Resolving disputes through computer evidence: lessons from the Post Office Trial

On Monday, the final judgement in the Post Office trial was handed down, finding in favour of the claimants on all counts. The outcome will be of particular interest to the group of 587 claimants who brought the case against Post Office Limited, but the judgement also illustrates problems handling evidence generated by computers that have much broader applicability. I think this trial demonstrates that the way such disputes are resolved is not fit for purpose and that changes are needed in both in how computers generate evidence and how such evidence is reasoned about in litigation.

This case centres around disputes between Post Office Limited and sub-postmasters who operate Post Office branches on its behalf. Post Office Limited supplies these sub-postmasters with products to sell, and the computer accounting system – Horizon – for managing the branch. The claimants contend that shortfalls between the money that was in their branch and what Horizon says result from bugs in Horizon or someone maliciously accessing it. The Post Office instead claims that the shortfalls are real, and it is the responsibility of the sub-postmaster to reimburse the Post Office.

Such disputes have resulted in sub-postmasters being bankrupted, and others have even been jailed because the Post Office contends that evidence produced by Horizon demonstrates fraud by the sub-postmaster. The judgement vindicates the sub-postmasters, concluding that Horizon “was not remotely robust”.

This trial is actually the second in this case, with the prior one also finding in favour of the sub-postmasters – that the contractual terms set by Post Office regarding how they investigate and handle shortfalls are unfair. There would have been at least two more trials, had the parties not settled last week with Post Office Limited offering an apology and £58m in compensation. Of this, the vast majority will go towards legal costs and to the fund which bankrolled the litigation – leaving claimants lucky to get much more than £10k on average. Disappointing, sure, but better than nothing and that is what they could have got had the trials and inevitable appeals continued.

As would be expected for a trial depending on highly technical arguments, expert evidence featured heavily. The Post Office expert took a quantitative approach, presenting a statistical argument that claimant’s losses were implausibly high. This argument went by making a rough approximation as to the total losses of all sub-postmasters resulting from bugs in Horizon. Then, by assuming that these losses were spread over all sub-postmasters equally, losses by the 587 claimants would be no more than £25,000 – far less than the £18.7 million claimed. On this basis, the Post Office said that it is implausible for Horizon bugs to be the cause of the losses, and instead they are the fault of the affected sub-postmasters.

This argument is fundamentally flawed; I said so at the time, as did others. The claimant group was selected specifically as people who thought they were victims of Horizon bugs so it’s quite reasonable to think this group might indeed be disproportionally affected by Horizon bugs. The judge agreed, saying, “The group has a bias, in statistical terms. They plainly cannot be treated, in statistical terms, as though they are a random group of 587 [sub-postmasters]”. This error can be corrected, but the argument becomes circular and a statistical approach adds little new information. As the judgement concludes, “probability theory only takes one so far in this case, and that is not very far”.

Continue reading Resolving disputes through computer evidence: lessons from the Post Office Trial

We’re fighting the good fight, but are we making full use of the armoury?

In this post, we reflect on the current state of cybersecurity and the fight against cybercrime, and identify, we believe, one of the most significant drawbacks Information Security is facing. We argue that what is needed is a new, complementary research direction towards improving systems security and cybercrime mitigation, which combines the technical knowledge and insights gained from Information Security with the theoretical models and systematic frameworks from Environmental Criminology. For the full details, you can read our paper – “Bridging Information Security and Environmental Criminology Research to Better Mitigate Cybercrime.”

The fight against cybercrime is a long and arduous one. Not a day goes by without us hearing (at an increasingly alarming rate) the latest flurry of cyber attacks, malware operations, (not so) newly discovered vulnerabilities being exploited, and the odd sprinkling of a high-profile victim or a widely-used service being compromised by cybercriminals.

A burden borne for too long?

Today, the topic of security and cybercrime is one that is prominent in a number of circles and fields of research (e.g., crime science and criminology, law, sociology, economics, policy, policing), not to talk of wider society. However, for the best part of the last half-century, the burden of understanding and mitigating cybercrime, and improving systems security has been predominantly borne by information security researchers and computer engineers. Of course, this is entirely reasonable. As circumstances had long dictated, the exponential penetration and growth in the capability of digital technologies co-dependently brought the opportunity for malicious exploitation, and, alongside it, the need to combat and prevent such malicious activities. Enter the arms race.

However, and potentially the biggest downside to holding this solitary responsibility for so long, the traditional, InfoSec approach to security and cybercrime prevention has leaned heavily towards the technical side of this mantle: discovering vulnerabilities, creating patches, redefining secure software design (e.g., STRIDE), conceptualising threat models for technical systems, and developing technologies to detect, prevent, and/or counter these threats. But, with the threat landscape of today, is this enough?

