Creating scalable distributed ledgers for DECODE

Since the introduction of Bitcoin in 2008, blockchains have gone from a niche cryptographic novelty to a household name. Ethereum expanded the applicability of such technologies, beyond managing monetary value, to general computing with smart contracts. However, we have so far only scratched the surface of what can be done with such “Distributed Ledgers”.

The EU Horizon 2020 DECODE project aims to expand those technologies to support local economy initiatives, direct democracy, and decentralization of services, such as social networking, sharing economy, and discursive and participatory platforms. Today, these tend to be highly centralized in their architecture.

There is a fundamental contradiction between how modern services harness the work and resources of millions of users, and how they are technically implemented. The promise of the sharing economy is to coordinate people who want to provide resources with people who want to use them, for instance spare rooms in the case of Airbnb; rides in the case of Uber; spare couches of in the case of couchsurfing; and social interactions in the case of Facebook.

These services appear to be provided in a peer-to-peer, and disintermediated fashion. And, to some extent, they are less mediated at the application level thanks to their online nature. However, the technical underpinnings of those services are based on the extreme opposite design philosophy: all users technically mediate their interactions through a very centralized service, hosted on private data centres. The big internet service companies leverage their centralized position to extract value out of user or providers of services – becoming de facto monopolies in many case.

When it comes to privacy and security properties, those centralized services force users to trust them absolutely, and offer little on the way of transparency to even allow users to monitor the service practices to ground that trust. A recent example illustrating this problem was Uber, the ride sharing service, providing a different view to drivers and riders about the fare that was being paid for a ride – forcing drivers to compare what they receive with what riders pay to ensure they were getting a fair deal. Since Uber, like many other services, operate in a non-transparent manner, its functioning depends on users absolute to ensure fairness.

The lack of user control and transparency of modern online services goes beyond monetary and economic concerns. Recently, the Guardian has published the guidelines used by Facebook to moderate abusive or illegal user postings. While, moderation has a necessary social function, the exact boundaries of what constitutes abuse came into question: some forms of harms to children or holocaust denial were ignored, while material of artistic or political value has been suppressed.

Even more worryingly, the opaque algorithms being used to promote and propagate posts have been associated with creating a filter bubble effect, influencing elections, and dark adverts, only visible to particular users, are able to flout standards of fair political advertising. It is a fact of the 21st century that a key facet of the discursive process of democracy will take place on online social platforms. However, their centralized, opaque and advertising-driven form is incompatible with their function as a tool for democracy.

Finally, the revelations of Edward Snowden relating to mass surveillance, also illustrate how the technical centralization of services erodes privacy at an unprecedented scale. The NSA PRISM program coerced internet services to provide access to data on their services under a FISA warrant, not protecting the civil liberties of non-American persons. At the same time, the UPSTREAM program collected bulk information between data centres making all economic, social and political activities taking place on those services transparent to US authorities. While users struggle to understand how those services operate, governments (often foreign) have total visibility. This is a complete inversion of the principles of liberal democracy, where usually we would expect citizens to have their privacy protected, while those in position of authority and power are expected to be accountable.

The problems of accountability, transparency and privacy are social, but are also based on the fundamental centralized architecture underpinning those services. To address them, the DECODE project brings together technical, legal, social experts from academia, alongside partners from local government and industry. Together they are tasked to develop architectures that are compatible with the social values of transparency, user and community control, and privacy.

The role of UCL Computer Science, as a partner, is to provide technical options into two key technical areas: (1) the scalability of secure decentralized distributed ledgers that can support millions or billions of users while providing high-integrity and transparency to operations; (2) mechanisms for protecting user privacy despite the decentralized and transparent infrastructure. The latter may seem like an oxymoron: how can transparency and privacy be reconciled? However, thanks to advances in modern cryptography, it is possible to ensure that operations were correctly performed on a ledger, without divulging private user data – a family of techniques known as zero-knowledge.

I am particularly proud of the UCL team we have put together that is associated with this project, and strengthens considerably our existing expertise in distributed ledgers.

