A selection of good papers from USENIX Security ’17

I have briefly talked about Adrienne’s and April’s talk at USENIX Security 2017, but I have not given much light to other papers and presentations that got my attention at the conference. I thought I should do a round up of good content for this conference, and if I can manage, go back to it later.

First of all, the full proceedings are available on the Program page of the conference. As usual, USENIX open access policy means that everybody has access to these proceedings, and since we’re talking academic papers, effectively everything I’m talking about is available to the public. I know that some videos were recorded, but I’m not sure when they will be published1.

Before I go into link you to interesting content and give brief comments on them, I would like to start with a complaint about academic papers. The proper name of the conference would be 26th USENIX Security Symposium, and it’s effectively an academic conference. This means that the content is all available in form of papers. These papers are written, as usual, in LaTeX, and available in 2-columns PDFs, as it is usual. Usual, but not practical. This is a perfect format to read the paper when doing so on actual paper. But the truth is that nowadays this content is almost exclusively read in digital form.

I would love to be able to have an ePub version of the various papersto just load on an ebook reader, for instance2. But even just providing a clear HTML file would be an improvement! When reading these PDFs on a screen, you end up having to zoom in and move around a freaking lot because of the column format, and more than once that would be enough for me to stop caring and not read the paper unless I really have interest in it, and I think this is counterproductive.

Since I already wrote about Measuring HTTPS Adoption on the Web, I should not go back to that particular presentation. Right after that one, though, Katharina Krombholz presented “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing” – On the Usability of Deploying HTTPS which was definitely interesting to show how complicated still is setting up HTTPS properly, without even going into further advanced features such as HPKP, CSP and similar.

And speaking of these, an old acquaintance of mine from university time3, Stefano Calzavara, presented CCSP: Controlled Relaxation of Content Security Policies by Runtime Policy Composition (my, what a mouthful!) and I really liked the idea. Effectively the idea behind this is that CSP is too complicated to use and is turning down a significant amount of people from implementing at least the basic parts of security policies. This fits very well with the previous talk, and with my experience. This blog currently depends on a few external resources and scripts, namely Google Analytics, Amazon OneLink, and Font Awesome, and I can’t really spend the time figuring out whether I can make all the changes all the time.

In the same session as Stefano, Iskander Sanchez-Rola presented Extension Breakdown: Security Analysis of Browsers Extension Resources Control Policies, which easily sounded familiar to me, as it overlaps and extends my own complaint back in 2013 that browser extensions were becoming the next source of entropy for fingerprinting, replacing plugins. Since we had dinner with Stefano, Iskander and Igor (co-author of the paper above), we managed to have quite a chat on the topic. I’m glad to see that my hunches back in the days was not completely off and that there is more interest in fixing this kind of problems nowadays.

Another interesting area to hear from was the Understanding the Mirai Botnet that revealed one very interesting bit of information: the attack on Dyn that caused a number of outages just last year appears to have as its target not the Dyn service itself but rather Sony PlayStation Network, and should thus be looked at in the light of the previous attacks to that. This should remind to everyone that just because you get something out personally from a certain attack, you should definitely not cheer on them; you may be the next target, even just as a bystander.

Now, not all the talks were exceptional. In particular, I found See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Feel No Evil, Print No Evil? Malicious Fill Patterns Detection in Additive Manufacturing a bit… hypy. In the sense that the whole premise of considering 3D-printed sourcing as trusted by default, and then figure out a minimal amount of validation seemed to be stemming from the crowd that has been insisting that 3D printing is the future, for the past ten years or so. While it clearly is interesting, and it has a huge amount of use for prototyping, one-off designs and even cosplay, it does not seem like it got as far as people kept thinking it would. And at least from the talk and skimming the paper I couldn’t find a good explanation of how it compares against “classic” manufacturing trust.

On a similar note I found not particularly enticing the out-of-band call verification system proposed by AuthentiCall: Efficient Identitiy and Content Authentication for Phone Calls which appears to leave out all the details of identity verification and trust system. And assumes a fairly North American point of view on the communication space.

Of course I was interested in the talk about mobile payments, Picking Up My Tab: Understanding and Mitigating Synchronized Token Lifting and Spending in Mobile Payment, given my previous foray into related topics. It was indeed good, although the final answer of adding a QR-code to do a two-way verification of who it is you’re going to pay sounds like a NIH implementation of the EMV protocol. It is worth it to read to figure out the absurd implementation of Magnetic Secure Transmission that is used in Samsung Pay implementation: spoilers, it implements magnetic stripe payments through a mobile phone.

For the less academic of you, TrustBase: An Architecture to Repair and Strengthen Certificate-based Authentication appears fairly interesting, particularly as the source code is available. The idea is to move the implementation of SSL clients into an operating system service, rather than into libraries, so that it can be configured once and for all at the system level, including selecting the available cipher to use and the Authorities to trust. It sounds good, but at the same time it sounds a lot like what NSS (the Mozilla one, not the glibc one) tried to implement. Except that didn’t go anywhere, not just because of API differences.

But it can’t be an interesting post (or conference) without a bit of controversy. A Longitudinal, End-to-End View of the DNSSEC Ecosystem has been an interesting talk, and one that once again confirmed the fears around the lack of proper DNSSEC support in the wild right now. But in that very same talk, the presenter pointed out how they used a service Luminati to get access to endpoints within major ISPs networks to test their DNSSEC resolution. While I understand why a similar service would be useful in these circumstances, I need to remind people that the Luminati service is not one of the good guys!

Indeed, Luminati is described as allowing you to request access to connections following certain characteristics. What it omits to say, is that it does so by targeting connections of users who installed the Hola “VPN” tool. If you haven’t come across this, Hola is one of the many extensions that allowed users to appear as if connecting from a different country to fool Netflix and other streaming services. Beside being against terms of services (but who cares, right?), in 2015 Hola was found to be compromising its users. In particular, the users running Hola are running the equivalent of a Tor exit node, without any of the security measures to protect its users, and – because its target is non-expert users who are trying to watch content not legally available in their country – without a good understanding of what such an exit node allows.

I cannot confirm whether currently they still allow access to the full local network to the users of the “commercial” service, which include router configuration pages (cough DNS hijacking cough), and local office LANs that are usually trusted more than they should be. But it gives you quite an idea, as that was clearly the case before.

So here is my personal set of opinions and a number of pointers to good and interesting talks and papers. I just wish they would be more usable by the non-academics by not being forced only in LaTeX format, but I’m afraid the two worlds shall never meet enough.


  1. As it turns out you can blame me a little bit for this part, I promised to help out.
    [return]
  2. Thankfully, for USENIX conferences, the full proceedings are available as ePub and Mobi. Although the size is big enough that you can’t use the mail-to-Kindle feature.
    [return]
  3. All the two weeks I managed to stay in it.
    [return]

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