In late 2009, my colleagues and I discovered a serious vulnerability in EMV, the most widely used standard for smart card payments, known as “Chip and PIN” in the UK. We showed that it was possible for criminals to use a stolen credit or debit card without knowing the PIN, by tricking the terminal into thinking that any PIN is correct. We gave the banking industry advance notice of our discovery in early December 2009, to give them time to fix the problem before we published our research. After this period expired (two months, in this case) we published our paper as well explaining our results to the public on BBC Newsnight. We demonstrated that this vulnerability was real using a proof-of-concept system built from equipment we had available (off-the shelf laptop and card reader, FPGA development board, and hand-made card emulator).
After the programme aired, the response from the banking industry dismissed the possibility that the vulnerability would be successfully exploited by criminals. The banking trade body, the UK Cards Association, said:
“We believe that this complicated method will never present a real threat to our customers’ cards. … Neither the banking industry nor the police have any evidence of criminals having the capability to deploy such sophisticated attacks.”
Similarly, EMVCo, who develop the EMV standards said:
“It is EMVCo’s view that when the full payment process is taken into account, suitable countermeasures to the attack described in the recent Cambridge Report are already available.”
It was therefore interesting to see that in May 2011, criminals were caught having stolen cards in France then exploiting a variant of this vulnerability to buy over €500,000 worth of goods in Belgium (which were then re-sold). At the time, not many details were available, but it seemed that the techniques the criminals used were much more sophisticated than our proof-of-concept demonstration.
We now know more about what actually happened, as well as the banks’ response, thanks to a paper by the researchers who performed the forensic analysis that formed part of the criminal investigation of this case. It shows just how sophisticated criminals could be, given sufficient motivation, contrary to the expectations in the original banking industry response.
Gianluca Stringhini’s research focuses on studying cyber criminal operations and developing systems to defend against them.
Such operations tend to follow a common pattern. First the criminal operator lures a user into going to a Web site and tries to infect them with malware. Once infected, the user is joined to a botnet. From there, the user’s computer is instructed to perform malicious activities on the criminal’s behalf. Stringhini, whose UCL appointment is shared between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Security and Crime Science, has studied all three of these stages.
Stringhini, who is from Genoa, developed his interest in computer security at college: “I was doing the things that all college students are doing, hacking, and breaking into systems. I was always interested in understanding how computers work and how one could break them. I started playing in hacking competitions.”
At the beginning, these competitions were just for fun, but those efforts became more serious when he arrived in 2008 at UC Santa Barbara, which featured one of the world’s best hacking teams, a perennial top finisher in Defcon’s Capture the Flag competition. It was at Santa Barbara that his interest in cyber crime developed, particularly in botnets and the complexity and skill of the operations that created them. He picked the US after Christopher Kruegel, whom he knew by email, invited him to Santa Barbara for an internship. He liked it, so he stayed and did a PhD studying the way criminals use online services such as social networks
“Basically, the idea is that if you have an account that’s used by a cyber criminal it will be used differently than one used by a real person because they will have a different goal,” he says. “And so you can develop systems that learn about these differences and detect accounts that are misused.” Even if the attacker tries to make their behaviour closely resemble the user’s own, ultimately spreading malicious content isn’t something normal users intend to do, and the difference is detectable.
This idea and Stringhini’s resulting PhD research led to his most significant papers to date.