I will be leading and coordinating the work. I have a long standing interest, and track record, in privacy enhancing technologies and peer-to-peer computing, as well as scalable distributed ledgers – such as the RSCoin currency proposal. Shehar Bano, an expert on systems and networking, has joined us as a post-doctoral researcher after completing her thesis at Cambridge. Alberto Sonnino will be doing his thesis on distributed ledgers and privacy, as well as hardware and IoT applications related to ledgers, after completing his MSc in Information Security at UCL last year. Mustafa Al-Bassam, is also associated with the project and works on high-integrity and scalable ledger technologies, after completing his degree at Kings College London – he is funded by the Turing Institute to work on such technologies. Those join our wider team of UCL CS faculty, with research interests in distributed ledgers, including Sarah Meiklejohn, Nicolas Courtois and Tomaso Aste and their respective teams.


This post also appears on the DECODE project blog.

The politics of the NHS WannaCrypt ransomware outbreak

You know you live in 2017 when the top headline on national newspapers relates to a ransomware attack on the National Heath Service, the UK Prime minister comments on the matter, and the the security researchers dealing with the outbreak are presented as heroic figures. As ever, The Register, has the most detailed and sophisticated technical article on the matter. But also strangely the most informative in terms of public policy. As if somehow, in our days, technical sophistication is a prerequisite also for sophisticated political comment on those matters. Other news outlets present a caricature, of the bad malware authors, the good security researcher and vendors working around the clock, the valiant government defenders, and a united humanity trying to beat the virus. I want to break that narrative open in this article, and discuss the actual political and social lessons we should be learning. In part to avoid similar disasters in the future.

First off, I am always surprised when such massive systemic outbreaks of malware, are blamed squarely on the author(s) of the malware itself, and the blame game ends there. It is without doubt that the malware author has a great share of responsibility. I personally think it is immoral to deploy ransomware in the wild, deny people access to their data, and seek to benefit from this. It is also a crime in the UK and elsewhere.

However, it is strange that a single author, or a small group of authors, without any major resources can have such a deep and widespread effect on major technological infrastructures. The absurdity becomes clear if we transpose the situation into the world of traditional engineering. Imagine all skyscrapers in major cities had to be evacuated, because a couple of teenagers with rocks were trying to blackmail business owners to pay up, to protect their precious glass windows. The fragility of software and IT systems seems to have no parallel in any other large scale engineering infrastructure — and this is not inherent, but the result of very specific micro-political, geo-political and economic decisions.

Lets take the WannaCrypt outbreak and look at the political and other social decisions that lead to the disaster — besides the agency of the malware authors:

