Entries Tagged "academic papers"

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Indistinguishability Obfuscation

Quanta magazine recently published a breathless article on indistinguishability obfuscation — calling it the “‘crown jewel’ of cryptography” — and saying that it had finally been achieved, based on a recently published paper. I want to add some caveats to the discussion.

Basically, obfuscation makes a computer program “unintelligible” by performing its functionality. Indistinguishability obfuscation is more relaxed. It just means that two different programs that perform the same functionality can’t be distinguished from each other. A good definition is in this paper.

This is a pretty amazing theoretical result, and one to be excited about. We can now do obfuscation, and we can do it using assumptions that make real-world sense. The proofs are kind of ugly, but that’s okay — it’s a start. What it means in theory is that we have a fundamental theoretical result that we can use to derive a whole bunch of other cryptographic primitives.

But — and this is a big one — this result is not even remotely close to being practical. We’re talking multiple days to perform pretty simple calculations, using massively large blocks of computer code. And this is likely to remain true for a very long time. Unless researchers increase performance by many orders of magnitude, nothing in the real world will make use of this work anytime soon.

But but, consider fully homomorphic encryption. It, too, was initially theoretically interesting and completely impractical. And now, after decades of work, it seems to be almost just-barely maybe approaching practically useful. This could very well be on the same trajectory, and perhaps in twenty to thirty years we will be celebrating this early theoretical result as the beginning of a new theory of cryptography.

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 6:04 AMView Comments

On Blockchain Voting

Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:

Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.

For starters:

  • It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
  • It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
  • It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.

I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.

But now I have this excellent paper from MIT researchers:

“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”
Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest

Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.

You may have heard of Voatz, which uses blockchain for voting. It’s an insecure mess. And this is my general essay on blockchain. Short summary: it’s completely useless.

Posted on November 16, 2020 at 9:55 AMView Comments

Detecting Phishing Emails

Research paper: Rick Wash, “How Experts Detect Phishing Scam Emails“:

Abstract: Phishing scam emails are emails that pretend to be something they are not in order to get the recipient of the email to undertake some action they normally would not. While technical protections against phishing reduce the number of phishing emails received, they are not perfect and phishing remains one of the largest sources of security risk in technology and communication systems. To better understand the cognitive process that end users can use to identify phishing messages, I interviewed 21 IT experts about instances where they successfully identified emails as phishing in their own inboxes. IT experts naturally follow a three-stage process for identifying phishing emails. In the first stage, the email recipient tries to make sense of the email, and understand how it relates to other things in their life. As they do this, they notice discrepancies: little things that are “off” about the email. As the recipient notices more discrepancies, they feel a need for an alternative explanation for the email. At some point, some feature of the email — usually, the presence of a link requesting an action — triggers them to recognize that phishing is a possible alternative explanation. At this point, they become suspicious (stage two) and investigate the email by looking for technical details that can conclusively identify the email as phishing. Once they find such information, then they move to stage three and deal with the email by deleting it or reporting it. I discuss ways this process can fail, and implications for improving training of end users about phishing.

Posted on November 6, 2020 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Determining What Video Conference Participants Are Typing from Watching Shoulder Movements

Accuracy isn’t great, but that it can be done at all is impressive.

Murtuza Jadiwala, a computer science professor heading the research project, said his team was able to identify the contents of texts by examining body movement of the participants. Specifically, they focused on the movement of their shoulders and arms to extrapolate the actions of their fingers as they typed.

Given the widespread use of high-resolution web cams during conference calls, Jadiwala was able to record and analyze slight pixel shifts around users’ shoulders to determine if they were moving left or right, forward or backward. He then created a software program that linked the movements to a list of commonly used words. He says the “text inference framework that uses the keystrokes detected from the video … predict[s] words that were most likely typed by the target user. We then comprehensively evaluate[d] both the keystroke/typing detection and text inference frameworks using data collected from a large number of participants.”