Taking stock

Make no mistake, it is clear that such technical skill-sets and innovations that abound and are produced from information security are invaluable in keeping up with similarly skilled and innovative cybercriminals. Unfortunately, however, one may find that such approaches to security and preventing cybercrime are generally applied in an ad hoc manner and lacking systemic structure, with, on the other hand, focus being constantly drawn towards the “top” vulnerabilities (e.g., OWASP’s Top 10) as opposed to “less important” ones (which are just as capable in enabling a compromise), or focus on the most recent wave of cyber threats as opposed to those only occurring a few years ago (e.g., the Mirai botnet and its variants, which have been active as far back as 2016, but are seemingly now on the back burner of priorities).

How much thought, can we say, is being directed towards understanding the operational aspects of cybercrime – the journey of the cybercriminal, so to speak, and their opportunity framework? Patching vulnerabilities and taking down botnets are indeed important, but how much attention is placed on understanding criminal displacement and adaptation: the shift of criminal activity from one form to another, or the adaptation of cybercriminals (and even the victims, targets, and other stakeholders), in reaction to new countermeasures? Are system designers taking the necessary steps to minimise the attack surfaces effectively, considering all techniques available to them? Is it enough to look a problem at face value, develop a state-of-the-art detection system, and move on to the next one? We believe much more can and should be done.

Continue reading We’re fighting the good fight, but are we making full use of the armoury?

UK Parliament on protecting consumers from economic crime

On Friday, the UK House of Commons Treasury Committee published their report on the consumer perspective of economic crime. I’ve frequently addressed this topic in my research, as well as here on Bentham’s Gaze, so I’m pleased to see several recommendations of the committee match what myself and colleagues have proposed. In other respects, the report could have gone further, so as well as discussing the positive aspects of the report, I would also like to suggest what more could be done to reduce economic crime and protect its victims.

Irrevocable payments are the wrong default

Transfers between UK bank accounts will generally use the Faster Payment System (FPS), where money will immediately show up in the recipient account. FPS transfers cannot be revoked, even in the case of fraud. This characteristic protects banks because if fraudulently obtained funds leave the banking system, the bank receiving the transfer has no obligation to reimburse the victim.

In contrast, the clearing system for paper cheques permits payments to be revoked for a few days after the funds appeared in the recipient account, should there have been a fraud. This period allows customers to quickly make use of funds they receive, while still giving a window of opportunity for banks and customers to identify and prevent fraud. There’s no reason why this same revocation window could not be applied to fully electronic payment systems like FPS.

In my submissions to consultations on how to prevent push payment scams, I argued that irrevocable payments are the wrong default, and transfers should be possible to reverse in cases of fraud. The same argument applies to consumer-oriented cryptocurrencies like Libra. I’m pleased to see that the Treasury Committee agrees and they have recommended that when a customer sends money to an account for the first time, that transfer be revocable for 24 hours.

Introducing Confirmation of Payee, finally

The banking industry has been planning on launching the Confirmation of Payee system to check if the name of the recipient of a transfer matches what the customer sending money thinks. The committee is clearly frustrated with delays on deploying this system, first promised for September 2018 but since slipped to March 2020. Confirmation of Payee will be a helpful tool for customers to help avoid certain frauds. Still, I’m pleased the committee also recognise it’s limitations and that the “onus will always be on financial firms to develop further methods and technologies to keep up with fraudsters.” It is for this reason that I argued that a bank showing a customer a Confirmation of Payee mismatch should not be a sufficient condition to hold customers liable for fraud, and the push-payment scam reimbursement scheme is wrong to do so. It doesn’t look like the committee is asking for the situation to be changed though.

Continue reading UK Parliament on protecting consumers from economic crime

Forcing phone companies to secure SMS authentication would cause more harm than good

Food-writer and campaigner, Jack Monroe, has become the latest high-profile victim of a SIM-swap scam, losing over £5,000 from both her PayPal and bank accounts to a criminal who intercepted SMS authentication codes. The Payment Services Directive requires that fraud victims get their money back, but banks act slowly and sometimes push the blame onto the victims. When (as I hope it will) the money does eventually get reimbursed, she’s still unlikely to get compensation for any consequential losses, nor for the upset caused. It’s no surprise that this experience has been stressful for Jack, as it would be for most people in her situation.

I am, of course, very sympathetic to victims of SIM-swap fraud and recognise the substantial financial costs, as well as the sense of violation that results. Naturally, fingers are being pointed at the phone companies and followed up with calls for them to do better identity checks before transferring a phone number to a new SIM card. I think this isn’t entirely fair. The real problem is that banks and other payment service providers have outsourced authentication to phone companies, without ensuring that the level of security is appropriate for the sums of money at risk. Banks could have chosen to distribute authentication devices and find a secure way to re-issue ones that are lost. Instead, they have pushed this task to unwitting phone companies, and leave their customers to pick up the pieces when things go wrong, so don’t have an incentive to do better.