  • The disaster was possible in part, and foremost, because IT systems within the UK critical NHS infrastructure are outdated — and for example rely on Windows XP that is not any more being maintained by Microsoft. Well, actually this is not strictly true: Microsoft does make security updates for Windows XP, but does not provide them for free — and instead Microsoft expects organizations that are locked in the OS to pay up to get patches and stay safe. So two key questions need to be asked …
  • Why is the NHS not upgrading to a new versions of Windows, or any other modern operating system? The answer is simple: line of business applications (LOB: from heath record management, specialist analysis and imaging software, to payroll) may not be compatible with new operating systems. On top of that a number of modern medical devices, such as large X-ray scanners or heart monitors, come with embedded computers running Windows XP — and only Windows XP. There is no way of upgrading them. The MEDJACK cyber-attacks were leveraging this to rampage through hospitals in 2015.
  • Is having LOB software tying you to an outdated OS, or medical devices costing millions that are not upgradeable, a fact of nature? No. It is down to a combination of terrible and naive procurement processes in health organizations, that do not take into account the need and costs if IT and security maintenance — and do not entrench it into the requirements and contracts for services, software and devices. It is also the result of the health software and devices industries being immature and unsophisticated as to the needs to secure IT. They reap the benefits of IT to make money, but without expending much of it to provide quality and security. The tragic state of security of medical devices has built the illustrious career of my friend Prof. Kevin Fu, who has found systemic attacks against implanted heart devices that could kill you, noob security bugs in medical device software, and has written extensively on the poor strategy to tackle these problem. So today’s attacks were a disaster waiting to happen — and expect more unless we learn the right lessons.
  • So given the terrible state of IT that prevents upgrading the OS, why is the NHS not paying up Microsoft to get security patches? That is because the government, and Jeremy Hunt in particular, back in 2014 decided to not pay up the money necessary to keep receiving security updates for Windows XP, despite being aware of the absolute reliance of the NHS on the outdated software. So in effect, a deliberate political decision was taken, at the highest level of the government to leave the NHS open to cyber attack. This is unlikely to be the last Windows XP security bug, so more are presumably to come.
  • Then there is the question of how malware authors, managed to get access to security bugs for windows XP? How did they get the tools necessary to attack such a mature, and rather common system, about 15 years after Windows XP was released, and only after it went out of maintenance? It turn out that the vulnerabilities they used, were in fact hoarded by the NSA as a cyber weapon — which was lost or stolen by hackers or leakers, and released into the wild! (The tool was codenamed EternalBlue). For may years, the computer security research community has been warning that stockpiling vulnerabilities in very common software for cyber-offense purposes, is dangerous. When those cyber weapons are lost, leaked, or even just used, there is proliferation of the technology necessary to attack, which criminals and foreign states can turn against critical infrastructure. This blog commented on the matter as recently as 8 March 2017 in a post entitled “What the CIA hack and leak teaches us about the bankruptcy of current “Cyber” doctrines”. This now feels like an unfortunately fulfilled prophesy, but the NHS attack was just the expected outcome of the US/UK and now common place doctrine around cyber — that contributes to, and leverages insecurity rather than security. Alternative public policy options exist of course.

So to summarize, besides the author of the malware, a number of other social and systemic factors contribute to making such cyber attacks possible: from poor security standards in heath informatics industries; poor procurement processes in heath organizations; lack of liability on any of the software vendors (incl. Microsoft) for providing insecure software or devices; cost-cutting from the government on NHS cyber security with no constructive alternatives to mitigate risks; and finally the UK/US cyber-offense doctrine that inevitably leads to proliferation of cyber-weapons and their use on civilian critical infrastructures.

It it those systemic factors that need to change to avoid future failures. Bad people wishing to make money from ransomware, or other badness, will always exist. There is a discipline devoted to preventing this, and it is called security engineering. It is time industry and goverment start taking its advice seriously.


This was originally posted on Conspicuous Chatter, the blog of Prof. George Danezis.

What the CIA hack and leak teaches us about the bankruptcy of current “Cyber” doctrines

Wikileaks just published a trove of documents resulting from a hack of the CIA Engineering Development Group, the part of the spying agency that is in charge of developing hacking tools. The documents seem genuine and catalog, among other things, a number of exploits against widely deployed commodity devices and systems, including Android, iPhone, OS X and Windows. Also smart TVs. This hack, with appropriate background, teaches us a lesson or two about the direction of public policy related to “cyber” in the US and the UK.

Routine proliferation of weaponry and tactics

The CIA hack is in many ways extraordinary, in that it allowed the attackers to gain access to the source code of the hacking tools of the agency – an extraordinary act of proliferation of attack technologies. In other ways, it is mundane in that it is neither the first, nor probably the last hack or leak of catastrophic proportions to occur to a US/UK government department in charge of offensive cyber operations.

This list of leaks of government attack technologies, illustrates that when it comes to cyber-weaponry the risk of proliferation is not merely theoretical, but very real. In fact it seems to be happening all the time.

I find it particularly amusing – and those in charge of those agencies should probably find it embarrassing – that NSA and GCHQ go around presenting themselves as national technical authorities in assurance; they provide advice to others on how to not get hacked; they keep asserting that they can be trusted to operate extremely dangerous spying infrastructures; and handle in secret extremely dangerous zero-day exploits. Yet, they seem to be routinely hacked and have their secret documents leaked. Instead of chasing whistleblowers and journalists, policy makers should probably take note that there is not a high-enough level of assurance to secure cyber-weaponry, and for sure it is not to be found within those agencies.

