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Smartphones and Civilians in Wartime

Interesting article about civilians using smartphones to assist their militaries in wartime, and how that blurs the important legal distinction between combatants and non-combatants:

The principle of distinction between the two roles is a critical cornerstone of international humanitarian law­—the law of armed conflict, codified by decades of customs and laws such as the Geneva Conventions. Those considered civilians and civilian targets are not to be attacked by military forces; as they are not combatants, they should be spared. At the same time, they also should not act as combatants—­if they do, they may lose this status.

The conundrum, then, is how to classify a civilian who, with the use of their smartphone, potentially becomes an active participant in a military sensor system. (To be clear, solely having the app installed is not sufficient to lose the protected status. What matters is actual usage.) The Additional Protocol I to Geneva Conventions states that civilians enjoy protection from the “dangers arising from military operations unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.” Legally, if civilians engage in military activity, such as taking part in hostilities by using weapons, they forfeit their protected status, “for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities” that “affect[s] the military operations,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the traditional impartial custodian of International Humanitarian Law. This is the case even if the people in question are not formally members of the armed forces. By losing the status of a civilian, one may become a legitimate military objective, carrying the risk of being directly attacked by military forces.

Posted on June 9, 2022 at 6:22 AMView Comments

Remotely Controlling Touchscreens

Researchers have demonstrated controlling touchscreens at a distance, at least in a laboratory setting:

The core idea is to take advantage of the electromagnetic signals to execute basic touch events such as taps and swipes into targeted locations of the touchscreen with the goal of taking over remote control and manipulating the underlying device.

The attack, which works from a distance of up to 40mm, hinges on the fact that capacitive touchscreens are sensitive to EMI, leveraging it to inject electromagnetic signals into transparent electrodes that are built into the touchscreen so as to register them as touch events.

The experimental setup involves an electrostatic gun to generate a strong pulse signal that’s then sent to an antenna to transmit an electromagnetic field to the phone’s touchscreen, thereby causing the electrodes ­ which act as antennas themselves ­ to pick up the EMI.

Paper: “GhostTouch: Targeted Attacks on Touchscreens without Physical Touch“:

Abstract: Capacitive touchscreens have become the primary human-machine interface for personal devices such as smartphones and tablets. In this paper, we present GhostTouch, the first active contactless attack against capacitive touchscreens. GhostTouch uses electromagnetic interference (EMI) to inject fake touch points into a touchscreen without the need to physically touch it. By tuning the parameters of the electromagnetic signal and adjusting the antenna, we can inject two types of basic touch events, taps and swipes, into targeted locations of the touchscreen and control them to manipulate the underlying device. We successfully launch the GhostTouch attacks on nine smartphone models. We can inject targeted taps continuously with a standard deviation of as low as 14.6 x 19.2 pixels from the target area, a delay of less than 0.5s and a distance of up to 40mm. We show the real-world impact of the GhostTouch attacks in a few proof-of-concept scenarios, including answering an eavesdropping phone call, pressing the button, swiping up to unlock, and entering a password. Finally, we discuss potential hardware and software countermeasures to mitigate the attack.

Posted on June 2, 2022 at 3:59 PMView Comments

The Limits of Cyber Operations in Wartime

Interesting paper by Lennart Maschmeyer: “The Subversive Trilemma: Why Cyber Operations Fall Short of Expectations“:

Abstract: Although cyber conflict has existed for thirty years, the strategic utility of cyber operations remains unclear. Many expect cyber operations to provide independent utility in both warfare and low-intensity competition. Underlying these expectations are broadly shared assumptions that information technology increases operational effectiveness. But a growing body of research shows how cyber operations tend to fall short of their promise. The reason for this shortfall is their subversive mechanism of action. In theory, subversion provides a way to exert influence at lower risks than force because it is secret and indirect, exploiting systems to use them against adversaries. The mismatch between promise and practice is the consequence of the subversive trilemma of cyber operations, whereby speed, intensity, and control are negatively correlated. These constraints pose a trilemma for actors because a gain in one variable tends to produce losses across the other two variables. A case study of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict provides empirical support for the argument. Qualitative analysis leverages original data from field interviews, leaked documents, forensic evidence, and local media. Findings show that the subversive trilemma limited the strategic utility of all five major disruptive cyber operations in this conflict.

Posted on May 31, 2022 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Security and Human Behavior (SHB) 2022

Today is the second day of the fifteenth Workshop on Security and Human Behavior, hosted by Ross Anderson and Alice Hutchings at the University of Cambridge. After two years of having this conference remotely on Zoom, it’s nice to be back together in person.

SHB is a small, annual, invitational workshop of people studying various aspects of the human side of security, organized each year by Alessandro Acquisti, Ross Anderson, Alice Hutchings, and myself. The forty or so attendees include psychologists, economists, computer security researchers, sociologists, political scientists, criminologists, neuroscientists, designers, lawyers, philosophers, anthropologists, geographers, business school professors, and a smattering of others. It’s not just an interdisciplinary event; most of the people here are individually interdisciplinary.

For the past decade and a half, this workshop has been the most intellectually stimulating two days of my professional year. It influences my thinking in different and sometimes surprising ways—and has resulted in some unexpected collaborations.

Our goal is always to maximize discussion and interaction. We do that by putting everyone on panels, and limiting talks to six to eight minutes, with the rest of the time for open discussion. Because everyone was not able to attend in person, our panels all include remote participants as well. The hybrid structure is working well, even though our remote participants aren’t around for the social program.

This year’s schedule is here. This page lists the participants and includes links to some of their work. As he does every year, Ross Anderson is liveblogging the talks.

Here are my posts on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth SHB workshops. Follow those links to find summaries, papers, and occasionally audio/video recordings of the various workshops. Ross also maintains a good webpage of psychology and security resources.

EDITED TO ADD (6/15): Here are the videos for sessions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Posted on May 31, 2022 at 4:12 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.