More secure SMS authentication

But what if phone companies did do a better job at handing out replacement SIM cards? Maybe the government could push them into doing so, or the phone companies might just get fed up with the bad press. Phone companies could, in principle, set up a process for re-issuing SIM cards which would meet the highest standards of the banking industry. Let’s put aside the issue that SMS was never designed to be secure, and that these processes would put up the cost of phone bills – would it fix the problem? I would argue that it does not. Processes good enough for banking authentication could lock people out of receiving phone calls, and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable members of society.

Continue reading Forcing phone companies to secure SMS authentication would cause more harm than good

Confirmation of Payee is coming, but will it protect bank customers from fraud?

The Payment System Regulator (PSR) has just announced that the UK’s six largest banks must check whether the name of the recipient of a transfer matches what the sender thinks. This new feature should help address a security loophole in online payments: the name of the recipient of transfers is ignored, contrary to expectations and unlike cheques. This improved security should make some fraud more difficult, but banks must be prevented from exploiting the change to unfairly shift the liability of the remaining crime to the victims.

The PSR’s target is for checks to be fully implemented by March 2020, somewhat later than their initial promise to Parliament of September 2018 and subsequent target of July 2019. The new proposal, known as Confirmation of Payee, also only covers the six largest banking groups, but this should cover 90% of transfers. Its goal is to defend against criminals who trick victims into transferring funds under the false pretence that the money is going to the victim’s new account, whereas it is really going to the criminal. The losses from such fraud, known as push payment scams, are often life-changing, resulting in misery for the victims.

Checks on the recipient name will make this particular scam harder, so while unlikely to prevent all types of push payment scams they will hopefully force criminals to adopt strategies that are easier to prevent. The risk that consumer representatives and regulators will need to watch out for is that these new security measures could result in victims being unfairly held liable. This scenario is, unfortunately, likely because the voluntary consumer protection code for push payment scams excuses the bank from liability if they show the customer a Confirmation of Payee warning.

Warning fatigue and misaligned incentives

In my response to the consultation over this consumer protection code, I raised the issue of “warning fatigue” – that customers will be shown many irrelevant warnings while they do online banking and this reduces the likelihood that customers will notice important ones. Even Confirmation of Payee warnings will frequently be wrong, such as if the recipient’s bank account is under a different name to what the sender expects. If the two names are very dissimilar, the sender won’t be given more details but if the name entered is close to the name in bank records the sender should be told what the correct one is and asked to compare.

Continue reading Confirmation of Payee is coming, but will it protect bank customers from fraud?

Will dispute resolution be Libra’s Achilles’ heel?

Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, Libra, has the ambitious goal of being the “financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people”. This aspiration will only be achievable if the user-experience (UX) of Libra and associated technologies is competitive with existing payment channels. Now, Facebook has an excellent track record of building high-quality websites and mobile applications, but good UX goes further than just having an aesthetically pleasing and fast user interface. We can already see aspects of Libra’s design that will have consequences on the experience of its users making payments.

For example, the basket of assets that underly the Libra currency should ensure that its value should not be too volatile in terms of the currencies represented within the reserve, so easing international payments. However, Libra’s value will fluctuate against every other currency, creating a challenge for domestic payments. People won’t be paid their salary in Libra any time soon, nor will rents be denominated in Libra. If the public is expected to hold significant value in Libra, fluctuations in the currency markets could make the difference between someone being able to pay their rent or not – a certainly unwelcome user experience.

Whether the public will consider the advantages of Libra are worth the exposure to the foibles of market fluctuations is an open question, but in this post, I’m mostly going to discuss the consequences another design decision baked into the design of Libra: that transactions are irrevocable. Once a transaction is accepted by the validator network, the user may proceed “knowing that the transaction can never be changed or reversed“. This is a common design decision within cryptocurrencies because it ensures that companies, governments and regulators should be unable to revoke payments they dislike. When coupled with anonymity or decentralisation, to prevent blacklisted transactions being blocked beforehand, irrevocability creates a censorship-resistant payment system.

Mitigating the cost of irrevocable transactions

Libra isn’t decentralised, nor is it anonymous, so it is unlikely to be particularly resistant to censorship over matters when there is an international consensus. Irrevocability does, however, make fraud easier because once stolen funds are gone, they cannot be reinstated, even if the fraud is identified. Other cryptocurrencies share Libra’s irrevocability (at least in theory), but they are designed for technically sophisticated users, and their risk of theft can be balanced against the potentially substantial gains (and losses) that can be made from volatile cryptocurrencies. While irrevocability is common within cryptocurrencies, it is not within the broader payments industry. Exposing billions of people to the risk of their Libra holdings being stolen, without the potential for recourse, isn’t good UX. I’ve argued that irrevocable transactions protect the interests of financial institutions over those of the public, and are the wrong default for payments. Eventually, public pressure and regulatory intervention forced UK banks to revoke fraudulent transactions, and they take on the risk that they are unable to do so, rather than pass it onto the victims. The same argument applies to Libra, and if fraud becomes common, they will see the same pressures as UK banks.