In fact the risk of proliferation is at the very heart of cyber attack, and integral to it, even without hacking or leaking from inside government. Many of us quietly laughed at the bureaucratic nightmare discussed in the recent CIA leak, describing the difficulty of classifying the cyber attack techniques while at the same time deploying them on target system. As the press release summarizes:

To attack its targets, the CIA usually requires that its implants communicate with their control programs over the internet. If CIA implants, Command & Control and Listening Post software were classified, then CIA officers could be prosecuted or dismissed for violating rules that prohibit placing classified information onto the Internet. Consequently the CIA has secretly made most of its cyber spying/war code unclassified.

This illustrates very clearly a key dynamic in hacking: once a hacker uses an exploit against an adversary system, there is a very real risk the exploit is captured by monitoring and intrusion detection systems of the target, and then weponized to hack other computers, at a low cost. This is very well established and researched, and such “honey pot” infrastructures have been used in the academic and commercial community for some time to detect and study potentially new attacks. This is not the premise of sophisticated defenders, the explanation of how honeypots work is on Wikipedia! The Flame malware, and Stuxnet before, were in fact found in the wild.

In that respect cyber-war is not like war at all. The weapons you use will be turned against you immediately, and your effective use of weapons relies on your very own infrastructures being utterly vulnerable to them.

What “Cyber” doctrine?

The constant leaks and hacks, leading to proliferation of exploits and hacking tools from the heart of government, as well through operations, should deeply inform policy makers when making choices about “cyber” doctrines. First, it is probably time to ditch the awkward term “Cyber”.

Continue reading What the CIA hack and leak teaches us about the bankruptcy of current “Cyber” doctrines

Smart contracts beyond the age of innocence

Why have Bitcoin, with its distributed consistent ledger, and now Ethereum with its support for fully fledged “smart contracts,” captured the imagination of so many people, both within and beyond the tech industry? The promise to replace obscure stores of information and arcane contract rules – with their inefficient, ambiguous, and primitive human interpretations – with publicly visible decentralized ledgers reflects the growing technological zeitgeist in their guarantee that all participants would know and be able to foresee the consequences of both their own actions and the actions of all others. The precise specification of contracts as code, with clauses automatically executed depending on certain sets of events and permissible user actions, represents for some a true state of utopia.

Regardless of one’s views on the potential for distributed ledgers, one of the most notable innovations that smart contracts have enabled thus far is the idea of a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), which is a specific type of investment contract, by which members individually contribute value that then gets collectively invested under some governance model.  In truly transparent fashion, the details of this governance model, including who can vote and how many votes are required for a successful proposal, are all encoded in a smart contract that is published (and thus globally visible) on the distributed ledger.

Today, this vision met a serious stumbling block: a “bug” in the contract of the first majorly successful DAO (which broke records by raising 11 million ether, the equivalent of 150 million USD, in its first two weeks of operation) allowed third parties to start draining its funds, and to eventually make off with 4% of all ether. The immediate response of the Ethereum and DAO community was to suspend activity – seemingly an anathema for a ledger designed to provide high resiliency and availability – and propose two potential solutions: a “soft-fork” that would impose additional rules on miners in order to exclude all future transactions that try to use the stolen ether, or, more drastically (and running directly contrary to the immutability of the ledger),  a “hard-fork” that would roll back the transactions in which the attack took place, in addition to the many legitimate transactions that took place concurrently.  Interestingly, a variant of the bug that enabled the hack was known to and dismissed by the creators of the DAO (and the wider Ethereum community).