In a controlled setting, with specific chairs, keyboards and webcam, Jadiwala said he achieved an accuracy rate of 75 percent. However, in uncontrolled environments, accuracy dropped to only one out of every five words being correctly identified.

Other factors contribute to lower accuracy levels, he said, including whether long sleeve or short sleeve shirts were worn, and the length of a user’s hair. With long hair obstructing a clear view of the shoulders, accuracy plummeted.

Posted on November 4, 2020 at 10:28 AMView Comments

The Legal Risks of Security Research

Sunoo Park and Kendra Albert have published “A Researcher’s Guide to Some Legal Risks of Security Research.”

From a summary:

Such risk extends beyond anti-hacking laws, implicating copyright law and anti-circumvention provisions (DMCA §1201), electronic privacy law (ECPA), and cryptography export controls, as well as broader legal areas such as contract and trade secret law.

Our Guide gives the most comprehensive presentation to date of this landscape of legal risks, with an eye to both legal and technical nuance. Aimed at researchers, the public, and technology lawyers alike, its aims both to provide pragmatic guidance to those navigating today’s uncertain legal landscape, and to provoke public debate towards future reform.

Comprehensive, and well worth reading.

Here’s a Twitter thread by Kendra.

Posted on October 30, 2020 at 9:14 AMView Comments

Split-Second Phantom Images Fool Autopilots

Researchers are tricking autopilots by inserting split-second images into roadside billboards.

Researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev … previously revealed that they could use split-second light projections on roads to successfully trick Tesla’s driver-assistance systems into automatically stopping without warning when its camera sees spoofed images of road signs or pedestrians. In new research, they’ve found they can pull off the same trick with just a few frames of a road sign injected on a billboard’s video. And they warn that if hackers hijacked an internet-connected billboard to carry out the trick, it could be used to cause traffic jams or even road accidents while leaving little evidence behind.

[…]

In this latest set of experiments, the researchers injected frames of a phantom stop sign on digital billboards, simulating what they describe as a scenario in which someone hacked into a roadside billboard to alter its video. They also upgraded to Tesla’s most recent version of Autopilot known as HW3. They found that they could again trick a Tesla or cause the same Mobileye device to give the driver mistaken alerts with just a few frames of altered video.

The researchers found that an image that appeared for 0.42 seconds would reliably trick the Tesla, while one that appeared for just an eighth of a second would fool the Mobileye device. They also experimented with finding spots in a video frame that would attract the least notice from a human eye, going so far as to develop their own algorithm for identifying key blocks of pixels in an image so that a half-second phantom road sign could be slipped into the “uninteresting” portions.

The paper:

Abstract: In this paper, we investigate “split-second phantom attacks,” a scientific gap that causes two commercial advanced driver-assistance systems (ADASs), Telsa Model X (HW 2.5 and HW 3) and Mobileye 630, to treat a depthless object that appears for a few milliseconds as a real obstacle/object. We discuss the challenge that split-second phantom attacks create for ADASs. We demonstrate how attackers can apply split-second phantom attacks remotely by embedding phantom road signs into an advertisement presented on a digital billboard which causes Tesla’s autopilot to suddenly stop the car in the middle of a road and Mobileye 630 to issue false notifications. We also demonstrate how attackers can use a projector in order to cause Tesla’s autopilot to apply the brakes in response to a phantom of a pedestrian that was projected on the road and Mobileye 630 to issue false notifications in response to a projected road sign. To counter this threat, we propose a countermeasure which can determine whether a detected object is a phantom or real using just the camera sensor. The countermeasure (GhostBusters) uses a “committee of experts” approach and combines the results obtained from four lightweight deep convolutional neural networks that assess the authenticity of an object based on the object’s light, context, surface, and depth. We demonstrate our countermeasure’s effectiveness (it obtains a TPR of 0.994 with an FPR of zero) and test its robustness to adversarial machine learning attacks.

