Justice for victims of bank fraud – learning from the Post Office trial

In London, this week, a trial is being held over a dispute between the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and the Post Office, but the result will have far-reaching repercussions for anyone disputing computer evidence. The trial currently focuses on whether the legal agreements and processes set up by the Post Office are a fair basis for managing its relationship with the subpostmasters who operate branches on its behalf. Later, the court will assess whether the fact that the Post Office computer system – Horizon – indicates that a subpostmaster is in debt to the Post Office is sufficient evidence for the subpostmaster to be indeed liable to repay the debt, even when the subpostmaster claims the accounts are incorrect due to computer error or fraud.

Disputes over Horizon have led to subpostmasters being bankrupted, losing their homes, or even being jailed but these cases also echo the broader issues at the heart of the many phantom withdrawals disputes I see between a bank and its customers. Customers claim that money was taken from their accounts without their permission. The bank claims that their computer system shows that either the customer authorised the withdrawal or was grossly negligent and so the customer is liable. The customer may also claim that the bank’s handling of the dispute is poor and the contract with the bank protects the bank’s interests more than that of the customer so is an unfair basis for managing disputes.

There are several lessons the Post Office trial will have for the victims of phantom withdrawals, particularly for cases of push payment fraud, but in this post, I’m going to explore why these issues are being dealt with first in a trial initiated by subpostmasters and not by the (far more numerous) bank customers. In later posts, I’ll look more into the specific details that are being disclosed as a result of this trial.

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UK Faster Payment System Prompts Changes to Fraud Regulation

Banking transactions are rapidly moving online, offering convenience to customers and allowing banks to close branches and re-focus on marketing more profitable financial products. At the same time, new payment methods, like the UK’s Faster Payment System, make transactions irrevocable within hours, not days, and so let recipients make use of funds immediately.

However, these changes have also created a new opportunity for fraud schemes that trick victims into performing a transaction under false pretences. For example, a criminal might call a bank customer, tell them that their account has been compromised, and help them to transfer money to a supposedly safe account that is actually under the criminal’s control. Losses in the UK from this type of fraud were £145.4 million during the first half of 2018 but importantly for the public, such frauds fall outside of existing consumer protection rules, leaving the customer liable for sometimes life-changing amounts.

The human cost behind this epidemic has persuaded regulators to do more to protect customers and create incentives for banks to do a better job at preventing the fraud. These measures are coming sooner than UK Finance – the trade association for UK based banking payments and cards businesses – would like, but during questioning by the House of Commons Treasury Committee, their Chief Executive conceded that change is coming. They now focus on who will reimburse customers who have been defrauded through no fault of their own. Who picks up the bill will depend not just on how good fraud prevention measures are, but how effectively banks can demonstrate this fact.

UK Faster Payment Creates an Opportunity for Social Engineering Attacks

One factor that contributed to the new type of fraud is that online interactions lack the usual cues that help customers tell whether a bank is genuine. Criminals use sophisticated social engineering attacks that create a sense of urgency, combined with information gathered about the customer through illicit means, to convince even diligent victims that it could only be their own bank calling. These techniques, combined with the newly irrevocable payment system, create an ideal situation for criminals.

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Can Ethics Help Restore Internet Freedom and Safety?

Internet services are suffering from various maladies ranging from algorithmic bias to misinformation and online propaganda. Could computer ethics be a remedy? Mozilla’s head Mitchell Baker warns that computer science education without ethics will lead the next generation of technologists to inherit the ethical blind spots of those currently in charge. A number of leaders in the tech industry have lent their support to Mozilla’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge initiative to integrate ethics with undergraduate computer science training. There is a heightened interest in the concept of ethical by design, the idea of baking ethical principles and human values into the software development process from design to deployment.

Ethical education and awareness are important, and there exist a number of useful relevant resources. Most computer science practitioners refer to the codes of ethics and conduct provided by the field’s professional bodies such as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and in the UK the British Computing Society and the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Computer science research is predominantly guided by the principles laid out in the Menlo Report.

