Category Archives: Web security

Why password managers (sometimes) fail

We are asked to remember far too many passwords. This problem is most acute on the web. And thus, unsurprisingly, it is on the web that technical solutions have had most success in replacing users’ ad hoc coping strategies. One of the longest established and most widely adopted technical solutions is a password manager: software that remembers passwords and submits them on the user’s behalf. But this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. In our recent work on bootstrapping adoption of the Pico system [1], we’ve come to appreciate just how hard life is for developers and maintainers of password managers.

In a paper we are about to present at the Passwords 2014 conference in Trondheim, we introduce our proposal for Password Manager Friendly (PMF) semantics [2]. PMF semantics are designed to give developers and maintainers of password managers a bit of a break and, more importantly, to improve the user experience.

Continue reading Why password managers (sometimes) fail

Nikka – Digital Strongbox (Crypto as Service)

Imagine, somewhere in the internet that no-one trusts, there is a piece of hardware, a small computer, that works just for you. You can trust it. You can depend on it. Things may get rough but it will stay there to get you through. That is Nikka, it is the fixed point on which you can build your security and trust. [Now as a Kickstarter project]

You may remember our proof-of-concept implementation of a password protection for servers – Hardware Scrambling (published here in March). The password scrambler was a small dongle that could be plugged to a Linux computer (we used Raspberry Pi). Its only purpose was to provide a simple API for encrypting passwords (but it could be credit cards or anything else up to 32 bytes of length). The beginning of something big?

It received some attention (Ars Technica, Slashdot, LWN, …), certainly more than we expected at the time. Following discussions have also taught us a couple of lessons about how people (mostly geeks in this contexts) view security – particularly about the default distrust expressed by those who discussed articles describing our password scrambler.

We eventually decided to build a proper hardware cryptographic platform that could be used for cloud applications. Our requirements were simple. We wanted something fast, “secure” (CC EAL5+ or even FIPS140-2 certified), scalable, easy to use (no complicated API, just one function call) and to be provided as a service so no-one has to pay upfront the price of an HSM if they just want to have a go at using proper cryptography for their new or old application. That was the beginning of Nikka.


This is our concept: Nikka comprises a set of powerful servers installed in secure data centres. These servers can create clusters delivering high-availability and scalability for their clients. Secure hardware forms the backbone of each server that provides an interface for simple use. The second part of Nikka are user applications, plugins, and libraries for easy deployment and everyday “invisible” use. Operational procedures, processes, policies, and audit logs then guarantee that what we say is actually being done.

2014-07-04 08.17.35We have been building it for a few months now and the scalable cryptographic core seems to work. We have managed to run long-term tests of 150 HMAC transactions per second (HMAC & RNG for password scrambling) on a small development platform while fully utilising available secure hardware. The server is hosted at ideaSpace and we use it to run functional, configuration and load tests.

We have never before designed a system with so many independent processes – the core is completely asynchronous (starting with Netty for a TCP interface) and we have quickly started to appreciate detailed trace logging we’ve implemented from the very beginning. Each time we start digging we find something interesting. Real-time visualisation of the performance is quite nice as well.

Nikka is basically a general purpose cryptographic engine with middleware layer for easy integration. The password HMAC is this time used only as one of test applications. Users can share or reserve processing units that have Common Criteria evaluations or even FIPS140-2 certification – with possible physical hardware separation of users.

If you like what you have read so far, you can keep reading, watching, supporting at Kickstarter. It has been great fun so far and we want to turn it into something useful in 2015. If it sounds interesting – maybe you would like to test it early next year, let us know! @DanCvrcek

Light Blue Touchpaper now on HTTPS

Light Blue Touchpaper now supports TLS, so as to protect passwords and authentication cookies from eavesdropping. TLS support is provided by the Pound load-balancer, because Varnish (our reverse-proxy cache) does not support TLS.

The configuration is intended to be a reasonable trade-off between security and usability, and gets an A– on the Qualys SSL report. The cipher suite list is based on the very helpful Qualys Security Labs recommendations and Apache header re-writing sets the HttpOnly and Secure cookie flags to resist cookie hijacking.

As always, we might have missed something, so if you notice problems such as incompatibilities with certain browsers, then please let us know on <>. or in the comments.

Ghosts of Banking Past

Bank names are so tricksy — they all have similar words in them… and so it’s common to see phishing feeds with slightly the wrong brand identified as being impersonated.

