Royal Society report on cybersecurity research

The Royal Society has just published a report on cybersecurity research. I was a member of the steering group that tried to keep the policy team headed in the right direction. Its recommendation that governments preserve the robustness of encryption is welcome enough, given the new Russian law on access to crypto keys; it was nice to get, given the conservative nature of the Society. But I’m afraid the glass is only half full.

I was disappointed that the final report went along with the GCHQ line that security breaches should not be reported to affected data subjects, as in the USA, but to the agencies, as mandated in the EU’s NIS directive. Its call for an independent review of the UK’s cybersecurity needs may also achieve little. I was on John Beddington’s Blackett Review five years ago, and the outcome wasn’t published; it was mostly used to justify a budget increase for GCHQ. Its call for UK government work on standards is irrelevant post-Brexit; indeed standards made in Europe will probably be better without UK interference. Most of all, I cannot accept the report’s line that the government should help direct cybersecurity research. Most scientists agree that too much money already goes into directed programmes and not enough into responsive-mode and curiosity-driven research. In the case of security research there is a further factor: the stark conflict of interest between bona fide researchers, whose aim is that some of the people should enjoy some security and privacy some of the time, and agencies engaged in programmes such as Operation Bullrun whose goal is that this should not happen. GCHQ may want a “more responsive cybersecurity agenda”; but that’s the last thing people like me want them to have.

The report has in any case been overtaken by events. First, Brexit is already doing serious harm to research funding. Second, Brexit is also doing serious harm to the IT industry; we hear daily of listings posptoned, investments reconsidered and firms planning to move development teams and data overseas. Third, the Investigatory Powers bill currently before the House of Lords highlights the fact that surveillance debate in the West these days is more about access to data at rest and about whether the government can order firms to hack their customers.

While all three arms of the US government have drawn back on surveillance powers following the Snowden revelations, Theresa May has taken the hardest possible line. Her Investigatory Powers Bill will give her successors as Home Secretary sweeping powers to order firms in the UK to hand over data and help GCHQ hack their customers. Brexit will shield these powers from challenge in the European Court of Justice, making it much harder for a UK company to claim “adequacy” for its data protection arrangements in respect of EU data subjects. This will make it still less attractive for an IT company to keep in the UK either data that could be seized or engineering staff who could be coerced. I am seriously concerned that, together with Brexit, this will be the double whammy that persuades overseas firms not to invest in the UK, and that even causes some UK firms to leave. In the face of this massive self-harm, the measures suggested by the report are unlikely to help much.

CFP: Passwords 2016

Call for Papers
The 11th International Conference on Passwords

5-7 December 2016
Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

The Passwords conference was launched in 2010 as a response to
the lack of robustness and usability of current personal
authentication practices and solutions. Annual participation has
doubled over the past three years. Since 2014, the conference
accepts peer-reviewed papers.


Research papers and short papers:
– Title and abstract submission: EXTENDED TO 2016-08-22 2016-07-04  (23:59 UTC-11)
– Paper submission: EXTENDED TO 2016-08-29 2016-07-11 (23:59 UTC-11)
– Notification of acceptance: 2016-10-17 2016-09-05
– Camera-ready from authors: 2016-10-31 2016-09-19

Hacker Talks:
– Talk proposal submission: 2016-09-15 (23:59 UTC-11)
– Notification of acceptance: 2016-09-30


More than half a billion user passwords have been compromised
over the last five years, including breaches at internet
companies such as Target, Adobe, Heartland, Forbes, LinkedIn,
Yahoo, and LivingSocial. Yet passwords, PIN codes, and similar
remain the most prevalent method of personal
authentication. Clearly, we have a systemic problem.

