Category Archives: Usability

"Perfectly" Encrypt 50 Letters By Hand

When I read about cryptography before computers, I sometimes wonder why people did this and that instead of something a bit more secure. We may ridicule portable encryption systems based on monoalphabetic or even simple polyalphabetic ciphers but we may also change our opinion after actually trying it for real.
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Anatomy of Passwords

Passwords have not really changed since they were first used. Let’s go down the memory lane a bit and then analyse how password systems work and how they could be improved. You may say – forget passwords, OTP is the way forward. My next question would then be: So why do we use OTP in combination with passwords when they are so good?
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A new side channel attack

Today we’re presenting a new side-channel attack in PIN Skimmer: Inferring PINs Through The Camera and Microphone at SPSM 2013. We found that software on your smartphone can work out what PIN you’re entering by watching your face through the camera and listening for the clicks as you type. Previous researchers had shown how to work out PINs using the gyro and accelerometer; we found that the camera works about as well. We watch how your face appears to move as you jiggle your phone by typing.

There are implications for the design of electronic wallets using mechanisms such as Trustzone which enable some apps to run in a more secure sandbox. Such systems try to prevent sensitive data such as bank credentials being stolen by malware. Our work shows it’s not enough for your electronic wallet software to grab hold of the screen, the accelerometers and the gyro; you’d better lock down the video camera, and the still camera too while you’re at it. (Our attack can use the still camera in burst mode.)

We suggest ways in which mobile phone operating systems might mitigate the risks. Meanwhile, if you’re developing payment apps, you’d better be aware that these risks exist.

Offender tagging

August was a slow month, but we got a legal case where our client was accused of tampering with a curfew tag, and I was asked for an expert report on the evidence presented by Serco, the curfew tagging contractor. Many offenders in the UK are released early (or escape prison altogether) on condition that they stay at home from 8pm to 8am and wear an ankle bracelet so their compliance can be monitored. These curfew tags have been used for fourteen years now but are controversial for various reasons; but with the prisons full and 17,500 people on tag at any one time, the objective of policy is to improve the system rather than abolish it.

In this spirit I offer a redacted version of my expert report which may give some insight into the frailty of the system. The logs relating to my defendant’s case showed large numbers of false alarms; some of these had good explanations (such as power cuts) but many didn’t. The overall impression is of an unreliable technology surrounded by chaotic procedures. Of policy concern too is that the tagging contractor not only supplies the tags and the back-end systems, but the call centre and the interface to the court system. What’s more, if you break your curfew, it isn’t the Crown Prosecution Service that takes you before the magistrates, but the contractor – relying on expert evidence from one of its subcontractors. Such closed systems are notoriously vulnerable to groupthink. Anyway, we asked the court for access not just to the tag in the case, but a complete set of tagging equipment for testing, plus system specifications, false alarm statistics and audit reports. The contractor promptly replied that “although we continue to feel that the defendant is in breach of the order, our attention has been drawn to a number of factors that would allow me to properly discontinue proceedings in the public interest.”

The report is published with the consent of my client and her solicitor. Long-time readers of this blog may recall similarities with the case of Jane Badger. If you’re designing systems on whose output someone may have to rely in court, you’d better think hard about how they’ll stand up to hostile review.

Security and Human Behaviour 2013

I’m liveblogging the Workshop on Security and Human Behaviour which is being held at USC in Los Angeles. The participants’ papers are here; for background, see the liveblogs for SHB 2008-12 which are linked here and here. Blog posts summarising the talks at the workshop sessions will appear as followups below. (Added: there is another liveblog by Vaibhav Garg.)

Virgin Money sends email helping phishers

It’s not unusual for banks to send emails which are confusingly similar to phishing, but this recent one I received from Virgin Money is exceptionally bad. It tells customers that the bank (Northern Rock) is changing domain names from their usual one ( to and customers should use their usual security credentials to log into the new domain name. Mail clients will often be helpful and change the into a link.

This message is exactly what phishers would like customers to fall for. While this email was legitimate (albeit very unwise), a criminal could follow up with an email saying that savings customers should access their account at (which is currently available for registration). Virgin Money have trained their customers to accept such emails as legitimate, which is a very dangerous lesson to teach.

It would have been safer to not do the rebranding, but if that’s considered essential for commercial reasons, then customers should have been told to continue accessing the site at their usual domain name, and redirected them (via HTTPS) to the new site. It would mean keeping hold of the Northern Rock domain names for the foreseeable future, but that is almost certainly what Virgin Money are planning anyway.

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Job opening: post-doctoral researcher in usable security

(post UPDATED with new job opening)

I am delighted to announce a job opening in the Cambridge Security Group. Thanks to generous funding from the European Research Council I am in a position to recruit several post-doc research associates to work with me on the Pico project, whose ambitious aim is ultimately to liberate the world from the annoyance and insecurity of passwords, which everyone hates.

In previous posts I hinted at why it’s going to be quite difficult (Oakland paper) and what my vision for Pico is (SPW paper, USENIX invited talk). What I want to do, now that I have the investment to back my idea, is to assemble an interdisciplinary team of the best possible people, with backgrounds not just in security and software but crucially in psychology, interaction design and embedded hardware. We’ll design and build a prototype, build a batch of them and then have real people (not geeks) try them out and tell us why they’re all wrong. And then design and build a better one and try it out again. And iterate as necessary, always driven by what works for real humans, not technologists. I expect that the final Pico will be rather different, and a lot better, than the one I envisaged in 2011. Oh, and by the way, to encourage universal uptake, I already promised I won’t patent any of it.

As I wrote in the papers above, I don’t expect we’ll see the end of passwords anytime soon, nor that Pico will displace passwords as soon as it exists. But I do want to be ready with a fully worked out solution for when we finally collectively decide that we’ve had enough.

Imagine we could restart from zero and do things right. Have you got a relevant PhD or are about to get one? Are you keen to use it to change the world for the better? Are you best of the best, and have the track record to prove it? Are you willing to the first member of my brilliant interdisciplinary team? Are you ready for the intellectually challenging and stimulating environment of one of the top research universities in the world? Are you ready to be given your own real challenges and responsibilities, and the authority to be in charge of your work? Then great, I want to hear from you and here’s what you need to do to apply (post UPDATED with new opening).

(By the way: I’m off to Norway next week for passwords^12, a lively 3-day conference organized by Per Thorsheim and totally devoted to nothing else than passwords.)

Of contraseñas, סיסמאות, and 密码

Over a year ago, we blogged about a bug at Gawker which replaced all non-ASCII characters in passwords with ‘?’ prior to checking. Along with Rubin Xu and others I’ve investigated issues surrounding passwords, languages, and character encoding throughout the past year. This should be easy: websites using UTF-8 can accept any password and hash it into a standard format regardless of the writing system being used. Instead though, as we report a new paper which I presented last week at the Web 2.0 Security and Privacy workshop in San Francisco, passwords still localise poorly both because websites are buggy and users have been trained to type ASCII passwords only. This has broad implications for passwords’ role as a “universal” authentication mechanism. Continue reading Of contraseñas, סיסמאות, and 密码