But aspirations and reality often diverge, and ethical codes do not directly translate to ethical practice. Or the ethical practices of about five companies to be precise. The concentration of power among a small number of big companies means that their practices define the online experience of the majority of Internet users. I showed this amplified power in my study on the Web’s differential treatment of the users of Tor anonymity network.

Ethical code alone is not enough and needs to be complemented by suitable enforcement and reinforcement. So who will do the job? Currently, for the most part, companies themselves are the judge and jury in how their practices are regulated. This is not a great idea. The obvious misalignment of incentives is aptly captured in an Urdu proverb that means: “The horse and grass can never be friends”. Self-regulation by companies can result in inconsistent and potentially biased regulation patterns, and/or over-regulation to stay legally safe.

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What can infosec learn from strategic theory?

Antonio Roque, of MIT Lincoln Labs, has published some provocative papers to arXiv over the last year. These include one on cybersecurity meta-methodology and one on making predictions in cybersecurity. These papers ask some good questions. The one I want to focus on in this short space is what cybersecurity can learn from Carl von Clausewitz’s treatise On War.

This might seem a bit odd to modern computer scientists, but I think it’s a plausible question. Cybersecurity is about winning conflicts, at least sometimes. And as I and others have written, one of the interesting challenges about generating knowledge with a science of security is the fact we have active adversaries. As Roque tells us, generating knowledge in the face of adversaries is also one of the things On War is about.

One important question for me is whether Clausewitz interestingly presaged our current problems (and has since been overtaken), or if On War makes contributions to thinking about cybersecurity that are new and comparable to those from the fields of economics, mathematics, philosophy of science, etc. After a close reading of these papers, my stance is: I have more questions that need answers.

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Managing conflicts between ethical principles and job duties

Despite its international context, discussion of the social implications of technology is surprisingly parochial. For example, the idea that individuals should have control over how their data is used is considered radical and innovative in the US, despite it being commonly accepted in Europe since the early 1980’s. The same applies to including professional and ethical training as part of computer science curricula – while a recent move in many US institutions, it’s been mandatory for BCS accredited courses in the UK for as long as I can remember. One lesson that comes from the UK’s experience here, and that I think would be of help to institutions following its lead, is that students being aware of ethics is not enough to protect society and individuals. There needs to also be strong codes of conduct, built on ethical principles, which practitioners are expected to follow.

For most computer science practitioners in the UK, the codes of conduct of relevance are from the field’s professional bodies – BCS and IET. They say roughly what you might expect – do a good job, follow instructions, avoid conflicts of interest, and consider the public interest. I’ve always found these to be a bit unsatisfactory, treating ethical decisions as the uncontroversial product of the application of consistent rules of professional conduct. These rules however don’t help with reality, where practitioners are faced with decisions where all options come at substantial personal or financial cost, where rules are inconsistent with themselves and ethical principles, all while faced with substantial uncertainty as to the consequences of their actions.

That’s why I am pleased to see that the ACM ethical code released today goes some way to acknowledge the complex interaction between technology and society, and provides tools to help practitioners navigate the challenges. In particular it gives some guidance on a topic I have long felt sorely lacking in the BCS and IET codes – what to do when instructions from your employer conflict with the public interest. At best, the BCS and IET codes are silent on how to handle such situations – if anything the BCS code puts emphasis on acting “in accordance” with employer instructions compared to requiring that members only “have due regard” for the public interest. In contrast, the ACM code is clear “that the public good is the paramount consideration”.

The ACM code also is clear that ethical practices are the responsibility of all. Management should enact rules that require ethical practices – they “should pursue clearly defined organizational policies that are consistent with the Code and effectively communicate them to relevant stakeholders. In addition, leaders should encourage and reward compliance with those policies, and take appropriate action when policies are violated.” But also, the code puts the duty on employees, through individual or collective action, to follow ethical practices even if management has not discharged their duty – “rules that are judged unethical should be challenged”.

Courses of action discussed in the ACM code are not limited to just challenging rules, but also actively disrupting unethical practices – “consider challenging the rule through existing channels before violating the rule. A computing professional who decides to violate a rule because it is unethical, or for any other reason, must consider potential consequences and accept responsibility for that action”.