Posted on October 19, 2020 at 6:28 AMView Comments

On Risk-Based Authentication

Interesting usability study: “More Than Just Good Passwords? A Study on Usability and Security Perceptions of Risk-based Authentication“:

Abstract: Risk-based Authentication (RBA) is an adaptive security measure to strengthen password-based authentication. RBA monitors additional features during login, and when observed feature values differ significantly from previously seen ones, users have to provide additional authentication factors such as a verification code. RBA has the potential to offer more usable authentication, but the usability and the security perceptions of RBA are not studied well.

We present the results of a between-group lab study (n=65) to evaluate usability and security perceptions of two RBA variants, one 2FA variant, and password-only authentication. Our study shows with significant results that RBA is considered to be more usable than the studied 2FA variants, while it is perceived as more secure than password-only authentication in general and comparably se-cure to 2FA in a variety of application types. We also observed RBA usability problems and provide recommendations for mitigation.Our contribution provides a first deeper understanding of the users’perception of RBA and helps to improve RBA implementations for a broader user acceptance.

Paper’s website. I’ve blogged about risk-based authentication before.

Posted on October 5, 2020 at 11:47 AMView Comments

Detecting Deep Fakes with a Heartbeat

Researchers can detect deep fakes because they don’t convincingly mimic human blood circulation in the face:

In particular, video of a person’s face contains subtle shifts in color that result from pulses in blood circulation. You might imagine that these changes would be too minute to detect merely from a video, but viewing videos that have been enhanced to exaggerate these color shifts will quickly disabuse you of that notion. This phenomenon forms the basis of a technique called photoplethysmography, or PPG for short, which can be used, for example, to monitor newborns without having to attach anything to a their very sensitive skin.

Deep fakes don’t lack such circulation-induced shifts in color, but they don’t recreate them with high fidelity. The researchers at SUNY and Intel found that “biological signals are not coherently preserved in different synthetic facial parts” and that “synthetic content does not contain frames with stable PPG.” Translation: Deep fakes can’t convincingly mimic how your pulse shows up in your face.

The inconsistencies in PPG signals found in deep fakes provided these researchers with the basis for a deep-learning system of their own, dubbed FakeCatcher, which can categorize videos of a person’s face as either real or fake with greater than 90 percent accuracy. And these same three researchers followed this study with another demonstrating that this approach can be applied not only to revealing that a video is fake, but also to show what software was used to create it.

Of course, this is an arms race. I expect deep fake programs to become good enough to fool FakeCatcher in a few months.

Posted on October 1, 2020 at 6:19 AMView Comments

On Executive Order 12333

Mark Jaycox has written a long article on the US Executive Order 12333: “No Oversight, No Limits, No Worries: A Primer on Presidential Spying and Executive Order 12,333“:

Abstract: Executive Order 12,333 (“EO 12333”) is a 1980s Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan that, among other things, establishes an overarching policy framework for the Executive Branch’s spying powers. Although electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333 generally target foreign intelligence from foreign targets, its permissive targeting standards allow for the substantial collection of Americans’ communications containing little to no foreign intelligence value. This fact alone necessitates closer inspection.

This working draft conducts such an inspection by collecting and coalescing the various declassifications, disclosures, legislative investigations, and news reports concerning EO 12333 electronic surveillance programs in order to provide a better understanding of how the Executive Branch implements the order and the surveillance programs it authorizes. The Article pays particular attention to EO 12333’s designation of the National Security Agency as primarily responsible for conducting signals intelligence, which includes the installation of malware, the analysis of internet traffic traversing the telecommunications backbone, the hacking of U.S.-based companies like Yahoo and Google, and the analysis of Americans’ communications, contact lists, text messages, geolocation data, and other information.

After exploring the electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333, this Article proposes reforms to the existing policy framework, including narrowing the aperture of authorized surveillance, increasing privacy standards for the retention of data, and requiring greater transparency and accountability.

EDITED TO ADD (10/12): Good New York Times article from 1983 on EO 12333, pointing out that Congress had never limited its power. It still hasn’t.

And a related article on the FISA Court.

Posted on September 28, 2020 at 6:21 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.