Category Archives: Security psychology

Regulatory capture

Today’s newspapers report that the cladding on the Grenfell Tower, which appears to have been a major factor in the dreadful loss of life there, was banned in Germany and permitted in America only for low-rise buildings. It would have cost only £2 more per square meter to use fire-resistant cladding instead.

The tactical way of looking at this is whether the landlords or the builders were negligent, or even guilty of manslaughter, for taking such a risk in order to save £5000 on an £8m renovation job. The strategic approach is to ask why British regulators are so easily bullied by the industries they are supposed to police. There is a whole literature on regulatory capture but Britain seems particularly prone to it.

Regular readers of this blog will recall many cases of British regulators providing the appearance of safety, privacy and security rather than the reality. The Information Commissioner is supposed to regulate privacy but backs away from confronting powerful interests such as the tabloid press or the Department of Health. The Financial Ombudsman Service is supposed to protect customers but mostly sides with the banks instead; the new Payment Systems Regulator seems no better. The MHRA is supposed to regulate the safety of medical devices, yet resists doing anything about infusion pumps, which kill as many people as cars do.

Attempts to fix individual regulators are frustrated by lobbyists, or even by fear of lobbyists. For example, my colleague Harold Thimbleby has done great work on documenting the hazards of infusion pumps; yet when he applied to be a non-executive director of the MHRA he was not even shortlisted. I asked a civil servant who was once responsible for recommending such appointments to the Secretary of State why ministers never seemed to appoint people like Harold who might make a real difference. He replied wearily that ministers would never dream of that as “the drug companies would make too much of a fuss”.

In the wake of this tragedy there are both tactical and strategic questions of blame. Tactically, who decided that it was OK to use flammable cladding on high-rise buildings, when other countries came to a different conclusion? Should organisations be fined, should people be fired, and should anyone go to prison? That’s now a matter for the public inquiry, the police and the courts.

Strategically, why is British regulators so cosy with the industries they regulate, and what can be done about that? My starting point is that the appointment of regulators should no longer be in the gift of ministers. I propose that regulatory appointments be moved from the Cabinet Office to an independent commission, like the Judicial Appointments Commission, but with a statutory duty to hire the people most likely to challenge groupthink and keep the regulator effective. That is a political matter – a matter for all of us.

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?

Bad malware, worse reporting

The Wannacry malware that has infected some UK hospital computers should interest not just security researchers but also people interested in what drives fake news.

Some made errors of fact: the Daily Mail inititally reported the ransom demand as 300 bitcoin, or £415,000, rather than $300 in bitcoin. Others made errors of logic: the Indy, for example, reported that “Up to 90 percent of NHS computers still run XP, released in 2001”, citing as its source a BMJ article which stated that 90% of trusts run this version of Windows. And some made errors of concurrency. After dinner I found inquiries from journalists about my fight with the Prime Minister. My what? Eventually I found that the Guardian had followed something Mrs May’s spokesman had said (“not aware of any evidence that patient data has been compromised”) with something I’d said a couple of hours earlier (“The NHS are saying that patient privacy hasn’t been compromised, but if significant numbers of hospitals have been negligently running unpatched computers for two months after the patch came out, how do they know?”). The Home Secretary later helpfully glossed the PM’s stonewall as “No patient data has been accessed or transferred in any way” but leaving the get-out-of-jail card “that’s the information we’ve been given.”

Many papers caught the international political aspect: that the vulnerability was discovered by the NSA, kept secret rather than fixed (contrary to the advice of Obama’s NSA review group), then stolen from the CIA by the Russians and published via wikileaks. Scary stuff, eh? And we read of some surprising overreactions, such as the GP who switched off his networking as a precaution and found he couldn’t access any of his patients’ records.

As luck would have it, yesterday was the day that I gave my talk on entomology – the classification of software bugs and other security vulnerabilities – to my first-year security and software engineering class. So let’s try to look at it calmly as I’d expect of a student writing an assignment.

The first point is that there’s not a really lot of this malware. The NHS has over 200 hospitals, and the typical IT director is a senior clinician supported by technicians. Yet despite having their IT run by well-meaning amateurs, only 16 NHS organisations have been hit, according to the Register and Kaspersky – including several hospitals.

So the second point is that when the Indy says that “The NHS is a perfect combination of sensitive data and insecure storage. And there’s very little they can do about it” the answer is simple: in well over 90% of NHS organisations, the well-meaning amateurs managed perfectly well. What they did was to keep their systems patched up-to-date; simple hygiene, like washing your hands after going to the toilet.

The third takeaway is that it’s worth looking at the actual code. A UK researcher did so and discovered a kill switch.

Now I am just listening on the BBC morning news to a former deputy director of GCHQ who first cautions against alarmist headlines and argues that everyone develops malware; that a patch had been issued by Microsoft halfway through March; that you can deal with ransomware by keeping decent backups; and that paying ransom will embolden the bad guys. However he claims that it’s clearly an organised criminal attack. (when it could be one guy in his bedroom somewhere) and says that the NCSC should look at whether there is some countermeasure that everyone should have taken (for answer see above).

So our fourth takeaway is that although the details matter, so do the economics of security. When something unexpected happens, you should not just get your head down and look at the code, but look up and observe people’s agendas. Politicians duck and weave; NHS managers blame the system rather than step up to the plate; the NHS as a whole turns every incident into a plea for more money; the spooks want to avoid responsibility for the abuse of their stolen cyberweaponz, but still big up the threat and get more influence for a part of their agency that’s presented as solely defensive. And we academics? Hey, we just want the students to pay attention to what we’re teaching them.

