# Collective Information Security in Large-Scale Urban Protests: the Case of Hong Kong

Our work – with Jorge Blasco, Rikke Bjerg Jensen and Lenka Mareková – on the use of digital communication technologies in large-scale protests in Hong Kong was accepted at USENIX ’21. A pre-print is available on arXiv. Here’s the abstract:

The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests in Hong Kong present a rich context for exploring information security practices among protesters due to their large-scale urban setting and highly digitalised nature. We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 11 participants of these protests. Research findings reveal how protesters favoured Telegram and relied on its security for internal communication and organisation of on-the-ground collective action; were organised in small private groups and large public groups to enable collective action; adopted tactics and technologies that enable pseudonymity; and developed a variety of strategies to detect compromises and to achieve forms of forward secrecy and post-compromise security when group members were (presumed) arrested. We further show how group administrators had assumed the roles of leaders in these ‘leaderless’ protests and were critical to collective protest efforts.

Our work can be seen in the tradition of “Can Johnny Build a Protocol? Co-ordinating developer and user intentions for privacy-enhanced secure messaging protocols” which documented the divergence of what higher-risk users – such as those in conflict with the authorities of a nation state – need and want and what secure messaging developers design for. This divergence is noteworthy because “human-rights activists” are a common point of reference in discussions around secure messaging.

However, our focus is not activists but participants in large-scale protests, i.e. our focus is more closely tied to specific needs in moments of heightened conflict, confrontation and mass mobilisation. In particular, we interviewed people who were in some shape or form involved in the Anti-ELAB protests in Hong Kong in 2019/2020. Several of our participants described themselves as “frontliners” which roughly means they were present in areas where direct confrontations with law enforcement took place.

As the title suggests our data speaks to how security needs and practices in this population are collective in nature: how decisions about security are made, what security features are deemed important, how people learn to understand security technologies. As an example take post-compromise security and forward secrecy:

# Round-optimal Verifiable Oblivious Pseudorandom Functions from Ideal Lattices

PKC’21 is nearly upon us which – in this day and age – means a new YouTube playlist of talks. Eamonn and Fernando wrote a nice paper on on the success probability of solving unique SVP via BKZ which Fernando is describing here:

Alex is presenting our – with Amit and Nigel – work on round-optimal Verifiable Oblivious PseudoRandom Functions (VOPRF) from ideal lattices here:

Since Alex is doing an amazing job at walking you through our paper I won’t attempt this here. Rather, let me point out a – in my book – cute trick in one of our appendices that may have applications elsewhere.

# On BDD with Predicate: Breaking the “Lattice Barrier” for the Hidden Number Problem

Nadia and I put our pre-print and our source code online for solving bounded distance decoding when augmented with some predicate $f(\cdot)$ that evaluates to true on the target and false (almost) everywhere else. Here’s the abstract:

Lattice-based algorithms in cryptanalysis often search for a target vector satisfying integer linear constraints as a shortest or closest vector in some lattice. In this work, we observe that these formulations may discard non-linear information from the underlying application that can be used to distinguish the target vector even when it is far from being uniquely close or short.

We formalize lattice problems augmented with a predicate distinguishing a target vector and give algorithms for solving instances of these problems. We apply our techniques to lattice-based approaches for solving the Hidden Number Problem, a popular technique for recovering secret DSA or ECDSA keys in side-channel attacks, and demonstrate that our algorithms succeed in recovering the signing key for instances that were previously believed to be unsolvable using lattice approaches. We carried out extensive experiments using our estimation and solving framework, which we also make available with this work.

# Multicore BKZ in FPLLL

There have been a few works recently that give FPLLL a hard time when considering parallelism on multicore systems. That is, they compare FPLLL’s single-core implementation against their multi-core implementations, which is fair enough. However, support for parallel enumeration has existed for a while in the form of fplll-extenum. Motivated by these works we merged that library into FPLLL itself a year ago. However, we didn’t document the multicore performance that this gives us. So here we go.

I ran

for t in 1 2 4 8; do
./compare.py -j  $(expr 28 /$t)  -t \$t -s 512 -u 80 ./fplll/strategies/default.json
done


where compare.py is from the strategizer and default.json is from a PR against FPLLL. Note that these strategies were not optimised for multicore performance. I ran this on a system with two Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E5-2690 v4 @ 2.60GHz i.e. 28 cores. The resulting speed-ups are:

As you can see, the speed-up is okay for two cores but diminishes as we throw more cores at the problem. I assume that this is partly due to block sizes being relatively small (for larger block sizes G6K – which scales rather well on multiple cores – will be faster). I also suspect that this is partly an artefact of not optimising for multiple cores, i.e. picking the trade-off between enumeration (multicore) and preprocessing (partly single-core due to LLL calls) right. If someone wants to step up and compute some strategies for multiple cores, that’d be neat.

# Virtual FPLLL Days 6 aka Bounded Distance Development

The sixth FPLLL Days will be held on 19 and 20 November 2020. For obvious reasons they will be held online. (Who knows, we might end up liking the format enough to do more of these online in a post-COVID world, too).

As with previous incarnations of FPLLL Days, everyone who wishes to contribute to open-source lattice-reduction software is welcome to attend. In particular, you do not have to work on FPLLL or any of its sibling projects like FPyLLL or G6K. Work on whatever advances the state of the art or seems useful to you personally. That said, we do have the ambition to suggest projects from the universe of FPLLL and I personally hope that some people will dig in with me to do the sort of plumbing that keeps projects like these running. To give you an idea of what people worked on in the past, you can find the list of project of the previous FPLLL Days on the wiki and a report on the PROMETHEUS blog.