One specific example of such disruptive action is whistleblowing, which the code recognizes as a legitimate course of action in the right circumstances – “if leaders do not act to curtail or mitigate such risks, it may be necessary to ‘blow the whistle’ to reduce potential harm”. However, my one disappointment in the code is that such disclosures are restricted to being made only through the “appropriate authorities” even though such authorities are often ineffective at instituting organizational change or protecting whistleblowers.

Implementing ethical policies is not without cost, and when doing so runs against business opportunities, profit often wins. It is nevertheless helpful that the code suggests that “in cases where misuse or harm are predictable or unavoidable, the best option may be to not implement the system”. The UK banks currently saying they can’t prevent push-payment fraud, resulting in life-changing losses to their customers, would do well to consider this principle. The current situation, where customers are held liable despite taking a normal level of care, is not an ethical practice.

Overall, I think this code is helpful and I am impressed at the breadth and depth of thought that clearly went into it. The code is also timely, as practitioners are now discovering their power to disrupt unethical practices through collective action and could take advantage of being given the permission to do so. The next task will be how to support and encourage the adoption of ethical principles and counteract the powerful forces that run into conflict with their practice.

Will new UK rules reduce the harm of push-payment fraud?

On Friday’s Rip off Britain I’ll be talking about new attempts by UK banks to prevent fraud, and the upcoming scheme for reimbursing the victims. While these developments have the potential to better protect customers, the changes could equally leave customers in a more vulnerable situation than before. What will decide between these two extremes is how well designed will be the rules surrounding these new schemes.

The beginning of this story is September 2016, when the consumer association – Which? – submitted a super-complaint to the UK Payment System Regulator (PSR) regarding push payment fraud – where a customer is tricked into transferring money into a criminal’s account. Such bank transfers are known as push payments because they are initiated by the bank sending the money, as opposed to pull payments, like credit and debit cards, where it is the receiving bank that starts the process. Banks claim that since the customer was involved in the process, they “authorised” the transaction, and so under UK and EU law, the customer is not entitled to a refund. I’ve argued that this interpretation doesn’t match any reasonable definition of the word “authorised” but nevertheless the term “authorised push payment scams” seems to have stuck as the commonly used terminology for this type of fraud, I’m sure much to the banks’ delight.

The Which? super-complaint asked for banks to be held liable for such frauds, and so reimburse the victims unless the bank can demonstrate the customer has acted with gross negligence. Which? argued that this approach would protect the customers from a fraud that exists as a consequence of bank design decisions, and provides banks with both a short-term incentive to prevent frauds that they can stop, as well as a medium-to-long term incentive for the banks to enhance payment systems to be resistant to fraud. The response from the PSR was disappointing, recognising that banks should do more, but rejecting the recommendation to hold banks liable for this fraud and requesting only that the banks collect more data. Nevertheless, the data collected proved useful in understanding the scale of the problem – £236 million stolen from over 42,000 victims in 2017, with banks only being able to recover 26% of the losses. This revelation led to Parliament asking difficult questions of the PSR.

The PSR’s alternative to holding banks liable for push payment fraud is for victims to be reimbursed if they can demonstrate they have acted with an appropriate level of care and that the bank has not. The precise definition of each level of care was a subject of consultation, and will now be decided by a steering group consisting of representatives of the banking industry and consumers. In my response to this consultation, I explained my reasons for recommending that banks be liable for fraud, including that fairly deciding whether customers met a level of care is a process fraught with difficulties. This is particularly the case due to the inequality in power between a bank and its customer, and that taking a banking dispute to court is ruinously expensive for most people since the option of customers spreading the cost through collective actions was removed from the Financial Services Act. More generally, banks – as the designers of payment systems and having real-world understanding of their use – have the greatest capacity to mitigate the risks these systems introduce.

Nevertheless, if the rules for the reimbursement scheme are set up well, it would be a substantial improvement over the current situation. On the other hand, if the process is bad then it could entrench the worst of current practices. Because the PSR has decided that reimbursement should depend on compliance to a level of care, my response also included what should be the process for defining these levels, and for adjudicating disputes.

