I’m liveblogging the Workshop on Security and Human Behaviour which is being held in Harvard. The programme is here. For background, see the liveblogs for SHB 2008-15 which are linked here and here. Blog posts summarising the talks at the workshop sessions will appear as followups below.
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.
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?
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.
I’ve written before about dubious “academic” journals… and today I’m going to discuss a dubious “academic” conference (which is associated with some dubious journals, but it’s the conference that’s my focus today).
Fordham University has been running the “International Conference on Cyber Security” since 2009 and ICCS 2016 (labelled “Sixth” because they skipped 2011 and 2014) will take place in New York in July. This conference has an extremely reputable program committee and is run by Fordham and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I expect you’ve heard of them … they investigate cybercrime in the USA…).
There’s also another “International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS 2016)” running this year as well … it will take place in Zurich in July and is run by WASET (the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology). The program committee for this one is somewhat less prestigious (I sorry to say that I have not heard of any of them … and to my mind the most reputable looking person is “Wei Yan of Trend Micro” … except he’s currently on his fourth job since he left Trend Micro in 2010, so that makes me wonder how many of the people on the list know that they’re mentioned ?
There’s other reasons for feeling this conference might be a little dubious, not least that this is apparently the “Eighteenth ICCS”. That might lead you to believe that there have been seventeen previous ICCS events … but I did a lot of searches and failed to find any of them !
My searches did turn up the “2nd International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) 2016” which will take place at the Rajasthan Technical University, India — this one looks pretty respectable, with PC members from India and the USA.
So if you fancy going to Cyber Security Conference in 2016 then you are spoilt for choice, but I would not myself recommend travelling to Zurich. A key reason is that you may find that the Dorint Airport-Hotel, where ICCS 2016 is to be held may turn out to be a little crowded… the same hotel is hosting no fewer than 160 other International conferences at exactly the same time: click here for the full list!
Alternatively, if you can’t make it this year, put a note in your diary. The “31st International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS 2029)” is planned to take place in Zurich on July 21–22 2029… Wei Jan is on the PC for that one too … and the submission deadline is as soon as March 31, 2029, so best to get a move on with finishing that paper!
As a final note, invited papers from ICCS 2016 (the Zurich version) are to be published in a special issue of “Advances in Cyber Security”. Now you might cynically think that this was an open access journal from WASEC, but no they have no journal with that title (and in fact neither does anyone else)… but what do you know, “Advances in Cyber Security” is a fine looking book published in December 2012 by none other than Fordham University Press. Small world, isn’t it!
The Inter-ACE Cyberchallenge on Saturday was fantastic. The event saw nearly twice as many competitors as attended the C2C competition in Boston recently, engaged in solving the most artful challenges. It was great to see so many students interested in cyber security making the effort to travel from the four corners of the UK, a few from as far away as Belfast!
The competition was played out on a “Risk-style” world map, and competing teams had to fight each other for control of several countries, each protected by a fiendish puzzle. A number of universities had also submitted guest challenges, and it was great that so many teams got involved in this creative process too. To give one example; The Cambridge team had designed a challenge based around a historically accurate enigma machine, with this challenge protecting the country of Panama. Competitors had to brute-force the settings of the enigma machine to decode a secret message. Other challenges were based around the core CTF subject areas of web application security, binary reverse engineering and exploitation, forensics, and crypto. Some novice teams may have struggled to compete, but they would have learned a lot, and hopefully developed an appetite for more competition. There were also plenty of teams present with advanced tool sets and a solid plan, with these preparations clearly paying off in the final scores.
Between the 10 teams, their coaches, the organisers and the reporters, the lab was bustling with excitement and that intense feeling of hackers “in the zone” for the whole afternoon.
I have nothing but praise for our partners Facebook, who worked hard on setting the challenges and making the CTF game run smoothly, as well as feeding the participants with pizza and endowing the prizes with hacking books and goodie bags.
The biggest thanks go to the ACE-CSRs who enthusiastically supported this initiative despite the short notice. 40 students came to Cambridge to compete in the live event in teams of 4, and another 40+ competed remotely in the individuals.
In retrospect we should have organised a “best T-shirt” competition. I especially liked Facebook t-shirts “Fix more, whine less” and “s/sleep/hack/g” but the one I would have voted overall winner (despite not technically being a T-shirt) was Southampton’s Shakespearian boolean logic.