While some may be surprised by this series of events, Maurice Wilkes, designer of the EDSAC, one of the first computers, reflected that “[…] the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent in finding errors in my own programs.” It is not the case that because a program is precisely defined it is easy to foresee what it will do once executed on its own under the control of users.  In fact, Rice’s theorem explicitly states that it is not possible in general to show that the result of programs, and thus smart contracts, will have any specific non-trivial property.

This forms the basis on which modern verification techniques operate: they try to define subsets of programs for which it is possible to prove some properties (e.g., through typing), or attempt to prove properties in a post-hoc way (e.g., through verification), but under the understanding that they may fail in general.  There is thus no scientific basis on which one can assert generally that smart contracts can easily provide clarity into and foresight of their consequences.

The unfolding story of the DAO and its consequences for the Ethereum community offers two interesting insights. First, as a sign that the field is maturing, there is an explicit call for understanding the computational space of safe contracts, and contracts with foreseeable consequences. Second, it suggests the need for smart contracts protecting significant assets to include external, possibly social, mechanisms in order to unlock significant value transfers. The willingness of exchanges to suspend trading and of the Ethereum developers to suggest a hard-fork is a last-resort example of such a social mechanism. Thus, politics – the discipline of collective management – reasserts itself as having primacy over human affairs.

Our contributions to the UK Distributed Ledger Technology report

The UK Government Office for Science, has published its report on “Distributed ledger technology: beyond block chain” to which UCL’s Sarah Meiklejohn, Angela Sasse and myself (George Danezis) contributed parts of the security and privacy material. The review, looks largely at economic, innovation and social aspects of these technologies. Our part discusses potential threats to ledgers, as well as opportunities to build robust security systems using ledgers (Certificate Transparency & CONIKS), and overcome privacy challenges, including a mention of the technology.

You can listen to the podcast interview Sarah gave on the report’s use cases, recommendations, but also more broadly future research directions for distributed ledgers, such as better privacy protection.

In terms of recommendation, I personally welcome the call for the Government Digital Services, and other innovation bodies to building capacity around distributed ledger technologies. The call for more research for efficient and secure ledgers (and the specific mention of cryptography research) is also a good idea, and an obvious need. When it comes to the specific security and privacy recommendation, it simply calls for standards to be established and followed. Sadly this is mildly vague: a standards based approach to designing secure and privacy-friendly systems has not led to major successes. Instead openness in the design, a clear focus on key end-to-end security properties, and the involvement of a wide community of experts might be more productive (and less susceptible to subversion).

The report is well timed: our paper on “Centrally Banked Crypto-Currencies” will be presented in February at a leading security conference, NDSS 2016, by Sarah Meiklejohn, largely inspired by the research agenda published by the Bank of England. It provides some answers to the problems of scalability and eco-friendliness of current proof-of-work based ledger design.

Teaching Privacy Enhancing Technologies at UCL

Last term I had the opportunity and pleasure to prepare and teach the first course on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) at University College London, as part of the MSc in Information Security.

The course covers principally, and in some detail, engineering aspects of PETs and caters for an audience of CS / engineering students that already understands the basics of information security and cryptography (although these are not hard prerequisites). Students were also provided with a working understanding of legal and compliance aspects of data protection regimes, by guest lecturer Prof. Eleni Kosta (Tilburg); as well as a world class introduction to human aspects of computing and privacy, by Prof. Angela Sasse (UCL). This security & cryptographic engineering focus sets this course apart from related courses.

The taught part of the course runs for 20 hours over 10 weeks, split in 10 topics:

Continue reading Teaching Privacy Enhancing Technologies at UCL

On-line lecture: DP5 Private Presence @ 31C3

During the break I attended the 31st Chaos Communications Congress (31C3) in Hamburg, Germany. There I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on “DP5: PIR for Privacy-preserving Presence” along with my colleague from Waterloo, Ian Goldberg. The Audio/Video Chaos Angels did a nice job of capturing the event, and making it available for all to view (I come in at 26:23).