Hope this helps!

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.

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!

Might Brexit make us more dishonest?

When Lying Feels the Right Thing to Do reports three studies we did on what made people less or more likely to submit fraudulent insurance claims. Our first study found that people were more likely to cheat when rejected; the other two showed that rejected claimants were just as likely to cheat when this didn’t lead to financial gain, but that they felt more strongly when there was no money involved.

Our research was conducted as part of a broader research programme to investigate the deterrence of deception; our goal was to understand how to design better websites. However we can’t help wondering whether it might shine some light on the UK’s recent political turmoil. The Brexit campaigners were minorities of both main political parties and their anti-EU rhetoric had been rejected by the political mainstream for years; they had ideological rather than selfish motives. They ran a blatantly deceptive campaign, persisting in obvious untruths but abandoning them promptly after winning the vote. Rejection is not the only known factor in situational deception; it’s known, for example, that people with unmet goals are more likely to cheat than people who are simply doing their best, and that one bad apple can have a cascading effect. But it still makes you think.

The outcome and aftermath of the referendum have left many people feeling rejected, from remain voters through people who will lose financially to foreign residents of the UK. Our research shows that feelings of rejection can increase cheating by 15-30%; perhaps this might have measurable effects in some sectors. How one might disentangle this from the broader effects of diminished social solidarity, and from politicians simply setting a bad example, could be an interesting problems for social scientists.

GCHQ helps banks dump fraud losses on customers

We recently reported that the Commissioner of the Met, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said that banks should not refund fraud victims as this would just make people careless with their passwords and antivirus. The banks’ desire to blame fraud victims if they can, to avoid refunding them, is rational enough, but for a police chief to support them was disgraceful. Thirty years ago, a chief constable might have said that rape victims had themselves to blame for wearing nice clothes; if he were to say that nowadays, he’d be sacked. Hogan-Howe’s view of bank fraud is just as uninformed, and just as offensive to victims.

Our spooky friends at Cheltenham have joined the party. The Register reports a story in the Financial Times (behind a paywall) which says GCHQ believes that “companies must do more to try and encourage their customers to improve their cyber security standards. Customers using outdated software – sometimes riddled with vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit – are a weak link in the UK’s cyber defences.” There is no mention of the banks’ own outdated technology, or of GCHQ’s role in keeping consumer software vulnerable.

The elegant scribblers at the Financial Times are under the impression that “At present, banks routinely cover the cost of fraud, regardless of blame.” So they clearly are not regular readers of Light Blue Touchpaper.

The spooks are slightly more cautious; according to the FT, GCHQ “has told the private sector it will not take responsibility for regulatory failings”. I’m sure the banks will heave a big sigh of relief that their cosy relationship with the police, the ombudsman and the FCA will not be disturbed.

We will have to change our security-economics teaching material so we don’t just talk about the case where “Alice guards a system and Bob pays the costs of failure”, but also this new case where “Alice guards a system, and bribes the government to compel Bob to pay the costs of failure.” Now we know how Hogan-Howe is paid off; the banks pay for his Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit. But how are they paying off GCHQ, and what else are they getting as part of the deal?

Financial Cryptography 2016

I will be trying to liveblog Financial Cryptography 2016, which is the twentieth anniversary of the conference. The opening keynote was by David Chaum, who invented digital cash over thirty years ago. From then until the first FC people believed that cryptography could enable commerce and also protect privacy; since then pessimism has slowly set in, and sometimes it seems that although we’re still fighting tactical battles, we’ve lost the war. Since Snowden people have little faith in online privacy, and now we see Tim Cook in a position to decide which seventy phones to open. Is there a way to fight back against a global adversary whose policy is “full take”, and where traffic data can be taken with no legal restraint whatsoever? That is now the threat model for designers of anonymity systems. He argues that in addition to a large anonymity set, a future social media system will need a fixed set of servers in order to keep end-to-end latency within what chat users expect. As with DNS we should have servers operated by (say ten) different principals; unlike in that case we don’t want to have most of the independent parties financed by the US government. The root servers could be implemented as unattended seismic observatories, as reported by Simmons in the arms control context; such devices are fairly easy to tamper-proof.

The crypto problem is how to do multi-jurisdiction message processing that protects not just content but also metadata. Systems like Tor cost latency, while multi-party computation costs a lot of cycles. His new design, PrivaTegrity, takes low-latency crypto building blocks then layers on top of them transaction protocols with large anonymity sets. The key component is c-Mix, whose spec up as an eprint here. There’s a precomputation using homomorphic encryption to set up paths and keys; in real-time operations each participating phone has a shared secret with each mix server so things can run at chat speed. A PrivaTegrity message is four c-Mix batches that use the same permutation. Message models supported include not just chat but publishing short anonymous messages, providing an untraceable return address so people can contact you anonymously, group chat, and limiting sybils by preventing more than one pseudonym being used. (There are enduring pseudonyms with valuable credentials.) It can handle large payloads using private information retrieval, and also do pseudonymous digital transactions with a latency of two seconds rather than the hour or so that bitcoin takes. The anonymous payment system has the property that the payer has proof of what he paid to whom, while the recipient has no proof of who paid him; that’s exactly what corrupt officials, money launderers and the like don’t want, but exactly what we do want from the viewpoint of consumer protection. He sees PrivaTegrity as the foundation of a “polyculture” of secure computing from multiple vendors that could be outside the control of governments once more. In questions, Adi Shamir questioned whether such an ecosystem was consistent with the reality of pervasive software vulnerabilities, regardless of the strength of the cryptography.

I will try to liveblog later sessions as followups to this post.