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Security code AutoFill: is this new iOS feature a security risk for online banking?

A new feature for iPhones in iOS 12 – Security Code AutoFill – is supposed to improve the usability of Two Factor Authentication but could place users at risk of falling victim to online banking fraud.

Two Factor Authentication (2FA), which is often referred to as Two Step Verification, is an essential element for many security systems, especially those online and accessed remotely. In most cases, it provides extended security by checking if the user has access to a device. In SMS-based 2FA, for example, a user registers their phone number with an online service. When this service sees a login attempt for the corresponding user account, it sends a One Time Password (OTP), e.g. four to six digits, to the registered phone number. The legitimate user then receives this code and is able to quote it during the login process, but an impersonator won’t.

In a recent development by Apple, announced at its developer conference WWDC18, they are set to automate this last step to improve user experience with 2FA with a new feature that is set to be introduced to iOS in version 12. The Security Code AutoFill feature, currently available to developers in a beta version, will allow the mobile device to scan incoming SMS messages for such codes and suggest them at the top of the default keyboard.

Description of new iOS 12 Security Code AutoFill feature (source: Apple)

Currently, these SMS codes rely on the user actively switching apps and memorising the code, which can take a couple of seconds. Some users deploy alternative try strategies such as memorising the code from the preview banner and hastily typing it down. Apple’s new iOS feature will require only a single tap from the user. This will make the login process faster and less error prone, a significant improvement to the usability of 2FA. It could also translate into an increased uptake of 2FA among iPhone users.

Example of Security Code AutoFill feature in operation on iPhone (source: Apple)

If users synchronise SMS with their MacBook or iMac, the existing Text Message Forwarding feature will push codes from their iPhone and enable Security Code AutoFill in Safari.

Example of Security Code AutoFill feature synchronised with macOS Mojave (source: Apple)

Reducing friction in user interaction to improve technology uptake for new users, and increase the usability and satisfaction for existing users, is not a new concept. It has not only been discussed in academia at length but is also a common goal within industry, e.g. in banking. This is evident in how the financial and payment industry has encouraged contactless (Near Field Communication – NFC) payments, which makes transactions below a certain threshold much quicker than traditional Chip and PIN payments.

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Improving the auditability of access to data requests

Data is increasingly collected and shared, with potential benefits for both individuals and society as a whole, but people cannot always be confident that their data will be shared and used appropriately. Decisions made with the help of sensitive data can greatly affect lives, so there is a need for ways to hold data processors accountable. This requires not only ways to audit these data processors, but also ways to verify that the reported results of an audit are accurate, while protecting the privacy of individuals whose data is involved.

We (Alexander Hicks, Vasilios Mavroudis, Mustafa Al-Basam, Sarah Meiklejohn and Steven Murdoch) present a system, VAMS, that allows individuals to check accesses to their sensitive personal data, enables auditors to detect violations of policy, and allows publicly verifiable and privacy-preserving statistics to be published. VAMS has been implemented twice, as a permissioned distributed ledger using Hyperledger Fabric and as a verifiable log-backed map using Trillian. The paper and the code are available.

Use cases and setting

Our work is motivated by two scenarios: controlling the access of law-enforcement personnel to communication records and controlling the access of healthcare professionals to medical data.

The UK Home Office states that 95% of serious and organized criminal cases make use of communications data. Annual reports published by the IOCCO (now under the IPCO name) provide some information about the request and use of communications data. There were over 750 000 requests for data in 2016, a portion of which were audited to provide the usage statistics and errors that can be found in the published report.

Not only is it important that requests are auditable, the requested data can also be used as evidence in legal proceedings. In this case, it is necessary to ensure the integrity of the data or to rely on representatives of data providers and expert witnesses, the latter being more expensive and requiring trust in third parties.

In the healthcare case, individuals usually consent for their GP or any medical professional they interact with to have access to relevant medical records, but may have concerns about the way their information is then used or shared.  The NHS regularly shares data with researchers or companies like DeepMind, sometimes in ways that may reduce the trust levels of individuals, despite the potential benefits to healthcare.

