Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Cybercrime deterrence begins with metrics

The importance of metrics to crime deterrence would appear to be both critical and obvious and yet there is clearly a large cybercrime metrics gap: official statistics about crimes committed in cyberspace seem scarce relative to those documenting the incidence and impact of traditional or “meatspace” crimes. 

I have been talking about the cybercrime metrics problem for many years, notably at Virus Bulletin in 2015 (you can find my paper, a video of my talk, and my slides here: Sizing cybercrime: incidents and accidents, hints and allegations). 

More recently, namely Q3 of 2019, I wrote a law review article titled Advancing Accurate and Objective Cybercrime Metrics (publication pending). I did this as part of the Third Way Cyber Enforcement Initiative, an impressive effort to bring together an inter-disciplinary group of experts to develop ways forward on the cybercrime problem. This has already produced results, an excellent summary of input on The Need for Better Metrics on Cybercrime, from Third Way Policy Advisor, Ishan Mehta.

My paper for this project situates the efforts needed to obtain accurate and objective cybercrime metrics within the broader work of reforming traditional crime reporting which currently fails to meet the needs of information-based criminal policy. With a case study of identity theft, the paper illustrates disparities between current government and private-sector metrics while highlighting the importance of timely metrics to the work of countering rapidly evolving cybercrimes. After reviewing promising ways forward already developed by a range of experts, the paper concludes that meaningful action to improve crime metrics is possible; however, this will take more political will than has so far been mustered and so suggestions for how this might be generated are provided.

I will be giving a flashtalk on the paper at the upcoming symposium at New York University: Catching the Cybercriminal: Reforming Global Law Enforcement. Then I will report back here.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Potentially malicious use of QR codes and NFC chips

Like any technology,  QR codes and NFC chips can be abused and misused for selfish or criminal purposes. I was reminded of this by a recent Dark Reading article by Chris Franklin, Jr. titled "9 Things That Don't Worry You Today (But Should)."

One of the things that Chris highlighted was QR codes and when I saw this particular page it reminded me that I had written about the abuse of these codes myself (seven years ago). In fact, I not only wrote about them, I did some research on them and an adjacent technology, the NFC chip (both can be used to trigger events in an information system, and they are cheap to implement, easy to program, and also very thin). 

I made a very short video to demonstrate one potential type of abuse - tricking people into visiting a malicious website. Here is the video, with thanks to my former employer, ESET, for giving me the time and resources to make this demo:

As you can see, there is plenty of potential for hijacking or misdirecting people's interests via both QR and NFC technology, and I am indebted to my former ESET colleague, Cameron Camp, for pointing some of these out, way back in early 2012.

(Funny story: about that time, Cameron was in Hong Kong to speak at a security conference and noticed the extensive use of QR codes in public transportation vehicles. He pointed this out to a company exec who was there and said, "How about I write a blog post showing how someone could print their own codes on sticky labels and just plaster them over these legit codes?" Apparently, this produced a lot of head-shaking. ESET decided to go with the more low key demo you see here.)

Back then I wrote a couple of related articles on this blog:

Thursday, August 08, 2019

DEFCON III flashback: why hacking sucks

My session at DEFCON III back in 1995 has lived on as an audio recording (.m4b). Just scroll down this page: DEFCON III Archive. The title was intentionally provocative:

The Party's Over: Why Hacking Sucks

The idea was to generate dialogue about the ethics of hacking, and I think I succeeded. In fact, the audio captures that quite well.

(Bear in mind that this was 1995 and I've been to events in 2019 where organizers seemed incapable of capturing audio this well.

As someone who had been working on the computer security problem since the 1980s, I have to say I learned a lot from this session and really appreciated everyone's input.

I was invited back the next year and I will post a link to that DEFCON IV session when I find it again. My topic was how to go from hacker to infosec professional, but like many early DEFCON talks it went in several other directions as well (steam trains?).

Here is a link to initiate the audio file download for the DEFCON III talk, and yes, it is safe to do so. The audio is about 49 minutes long and while the sound starts out rough, it gets better quickly. The file is 18.2MB and the filename is: DEF CON 3 Hacking Conference Presentation By Stephen Cobb - Why Hacking Sucks - Audio.m4b

Monday, August 05, 2019

Experienced vendor-neutral panelist available to talk cybersecurity, cybercrime, data privacy, and more

Panel discussion at US Small Business Administration annual convention

Need a panelist who talks well with others?

(Updated January, 2024)
You have this great idea for a panel discussion at a conference, but to make it work you need great panelists. So you need to find subject matter experts who are experienced panelists, but not currently employed or beholden to any business or vendor.