This conference gathers researchers, password crackers, and
enthusiastic experts from around the globe, aiming to better
understand the challenges surrounding the methods personal
authentication and passwords, and how to adequately solve these
problems. The Passwords conference series seek to provide a
friendly environment for participants with plenty opportunity to
communicate with the speakers before, during, and after their


We seek original contributions that present attacks, analyses,
designs, applications, protocols, systems, practical experiences,
and theory. Submitted papers may include, but are not limited to,
the following topics, all related to passwords and

– Technical challenges and issues:
– Cryptanalytic attacks
– Formal attack models
– Cryptographic protocols
– Dictionary attacks
– Digital forensics
– Online attacks/Rate-limiting
– Side-channel attacks
– Administrative challenges:
– Account lifecycle management
– User identification
– Password resets
– Cross-domain and multi-enterprise system access
– Hardware token administration
– Password “replacements”:
– 2FA and multifactor authentication
– Risk-based authentication
– Password managers
– Costs and economy
– Biometrics
– Continous authentication
– FIDO – U2F
– Deployed systems:
– Best practice reports
– Incident reports/Lessons learned
– Human factors:
– Usability
– Design & UX
– Social Engineering
– Memorability
– Accessibility
– Pattern predictability
– Gestures and graphical patterns
– Psychology
– Statistics (languages, age, demographics…)
– Ethics


Papers must be submitted as PDF using the Springer LNCS format
for Latex. Abstract and title must be submitted one week ahead of
the paper deadline.

We seek submissions for review in the following three categories:

– Research Papers
– Short Papers
– “Hacker Talks” (talks without academic papers attached)

RESEARCH PAPERS should describe novel, previously unpublished
technical contributions within the scope of the call. The papers
will be subjected to double-blind peer review by the program
committee. Paper length is limited to 16 pages (LNCS format)
excluding references and well-marked appendices. The paper
submitted for review must be anonymous, hence author names,
affiliations, acknowledgements, or obvious references must be
temporarily edited out for the review process. The program
committee may reject non-anonymized papers without reading
them. The submitted paper (in PDF format) must follow the
template described by Springer at

SHORT PAPERS will also be subject to peer review, where the
emphasis will be put on work in progress, hacker achievements,
industrial experiences, and incidents explained, aiming at
novelty and promising directions. Short paper submissions should
not be more than 6 pages in standard LNCS format in total. A
short paper must be labeled by the subtitle “Short
Paper”. Accepted short paper submissions may be included in the
conference proceedings. Short papers do not need to be
anonymous. The program committee may accept full research papers
as short papers.

HACKER TALKS are presentations without an academic paper
attached. They will typically explain new methods, techniques,
tools, systems, or services within the Passwords scope. Proposals
for Hacker Talks can be submitted by anybody (“hackers”,
academics, students, enthusiasts, etc.) in any format, but
typically will include a brief (2-3 paragraphs) description of
the talk’s content and the person presenting. They will be
evaluated by a separate subcommittee led by Per Thorsheim,
according to different criteria than those used for the refereed

At least one of the authors of each accepted paper must register
and present the paper at the workshop. Papers without a full
registration will be withdrawn from the proceedings and from the
workshop programme.

Papers that pass the peer review process and that are presented
at the workshop will be included in the event proceedings,
published by Springer in the Lecture Notes in Computer
Science (LNCS) series.

Papers must be unpublished and not being considered elsewhere for
publication. Plagiarism and self-plagiarism will be treated as a
serious offense.  Program committee members may submit papers but
program chairs may not.  The time frame for each presentation
will be either 30 or 45 minutes, including Q&A. Publication will
be by streaming, video and web.


– General chair: Per Thorsheim, God Praksis AS (N)
– Program co-chair and host: Markus Dürmuth, Ruhr-University Bochum (DE)
– Program co-chair: Frank Stajano, University of Cambridge (UK)


– Adam Aviv, United States Naval Academy (USA)
– Lujo Bauer, Carnegie Mellon University (USA)
– Jeremiah Blocki, Microsoft Research/Purdue University (USA)
– Joseph Bonneau, Stanford University (USA)
– Heather Crawford, Florida Institute of Technology (USA)
– Bruno Crispo, KU Leuven (B) and University of Trento (IT)
– Serge Egelman, ICSI and University of California at Berkeley (USA)
– David Freeman, LinkedIn (USA)
– Simson Garfinkel, NIST (USA)
– Tor Helleseth, University of Bergen (N)
– Cormac Herley, Microsoft Research (USA)
– Graeme Jenkinson, University of Cambridge (UK)
– Mike Just, Heriot-Watt University (UK)
– Stefan Lucks, Bauhaus-University Weimar (D)
– Paul van Oorschot, Carleton University (CA)
– Angela Sasse, University College London (UK)
– Elizabeth Stobert, ETH Zurich (CH)


– Per Thorsheim, God Praksis AS (N)
– Stig F. Mjolsnes, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (N)
– Frank Stajano, University of Cambridge (UK)

More and updated information can be found at the conference website

Inaugural Cybercrime Conference

The Cambridge Cloud Cybercrime Centre is organising an inaugural one day conference on cybercrime on Thursday, 14th July 2016.

