimental studies ‘in the wild’. From an initial pool of seven million potential participants – the number of active users of the Gyazo photo sharing site – after reducing down to those users who entered passwords more regularly on the site and who were willing to participate in the study, we eventually recruited twelve participants to test out Pico. Not as many as we’d hoped for.

In the paper we discuss some of the reasons for this, including the fact that popular websites attempt to minimise the annoyance of password entry through the use of mechanisms such as long-lived cookies and dedicated apps.

While the purpose of the paper is to explore usable security and end-user reactions, it also allowed us to test out the Pico nginx reverse-proxy lens. Using this we could deploy Pico to the Gyazo website as in-page Javascript, demonstrating seamless deployment (zero changes to the backend Gyazo code) and removing the need for the user to install a browser plugin. The tech worked like a charm throughout the trial.

The paper is available from the Internet Society and the abstract for Kat’s short talk, covering future Pico evaluation studies, is available from the EuroS&P website.

The University is Hiring

We’re looking for a Chief Information Security Officer. This isn’t a research post here at the lab, but across the yard in University Information Services, where they manage our networks and our administrative systems. There will be opportunities to work with security researchers like us, but the main task is protecting Cambridge from all sorts of online bad actors. If you would like to be in the thick of it, and you know what you’re doing, here’s how you can apply.