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Seeing as this is ostensibly a crypto blog, I'd like to comment on a paper from earlier this year: It's no secret-- Measuring the security and reliability of authentication via 'secret' questions, by Stuart Schechter, A. J. Bernheim Brush, and Serge Egelman. This paper looks at the security of 'security questions': those questions about yourself you have to answer to get back into an account when you've forgotten your password. And (shock! surprise!) they find that this sort of mechanism generally sucks from a security point of view-- perhaps even more than passwords do.

Between my trip to CCS last month and my employer's internal security-focused reading-group, I've been exposed to quite a bit of recent research in the area of computer security recently. Much of it has been highly technical, of course, but after a while it has sparked some very general observations about the field. Over the next few posts, I'd like to review some of the more accessible papers and use them to motivate some of those observations. In this post: why I am so frustrated by the field of academic cryptography.

English Shellcode

26 Dec 2009

Quick: what is the following text about?

... the result of the collapse of large portions of the three provinces to have a syntax which can be found in the case of Canada and the UK, for the carriage of goods were no doubt first considered by the British, and the government, and the Soviet Union operated on the basis that they were...

Give up? It's about pwning your computer, actually. That's not 'real' English text, there, but a cleverly-disguised attack on your computer.

For ten days at the beginning of 2009, a team of computer-security researchers managed to take control of a live, real-world, criminal botnet. Over those days, they observed (and recorded) the botnet harvest over 70GB of stolen data (password, bank-account number, etc.) from almost two hundred thousand subverted machines. Why did they do this? Simple curiosity, probably. But that's not nearly as interesting as how they did it, what they found, and what this means about the field of computer security.

I have no idea how this paper came about, but I'm glad it did. The first author is a computer-science professor at Cambridge University specializing in privacy and systems security. The second author is a professional scam artist and stage magician who demonstrates real-world scams on unsuspecting victims as part of a BBC television show. Together, they fight crime!