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Scanning beyond the horizon: long-term planning for cybersecurity and the post-quantum challenge

I recently came across an interesting white paper published by PwC, “A false sense of security? Cyber-security in the Middle East”. This paper is interesting for a number of reasons. Most obviously, I guess, it’s about an area of the world that’s a bit different from that of my immediate experience in the West and which faces many well-reported challenges. Indeed, it seems, as reported in the PwC paper, that companies and governments in the region suffer from more cyberattacks, resulting in bigger financial losses, than anywhere else in the world.

The paper confirms that many of the problems faced by companies and governments in the Middle East are, as of course one would expect, exactly those faced by their Western counterparts – too often, the cybersecurity industry responds to incidents in a fire-fighting style, rolling out patches in rushed knee-jerk reactions to imminent threats.

The way to counteract these problems is, of course, to train cybersecurity professionals who will be capable of making appropriate strategic and tactical investments in security and able to respond to respond better to attacks. All well and good, but there is global skills deficit in the cybersecurity industry and it seems that this problem is particularly acute in the Middle East;  and it seems to be a notable contributory factor to the problems experienced in the region. The problem needs some long-term thinking: in the average user, we need to encourage good security behaviours, which are learned over many years; in the security profession, we need to ensure that there is sufficient upcoming talent to fill our growing needs over the next century.

Exploring this topic a bit, I came across a company called SiConsult, a security services provider (with which I have no personal connection), with offices in the Middle East. They are taking an initiative, which provides students (or, indeed, anyone I think) with an interesting opportunity. They have been thinking about cryptography in the post-quantum world, and how to develop solutions and relevant expertise in the long term.

All public key cryptography as we currently know it may be rendered insecure by the deployment of quantum computers. Your Internet connection to the bank, the keys protecting your Dropbox, and your secure messaging applications will all be compromised. But a quantum computer that can run Shor’s algorithm, which means large numbers can be factorized in polynomial time, is still maybe ten years away (or five, or twenty, or … ). So why should we care now? Well, the consequences of losing the protection of good public-key crypto would be very serious and, consequently, NIST (the US’s National Institute of Standards and Technology) is running a process to standardize quantum-resistant algorithms. The first round of submissions has just closed, but we will have to wait until 2025 for draft standards, which could be too late for some use cases.

As a result of the process timeline, companies and academics are likely to search for their own solutions long before NIST standardizes theirs. SiConsult, the company I mentioned, is inviting students (or anyone else) develop a quantum-safe application messaging application, for a small prize – the Post Quantum Innovation Challenge. What is interesting is that the company’s motivation here is not purely financial – they are not looking to retain ownership of any designs or applications that may be submitted to the competition – but instead they are looking to spark interest in post-quantum cryptography, search for new cybersecurity talent, and encourage cybersecurity education, especially in the Middle East.

Initiatives like the Post Quantum Innovation Challenge are needed to energise those that may be considering a career in cyber security, to make sure that the talent pipeline is flowing well for years to come. Importantly, the barrier for entry to PQIC is relatively low: anyone with an interest in security should consider entering. Perhaps it will go a little of the way towards a solution to both the quantum and education long-term problems.

Thinking about fake news – As a security incident?

In Tristan and David’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Security and Privacy class, Jono gave a little information about incident response.  As a result, we have been thinking about the recent furor over fake news. There are some big questions circling this topic, and we’re going to try to focus on a part we have some competence in: what an understanding of fake news as a security incident can contribute to the wider debate. Our goal here is mostly to highlight some lessons from security research that should be applicable, so we can help constrain the solution space. Ultimately, any solution will need to engage with wider civil society.

The lessons we will argue for in the following are:

  • Solutions need to support the elector’s primary task. Education to avoid cognitive biases is not a short- or medium-term solution.
  • Focus on aligning the incentives of the media companies and the voters. Reduce the return on investment for the adversary.
  • Any blocking should be strategically useful, and not merely reactionary.