In future years we intend to focus on research that has been carried out using datasets provided by the Cybercrime Centre, but for this first year we have a stellar group of invited speakers who are at the forefront of their fields:

  • Adam Bossler, Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Georgia Southern University, USA
  • Alice Hutchings, Post-doc Criminologist, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK
  • David S. Wall, Professor of Criminology, University of Leeds, UK
  • Maciej Korczynski Post-Doctoral Researcher, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands
  • Michael Levi, Professor of Criminology, Cardiff University, UK
  • Mike Hulett, Head of Operations, National Cyber Crime Unit, National Crime Agency, UK
  • Nicolas Christin, Assistant Research Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, USA
  • Richard Clayton, Director, Cambridge Cloud Cybercrime Centre, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Tyler Moore, Tandy Assistant Professor of Cyber Security & Information Assurance, University of Tulsa, USA

They will present various aspects of cybercrime from the point of view of criminology, security economics, cybersecurity governance and policing.

This one day event, to be held in the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge will follow immediately after (and will be in the same venue as) the “Ninth International Conference on Evidence Based Policing” organised by the Institute of Criminology which runs on the 12th and 13th July 2016.

For more details see here.

Cambridge and Brexit

If the UK leaves the European Union, it will cost Cambridge University about £100m, or about 10% of our turnover.

I present the details in an article today in the Cambridge News.

I reckon we will lose at least £60m of the £69m we get in European grants, at least £20m of our £237m fee income (most of which is from foreign students), at least £10m from Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press, and £5m each from industry and charities. Although I’m an elected member of Council (the governing body) and the committee that sets the budget, all this comes from our published accounts.

And my estimates are conservative; the outcome could easily be worse, especially if foreign students desert us, or just can’t get visas after a popular vote against immigration.

Now everyone on Britain pays on average £4 a year to the EU and gets £2 back. The net contribution of £2 amounts to £12.5m for a town the size of Cambridge. The University alone is getting more than four times that back directly, and yet more indirectly. And the same goes for many other university towns too; even Newcastle gets more than would be raised by everyone in the city paying £2 a year.

But this is not just about money; it’s about who we are, and also about what other people perceive us to be. If Britain votes to leave Europe following a xenophobic campaign against immigrants, people overseas may conclude that Britain is to longer a cool place to study, or to start a research lab. Even some of the people already here will leave. We will do the best we can to keep the flame alight, but it will be very much harder for Cambridge to remain a world-leading university.

See also the Cambridge News editorial, and my piece yesterday on Brexit and tech.

The tech industry and Brexit

The debate on whether Britain should leave the EU has largely ignored a factor of huge importance to the tech industry – network effects.

So I’ve written an article on what Brexit means for the tech industry from the viewpoint of information economics.

Network effects mean that the value of a transaction often depends on how many other people make similar transactions. They make our industry prone to monopolies. They ensure that the UK, with 1% of world population and 3% of GDP, has little influence on tech markets, which are mostly global. But the EU has real clout; Silicon Valley sees it as the world privacy regulator, as Washington doesn’t care and no-one else is big enough to matter. And most of the other regulations that IT people find annoying, from IP laws to export controls, are also embedded in international treaties. We can’t just tear up the annoying “red tape”, as the Brexit crowd suggest.

Brexit would not only diminish our influence on the laws that affect tech – many of which reflect negative network effects. It would make startups more expensive, so UK firms would have a harder time exploiting the positive network effects that are often the key to success. And it would damage the successful tech clusters we do have in Cambridge and in London.