Other resources around DP5 include:

  • Technical Report (pdf)
  • Talk Slides (pdf)
  • Event Page (html)
  • Git code repository (git)

Introducing the expanded UCL Information Security Group

It takes quite a bit of institutional commitment and vision to build a strong computer security group. For this reason I am delighted to share here that UCL computer science has in 2014 hired three amazing new faculty members into the Information Security group, bringing the total to nine. Here is the line-up of the UCL Information Security group and teaching the MSc in Information Security:

  • Prof. M. Angela Sasse is the head of the Information Security Group and a world expert on usable security and privacy. Her research touches upon the intersection of security mechanisms or security policies and humans — mental models they have, the mistakes they make, and their accurate or false perceptions that lead to security systems working or failing.
  • Dr Jens Groth is a cryptographer renowned for his work on novel zero-knowledge proof systems (affectionately known as Groth-Sahai), robust mix systems for anonymous communications and electronic voting and succinct proofs of knowledge. These are crucial building blocks of modern privacy-friendly authentication and private computation protocols.
  • Dr Nicolas Courtois is a symmetric key cryptographer, known for pioneering work on algebraic cryptanalysis, extraordinary hacker of real-world cryptographic embedded systems, who has recently developed a keen interest in digital distributed currencies such as Bitcoin.
  • Prof. David Pym is both an expert on logic and verification, and also applies methods from economics to understand complex security systems and the decision making in organizations that deploy them. He uses stochastic processes, modeling and utility theory to understand the macro-economics of information security.
  • Dr Emiliano de Cristofaro researches privacy and applied cryptography. He has worked on very fast secure set intersection protocols, that are key ingredients of privacy technologies, and is one of the leading experts on protocols for privacy friendly genomics.
  • Dr George Danezis (me) researches privacy technologies, anonymous communications, traffic analysis, peer-to-peer security and smart metering security. I have lately developed an interest in applying machine learning techniques to problems in security such as anomaly detection and malware analysis.
  • Dr Steven Murdoch (new!) is an world expert on anonymous communications, through his association with the Tor project, banking security and designer of fielded banking authentication mechanisms. He is a media darling when it comes to explaining the problems of real-world deployed cryptographic systems in banking.
  • Dr Gianluca Stringhini (new!) is a rising star in network security, with a focus on the technical aspects of cyber-crime and cyber-criminal operations. He studies honest and malicious uses of major online services, such as social networks, email services and blogs, and develops techniques to detect and suppress malicious behavior.
  • Dr Sarah Meiklejohn (new!) has an amazing dual expertise in theoretical cryptography on the one hand, and digital currencies and security measurements on the other. She has developed techniques to trace stolen bitcoins, built cryptographic compilers, and contributed to fundamental advances in cryptography such as malleable proof systems.

One key difficulty when building a security group is balancing cohesion, to achieve critical mass, with diversity to cover a broad range of areas and ensuring wide expertise to benefit our students and research. I updated an interactive graph illustrating the structure of collaborations amongst the members of the Information Security Group, as well as their joint collaborators and publication venues. It is clear that all nine faculty members both share enough interest, and are complementary enough, to support each other.

Besides the nine full-time faculty members with a core focus on security, a number of other excellent colleagues at UCL have a track record of contributions in security, supporting teaching and research. Here is just a handful:

  • Prof. Brad Karp is an expert in networking and systems and has made seminal contributions to automatic worm detection and containment.
  • Dr David Clark specializes in software engineering with a core interest in information flow techniques for confidentiality, software security and lately malware.
  • Dr Earl Barr researches software engineering, and has researched security bugs, and malware as well as ideas for simple key management.
  • Prof. Ingemar Cox (part-time at UCL) is a world expert in multimedia security, watermarking and information hiding.
  • Prof. Yvo Desmedt (part-time at UCL) is a renowned cryptographer with key contributions in group key exchange, zero-knowledge and all fields of symmetric and asymmetric cryptography.

The full list of other colleagues working in security, including visiting researchers, post-doctoral researchers and research students list many more people – making UCL one of the largest research groups in Information Security in Europe.


This post originally appeared on Conspicuous Chatter, the blog of George Danezis.