First, we want a more specific term, as well as a less charged one. Fake news includes politically or financially motivated stories presented as factual reports on the world that are fictional in material ways, and usually are intended to stir strong feelings. This definition is hardly complete. Furthermore, similar to the term “post-truth” as discussed by Jasanoff and Simmet, the term “fake news” makes several value judgement we’d like to avoid. “Fake news” carries a strong suggestion that we, the speakers, know what is true and what isn’t, and it also indicates some condescension by the speaker for anyone who believes an item of fake news. We want to avoid such insults. Instead, let’s say we want to focus on the following hypothetical security policy: democratic elections should be free from foreign interference.

Grounding out this policy definition hangs on the term “interference.” This is hard. Ultimately, the will of an elector in a free and fair election needs to be respected. This makes it particularly challenging to agree on constraints to what information an elector has access to. In practice, no elector is omniscient, so some constraints de facto exist. But weighing in on this issue is outside our competence. Let’s assume for now that public policy will provide an assessment of “interference” eventually. The UK recently announced a “dedicated national security communications unit” would be charged with “combating disinformation by state actors and others.” In France, Emmanuel Macron plans legislation to fight interference from foreign sources during elections. Various social media platforms have likewise announced attempted fixes, which means they have some functional definition of what “interference” they’re seeking to remove. Unfortunately, “none of the tech giants claim to be ready” for the November 2018 elections in the US.

Interference in elections is a type of information warfare. An appropriate security policy needs to assess the threat environment and the capabilities of the adversaries. In particular, the Russian Federation has been assessed as a highly motivated and well-resourced actor in this space. We should note that Russia, in turn, assesses the intent and capability of the USA similarly. Tools and tactics within information warfare, particularly disinformation campaigns, help define “interference” within our security policy.

In this context, what can the security research community recommend? Well, the main target of the disinformation campaign are usual citizens. They are targetable largely due to inherent cognitive biases in the way humans process and reason about information. In security terms, we could see these biases as vulnerabilities in the system. Classically, we have two options to secure the system: patch the vulnerability, or prevent the adversary from exploiting it by controlling or filtering the attack before it reaches the target.

Patch in this case would mean teaching people to avoid cognitive biases in their day-to-day reasoning. Psychology tells us this is hard. Intelligence analysts train for months or years for this. And the research in usable security has affirmed time and time again that the users are not the enemy. That is, the system must alleviate the burden on the user’s attention and not interfere with their primary task, or else the user will subvert or avoid the protections put in place. Any changes in user culture are slow. This leads us to lesson 1 on preventing disinformation campaigns for election interference: solutions need to support the elector’s primary task. Education to avoid cognitive biases is not a short-term or medium-term solution.

Controlling the attack vectors is more promising, although filtering them is not. A key aspect of any information security policy is aligning the economic incentives of the actors. Economics is a main reason why infosec is hard. It may not be easy to reorganize the incentives in the advertising and news distribution media space. However, as long as organizations profit from more clicks on an article no matter the content, there will be an incentive to drive viewers that is ultimately at cross-purposes with our security goal. Such misaligned incentives often swamp any technical security solutions. And any adversary with an economic incentive to attack usually will. Thus our second lesson: focus on aligning the incentives of the media companies and the voters; reduce the return on investment for the adversary. Exactly how to do these things will require future work.

There are huge issues about human rights and free speech for blocking access to information. However, the technical aspects of blacklisting are worth understanding before even attempting such human-rights debates. Blacklists of internet resources, such as domain names, IP addresses, or web pages, are useful. But they’re not a final solution. Whether blacklists move at the speed of national legislatures or are updated every five minutes, their main impact is to cause the adversary to move around.  Blacklists alone are not enough. We would need to look for suspiciously mobile resources (i.e. fast-flux), and eventually whitelist resources. Blacklists such as implemented by Facebook in response to Congress are helpful. But we should carefully consider how they drive the disinformation campaigns into a place we are better able to counteract them, and be sure we don’t make such campaigns harder to find instead. Lesson 3 is therefore that any blocking should be strategically useful, and not merely reactionary.

We’d be happy for further comments on fake news, disinformation campaigns that interfere with elections, lessons we’ve missed, disagreements about the value of security research to this topic, and other comments you might have! This is a wide open topic, and we’re still sounding it all out.