Format is yet to be determined. We are going to coordinate using Zulip. I think it would also be useful to have a brief conference call, roll call style, on the first day to break the ice and to make it easier for people to reach out to each other for help during the event. This is why we’re asking people to indicate their timezone on the Wiki. If you have ideas for making this event a success, please let us know.

PS: For the record: Joe threatened a riot if I didn’t call it “Bounded Distance Development”, so credit goes to him for the name.

# Postdoc at Royal Holloway on Lattice-based Cryptography

I’m looking for a postdoc to work with me and others – in the ISG and at Imperial College – on lattice-based cryptography and, ideally, its connections to coding theory.

The ISG is a nice place to work; it’s a friendly environment with strong research going on in several areas. We got people working across the field of information security including several people working on cryptography. For example, Carlos Cid, Anamaria Costache, Lydia Garms, Jianwei Li, Sean Murphy, Rachel Player, Eamonn Postlethwaite, Joe Rowell, Fernando Virdia and me all have looked at or are looking at lattice-based cryptography.

A postdoc here is a 100% research position, i.e. you wouldn’t have teaching duties. That said, if you’d like to gain some teaching experience, we can arrange for that as well.

If you have e.g. a two-body problem and would like to discuss flexibility about being in the office (assuming we’ll all be back in the office at some post-covid19 point), feel free to get in touch.

# Mesh Messaging in Large-scale Protests: Breaking Bridgefy

Together with Jorge Blasco, Rikke Bjerg Jensen and Lenka Marekova we have studied the security of the Bridgefy mesh messaging application. This work was motivated by (social) media reports that this application was or is used by participants in large-scale protests in anticipation of or in response to government-mandated Internet shutdowns (or simply because the network infrastructure cannot handle as many devices at the same time as there are during such large protests). The first reports were about Hong Kong, later reports were then about India, Iran, US, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Thailand (typically referencing Hong Kong as an inspiration). In such a situation, mesh networking seems promising: a network is spanned between participants’ phones to create an ad-hoc local network to route messages.

Now, Bridgefy wasn’t designed with this use-case in mind. Rather, its designers had large sports events or natural disasters in mind. Leaving aside the discussion here if those use-cases too warrant a secure-by-default design, we had reason to suspect that the security offered by Bridgefy might not match the expectation of those who might rely on it.

Indeed, we found a series of vulnerabilities in Bridgefy. Our results show that Bridgefy currently permits its users to be tracked, offers no authenticity, no effective confidentiality protections and lacks resilience against adversarially crafted messages. We verify these vulnerabilities by demonstrating a series of practical attacks on Bridgefy. Thus, if protesters rely on Bridgefy, an adversary can produce social graphs about them, read their messages, impersonate anyone to anyone and shut down the entire network with a single maliciously crafted message. For a good overview, see Dan Goodin’s article on our work at Ars Technica.

We disclosed these vulnerabilities to the Bridgefy developers in April 2020 and agreed on a public disclosure date of 20 August 2020. Starting from 1 June 2020, the Bridgefy team began warning their users that they should not expect confidentiality guarantees from the current version of the application.

Let me stress, however, that, as of 24 August, Bridgefy has not been patched to fix these vulnerabilities and thus that these vulnerabilities are present in the currently deployed version. The developers are currently implementing/testing a switch to the Signal protocol to provide cryptographic assurances in their SDK. This switch, if done correctly, would rule out many of the attacks described in our work. They hope to have this fix deployed soon.

# What does “secure” mean in Information Security?

This is text – written by Rikke Jensen and me – first appeared in the ISG Newsletter 2019/2020 under the title “What is Information Security?”. I’ve added a few links to this version.

The most fundamental task in information security is to establish what we mean by (information) security.

A possible answer to this question is given in countless LinkedIn posts, thought-leader blog entries and industry white papers: Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability. Since the vacuity of the “CIA Triad” is covered in the first lecture of the Security Management module of our MSc, we will assume our readers are familiar with it and will avoid this non-starter. Let us consider the matter more closely.

One subfield of information security that takes great care in tending to its definitions is cryptography. For example, Katz and Lindell write: “A key intellectual contribution of modern cryptography has been the recognition that formal definitions of security are an essential first step in the design of any cryptographic primitive or protocol”. Indeed, finding the correct security definition for a cryptographic primitive or protocol is a critical part of cryptographic work. That these definitions can be non-intuitive yet correct is made acutely apparent when asking students in class to come up with ideas of what it could mean for a block cipher to be secure. They never arrive at PRP security but propose security notions that are, well, broken.

Fine, we can grant cryptography that it knows how to define what a secure block cipher is. That is, we can know what is meant by it being secure, but does that imply that we are? Cryptographic security notions – and everything that depends on them – do not exist in a vacuum, they have reasons to be. While the immediate objects of cryptography are not social relations, it presumes and models them. This fact is readily acknowledged in the introductions of cryptographic papers where authors illustrate the utility of their proposed constructions by reference to some social situation where several parties have conflicting ends but a need or desire to interact. Yet, this part of the definitional work has not received the same rigour from the cryptographic community as complexity-theoretic and mathematical questions. For example, Goldreich writes: “The foundations of cryptography are the paradigms, approaches, and techniques used to conceptualize, define, and provide solutions to natural ‘security concerns’ ”. Following Blanchette we may ask back: “How does one identify such ‘natural security concerns’? On these questions, the literature remains silent”.

# Cryptographic Security Proofs as Dynamic Malware Analysis

This is text first appeared in the ISG Newsletter 2019/2020. I’ve added a bunch of links to this version.