It is with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that I announce the winners, as Cambridge won the gold in both the team and individual events.
- 1st place (Gold): University of Cambridge
Stella Lau, Will Shackleton, Cheng Sun, Gábor Szarka
- 2nd place (Silver): Imperial College London
Matthieu Buffet, Jiarou Fan, Luke Granger-Brown, Antoine Vianey-Liaud
- 3rd place (Bronze): University of Southampton
Murray Colpman, Kier Davis, Yordan Ganchev, Mohit Gupta
- 1st place (Gold): Dimitrije Erdeljan, University of Cambridge
- 2nd place (Silver): Emma Espinosa, University of Oxford
- 3rd place (Bronze): David Young, University of Southampton
I shall ignore allegations of having rigged the game except to say that yes, we did train our students rather extensively in preparation for the previously-mentioned Cambridge 2 Cambridge event with MIT. All of our winners are Cambridge undergraduates in computer science who had done well in the qualifiers for C2C. Two of them had actually been to Boston, where Gábor had been on the winning team overall and earned one gold and two silver medals, while Will (also former UK Cyber Security Challenge winner) had earned one gold, one silver and two bronze medals. Well deserved thanks also to my modest but irreplaceable collaborator Graham Rymer who designed and delivered an effective and up-to-date ethical hacking course to our volunteers. The Cambridge success in this weekend’s competition gives promising insights into the effectiveness of this training which we are gearing up to offering to all our undergraduates and potentially to other interested audiences in the future.
We are once again grateful to everyone who took part. We are also grateful to the Cabinet Office, to EPSRC and to GCHQ for support that will allow us to keep the event running and we hereby invite all the ACEs to sharpen their hacking tools for next year and come back to attempt to reconquer the trophy from us.
The best student hackers from the UK’s 13 Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Research are coming to Cambridge for the first Inter-ACE Cyberchallenge tomorrow, Saturday 23 April 2016.
We are looking for enthusiastic researchers to work with the substantial amounts of cybercrime data that we will be collecting. The people we appoint will have the chance to define their own goals and objectives and pursue them independently or as part of a team. We will also expect everyone to assist with automating the processing of our incoming data feeds and adding value to them.
We are not necessarily looking for existing experience in researching cybercrime, although this would be a bonus. However, we are looking for strong programming skills — and experience with scripting languages and databases would be much preferred. Good knowledge of English and communication skills are important.
Please follow this link to the advert to read the formal advertisement for the details about exactly who and what we’re looking for and how to apply — and please pay attention to our request that in the covering letter you create as part of the application you should explain which particular aspects of cybercrime research are of interest to you.
I’m at the 24th security protocols workshop in Brno (no, not Borneo, as a friend misheard it, but in the Czech republic; a two-hour flight rather than a twenty-hour one). We ended up being bumped to an old chapel in the Mendel museum, a former monastery where the monk Gregor Mendel figured out genetics from the study of peas, and for the prosaic reason that the Canadian ambassador pre-empted our meeting room. As a result we had no wifi and I have had to liveblog from the pub, where we are having lunch. The session liveblogs will be in followups to this post, in the usual style.
Commissioner Hogan-Howe of the Met said on Thursday that the banks should not refund fraud victims because it “rewards” them for being lax about internet security. This was too much to pass up, so I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, which has just been published. As the Times is behind a paywall, here is the text.
Sir, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe argues that banks should not refund online fraud victims as this would make people careless with their passwords and anti-virus software (p1, March 24, and letters Mar 25 & 26). This is called secondary victimisation. 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.
About 5 percent of computers running Windows are infected with malware, and common bank fraud malware such as Zeus lets the fraudster redirect transactions. You think you’re paying £150 to your electricity bill, while the malware is actually sending £9000 to Russia. The average person is helpless against this; everything seems normal, and antivirus products usually only detect it afterwards.
Much of the blame lies with the banks, who let the users of potentially infected computers make large payments instantly, rather than after a day or two, as used to be the case. They take this risk because regulators let them dump much of the cost of the resulting fraud on customers.
The elephant in the room is that the Met has been claiming for years that property crime is falling, when in fact it’s just going online like everything else. We’re now starting to get better crime figures; it’s time we got better policing, and better bank regulation too.
Ross Anderson FRS FREng
Professor of Security Engineering
University of Cambridge