Tech clusters need a number of things to thrive; and it’s not just technical network effects that matter, but labour-market network effects too. And there’s quite a lot of research on that. As good engineers can earn good money and live wherever we want, we congregate in places that are good places to live. They are always open and liberal places, where it’s fine to be from an ethnic minority, or an immigrant, or gay. What would the world’s best and brightest engineers think about moving to Britain if we vote for xenophobia on Thursday?

The article is in Computer Weekly, and there’s also a pdf here.

Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 14.48.54
If you use an adblocker, you are probably familiar with messages of the kind shown above, asking you to either disable your adblocker, or to consider supporting the host website via a donation or subscription. This is the battle du jour in the ongoing adblocking arms race — and it’s one we explore in our new report Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race.

The reasons for the rising popularity of adblockers include improved browsing experience, better privacy, and protection against malvertising. As a result, online advertising revenue is gravely threatened by adblockers, prompting publishers to actively detect adblock users, and subsequently block them or otherwise coerce the user to disable the adblocker — practices we refer to as anti-adblocking. While there has been a degree of sound and fury on the topic, until now we haven’t been able to understand the scale, mechanism and dynamics of anti-adblocking. This is the gap we have started to address, together with researchers from the University of Cambridge, Stony Brook University, University College London, University of California Berkeley, Queen Mary University of London and International Computer Science Institute (Berkeley). We address some of these questions by leveraging a novel approach for identifying third-party services shared across multiple websites to present a first characterization of anti-adblocking across the Alexa Top-5K websites.

We find that at least 6.7% of Alexa Top-5K websites employ anti-adblocking, with the practices finding adoption across a diverse mix of publishers; particularly publishers of “General News”, “Blogs/Wiki”, and “Entertainment” categories. It turns out that these websites owe their anti-adblocking capabilities to 14 unique scripts pulled from 12 unique domains. Unsurprisingly, the most popular domains are those that have skin in the game — Google, Taboola, Outbrain, Ensighten and Pagefair — the latter being a company that specialises in anti-adblocking services. Then there are in-house anti-adblocking solutions that are distributed by a domain to client websites belonging to the same organisation: TripAdvisor distributes an anti-adblocking script to its eight websites with different country code top-level domains, while adult websites (all hosted by MindGeek) turn to DoublePimp. Finally, we visited a sample website for each anti-adblocking script via AdBlock Plus, Ghostery and Privacy Badger, and discovered that half of the 12 anti-adblocking suppliers are counter-blocked by at least one adblocker — suggesting that the arms race has already entered the next level.

It is hard to say how many levels deeper the adblocking arms race might go. While anti-adblocking may provide temporary relief to publishers, it is essentially band-aid solution to mask a deeper issue — the disequilibrium between ads (and, particularly, their behavioural tracking back-end) and information. Any long term solution must address the reasons that brought users to adblockers in the first place. In the meantime, as the arms race continues to escalate, we hope that studies such as ours will bring transparency to this opaque subject, and inform policy that moves us out of the current deadlock.


“Ad-Blocking and Counter Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Races” by Rishab Nithyanand, Sheharbano Khattak, Mobin Javed, Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Marjan Falahrastegar, Julia E. Powles, Emiliano De Cristofaro, Hamed Haddadi, and Steven J. Murdoch. arXiv:1605.05077v1 [cs.CR], May 2016.

This post also appears on the UCL Information Security group blog, Bentham’s Gaze.

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?

Exploring the provision of online booter services

A manuscript authored by myself and Richard Clayton has recently been published as an advance access paper in the criminology journal Deviant Behavior.

This research uses criminological theories to study those who operate ‘booter services’: websites that illegally offer denial of service attacks for a fee. We interviewed those operating the sites, and found that booter services provide ‘easy money’ for the young males that run them. The operators claim they provide legitimate services for network testing, despite acknowledging that their services are used to attack other targets. Booter services are advertised through the online communities where the skills are learned and definitions favorable toward offending are shared. Some financial services proactively frustrate the provision of booter services, by closing the accounts used for receiving payments.

For those accessing the paper from universities, you may find the paper here. The ‘accepted manuscript’, which is the final version of the paper before it has been typeset, can be accessed here.