However, this story is about how something the way around has happened, in that AnonGhost, a hacker group, believe that they’ve defaced “Yorkshire Bank, one of the largest United Kingdom bank” and there’s some boasting about this to be found at

However, it rather looks to me as if they’ve hacked an imitation bank instead! A rather less glorious exploit from the point of view of potential admirers.
Continue reading Ghosts of Banking Past

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?
Continue reading Anatomy of Passwords

We're hiring again

We have a vacancy for a postdoc to work on the economics of cybercrime for two years from January. It might suit someone with a PhD in economics or criminology and an interest in online crime; or a PhD in computer science with an interest in security and economics.

Security economics has grown rapidly in the last decade; security in global systems is usually an equilibrium that emerges from the selfish actions of many independent actors, and security failures often follow from perverse incentives. To understand better what works and what doesn’t, we need both theoretical models and empirical data. We have access to various large-scale sources of data relating to cybercrime – email spam, malware samples, DNS traffic, phishing URL feeds – and some or all of this data could be used in this research. We’re very open-minded about what work might be done on this project; possible topics include victim analysis, malware analysis, spam data mining, data visualisation, measuring attacks, how security scales (or fails to), and how cybercrime data could be shared better.

This is an international project involving colleagues at CMU, SMU and the NCFTA.

A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse

ICANN have now published a draft for public comment of “A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse“. I am the primary author of this report — the work being done whilst I was collaborating with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) under EPSRC Grant EP/H018298/1.

This particular study was originally proposed by ICANN in 2010, one of several that were to examine the impact of domain registrants using privacy services (where the name of a domain registrant is published, but contact details are kept private) and proxy services (where even the domain licensee’s name is not made available on the public database).

ICANN wanted to know if a significant percentage of the domain names used to conduct illegal or harmful Internet activities are registered via privacy or proxy services to obscure the perpetrator’s identity? No surprises in our results: they are!

However, it’s more interesting to ask whether this percentage is somewhat higher than the usage of privacy or proxy services for entirely lawful and harmless Internet activities? This turned out NOT to be the case — for example banks use privacy and proxy services almost as often as the registrants of domains used in the hosting of child sexual abuse images; and the registrants of domains used to host (legal) adult pornography use privacy and proxy services more often than most (but not all) of the different types of malicious activity that we studied.

It’s also relevant to consider what other methods might be chosen by those involved in criminal activity to obscure their identities, because in the event of changes to privacy and proxy services, it is likely that they will turn to these alternatives.

Accordingly, we determined experimentally whether a significant percentage of the domain names we examined have been registered with incorrect Whois contact information – and specifically whether or not we could reach the domain registrant using a phone number from the Whois information. We asked them a single question in their native language “did you register this domain”?

We got somewhat variable results from our phone survey — but the pattern becomes clear if we consider whether there is any a priori hope at all of ringing up the domain registrant?

If we sum up the likelihoods:

  • uses privacy or proxy service
  • no (apparently valid) phone number in whois
  • number is apparently valid, but fails to connect
  • number reaches someone other than the registrant

then we find that for legal and harmless activities the probability of a phone call not being possible ranges between 24% (legal pharmacies on the Legitscript list) and 62% (owners of lawful websites that someone has broken into and installed phishing pages). For malicious activities the probability of failure is 88% or more, with typosquatting (which is a civil matter, rather than a criminal one) sitting at 68% (some of the typosquatters want to hide, some do not).

There’s lots of detail and supporting statistics in the report… and an executive summary for the time-challenged. It will provide real data, rather than just speculative anecdotes, to inform the debate around reforming Whois — and the difficulties of doing so.

Revisiting secure introduction via hyperlinks

Today at W2SP I presentednew paper making the case for distributing security policy in hyperlinks. The basic idea is old, but I think the time is right to re-examine it. After the DigiNotar debacle, the community is getting serious about fixing PKI on the web. It was hot topic at this week’s IEEE Security & Privacy (Oakland), highlighted by Jeremy Clark and Paul van Oorschot’s excellent survey paper. There are a slew of protocols under development like key pinning (HPKP), Certificate Transparency, TACK, and others. To these I add s-links, a complementary mechanism to declare support for new proposals in HTML links. Continue reading Revisiting secure introduction via hyperlinks

Current issues in payments (part 2)

With some delay here is the second and final part on our impressions of David Birch’s Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum (TTF13), which we attended thanks to Dave’s generosity (See full agenda and PowerPoint presentations here). See part 1 here.

NOTE: Although written in first person, what follows results from a combination of Laurent Simon’s and my notes.

The theme of day 2 at TTF13 was social inclusion. The kick off question was “How to develop tools to help people deal with money?” (people with no financial culture and based on a transactional account).

This was followed by presentations on “Comic Relief” (the day before ‘the big day’), “Universal Credit” and expert panel on financial inclusion.
Continue reading Current issues in payments (part 2)