Continue reading Will dispute resolution be Libra’s Achilles’ heel?

Digital Exclusion and Fraud – the Dark Side of Payments Authentication

Today, the Which? consumer rights organisation released the results from its study of how people are excluded from financial services as a result of banks changing their rules to mandate that customers use new technology. The research particularly focuses on banks now requiring that customers register a mobile phone number and be able to receive security codes in SMS messages while doing online banking or shopping. Not only does this change result in digital exclusion – customers without mobile phones or good network coverage will struggle to make payments – but as I discuss in this post, it’s also bad for security.

SMS-based security codes are being introduced to help banks meet their September 2019 deadline to comply with the Strong Customer Authentication requirements of the EU Payment Services Directive 2. These rules state that before making a payment from a customer’s account, the bank must independently verify that the customer really intended to make this payment. UK banks almost universally have decided to meet their obligation by sending a security code in an SMS message to the customer’s mobile phone and asking the customer to type this code into their web browser.

The problem that Which? identified is that some customers don’t have mobile phones, some that do have mobile phones don’t trust their bank with the number, and even those who are willing to share their mobile phone number with the bank might not have network coverage when they need to make a payment. A survey of Which? members found that nearly 1 in 5 said they would struggle to receive the security code they need to perform online banking transactions or online card payments. Remote locations have poorer network coverage than average and it is these areas that are likely to be disproportionately affected by the ongoing bank branch closure programmes.

Outsourcing security

The aspect of this scenario that I’m particularly interested in is why banks chose SMS messages as a security technology in the first place, rather than say sending out dedicated authentication devices to their customers or making a smartphone app. SMS has the advantage that customers don’t need to install an app or have the inconvenience of having to carry around an extra authentication device. The bank also saves the cost of setting up new infrastructure, other than hooking up their payment systems to the phone network. However, SMS has disadvantages – not only does it exclude customers in areas of poor network coverage, but it also effectively outsources security from the bank to the phone networks.

Continue reading Digital Exclusion and Fraud – the Dark Side of Payments Authentication

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.

Continue reading UK Faster Payment System Prompts Changes to Fraud Regulation

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.

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

Incentives in Security Protocols

The 2018 edition of the International Security Protocols Workshop took place last week. The theme this year was “fail-safe and fail-deadly concepts in protocol design”.

One common theme at this year’s workshop is that of threat models and incentives, which is covered by the majority of accepted papers. One of these is our (Sarah Azouvi, Alexander Hicks and Steven Murdoch) submission – Incentives in Security Protocols. The aim of the paper is to discuss how incentives can be considered and incorporated in the security of systems. In line with the given theme, the focus is on fail-safe and fail-deadly cases which we look at for the cases of the EMV protocol, consensus in cryptocurrencies, and non-economic systems such as Tor. This post will summarise the main ideas laid out in the paper.

Fail safe, fail deadly and people

Systems can fail, which requires some thought by system designers to account for these failures. From this setting comes the idea behind fail safe protocols which are such that even if the protocol fails, the failure can be dealt with or the protocol can be aborted to limit damage. The idea of a fail deadly setting is an extension of this where failure is defended against through deterrence, as in the case of nuclear deterrence (sometimes a realistic case).

Human input often plays a role in the use of the system, particularly when decisions are required as in fail safe and fail deadly instances. These decisions are then made according to incentives which can aligned to make the system robust to failure. For a fail deadly alignment, this means that a person in position to prevent system failure will be harmed by the failure. In the fail safe case, the innocent parties should be protected from the consequences of system failure. The two concepts are really two sides of the same coin that assigns liability.

It is often said that people are the weakest link in security, but that is an easy excuse for broken protocols. If security incentives are aligned properly, then humans are the strongest link.

The EMV protocol, adding incentives after the fact

As a first example, we consider the case of the EMV protocol, which is used for the majority of smart card payments worldwide, as well as smartphone and card-based contactless payment. Over the years, many vulnerabilities have been identified and removed. Fraud still exists however, due not to unexpected protocol vulnerabilities but to decisions made by banks (e.g., omitting the ability for cards to produce digital signatures), merchants (e.g., omitting PIN verification) and payment networks not sending transactions details back to banks. These are intentional choices, aiming to saves costs and cut transaction times but make fraud harder to detect.

Continue reading Incentives in Security Protocols