Well, I could be that panelist, particularly if your panel involves technology risks, like cybersecurity, and adjacent fields like artificial intelligence, the cyber skills gap, cybercrime, data privacy, the digital divide, fraud and public health, and more (see my articles on Medium and LinkedIn).

These days I am a completely independent researcher who is also an award-winning technologist with 40 years of real world experience; and yes, a track record of well-received panel appearances.

So, if you're putting together a panel proposal, or your proposed panel was accepted but now you need panelists, take a look at my areas of expertise. If you think I might be right for your panel, let's discuss - you can reach me on LinkedIn or email scobb at scobb dot net.

Here are some of my areas of expertise and interest:
  • Cybercrime and cybercrime metrics
  • Cybersecurity education, skills gap, and workforce issues
  • Health harms of digital fraud and scams
  • Cyber-war and cyber-conflict
  • Data privacy and data abuse
  • New technology = risks and attacks (e.g. AI, IoT)
  • Public-interest technology and public policy related to the above
Here is me on video:

Friday, July 12, 2019

The big news from where I am, which will soon be somewhere else

Dateline San Diego, California, July 12:
Today is my last day at ESET, the company that I have worked for since 2011, and from which I am now retiring.

But wait there's more news! In early September, Chey and I will be relocating to the city of Coventry, England, birthplace of the pedal-chain bicycle, Jaguar carsthe turbojet, my parents, my brother, and me.

I will be writing more about this move as time permits, with the latest developments signposted on this blog (

If you want to stay in touch, and I hope you do, you can use email to reach me (use scobb at scobb dot net). You can also find me on Twitter, where I am @zcobb. I'm on LinkedIn as well and you may even spot me on Facebook - where my profile is stcobb - but I don't go there very often. In the past I have published on Medium and I may write some more articles there in the future.

So, that's the news of the day from where I am. What follows are a few random thoughts on the occasion of my departure, retirement, and relocation.

For the record, we will be flying to England, not sailing. I say this because I have twice moved from North America to England on ships. Once when I was six, and again in 1975 on the TSS Stefan Batory.

Postcard of TSS Stefan Batory from the collection of VMF at

Also for the record, I am leaving ESET with very positive feelings. I have never worked this long for anyone other than myself. In my opinion, ESET continues to set the standard for technical excellence, customer support, and dedication to helping the world enjoy safer technology. It was a privilege to work with such a great team of security researchers and I know that they will carry on the mission with courage, integrity, reliability, and passion. (Disclaimer: nobody's paying me to say this, I don't own stock or have any other financial stake in ESET.)

My relationship with ESET began exactly eight years ago this week, with a phone call about a job. The company wanted someone to do vendor neutral security research and education, which was great for me because that's been a passion of mine since the late 1980s. Adding to the appeal: the company wanted me to be based in California, my favorite state. (Chey and I met in California over 30 years ago, but left in the late 1980s to live in Scotland.)

As for my future, who knows? I do know I will keep researching and opining, mainly about technology. I will continue to blog, and there is a book I want to write. Coventry is home to a pair of excellent universities and there are more in the surrounding area - often referred to as "The Midlands" - including my alma mater, the University of Leicester. Doing some form of teaching is a possibility.

So, when Chey and I get properly settled into our new home, it is possible that I will reemerge, maybe as a something like a part-time, semi-retired, independent researcher and public-interest technologist. (I have been watching fellow security veteran Bruce Schneier move in this direction.)

At this point, and if this was a press conference, I would take questions. But I only have time for one right now, so I will answer the one I've been asked many times in recent weeks: Do you think you will miss San Diego?

Yes, I will miss San Diego, and not just because of the weather and the views. We have met so many wonderful people here, many of whom I have worked with in a business climate that is unique in my experience: San Diego has to be the Capital of Collaboration. This is great place to work on technology projects that benefit the community, the nation, and the world. I have often said that cybersecurity is the healthcare of IT, and San Diego is a center of excellence in both meatspace healthcare and cyberspace security. (The cuisine is pretty awesome too.)

On that note, I thank you for reading this far and wish you all the best. As the saying goes:

So long, and thanks for all the fish tacos!


(Note: Image of ESET/Coventry combines a photo that I took plus photography by Si Chun Lam. Some rights reserved. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) Licence.)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Dark markets, threat cumulativity, siegeware, and a cybercrime barometer

This is an update on five parts of my research and writing so far this year. The first part built on a suggestion from ESET PR Manager Anna Keeve: help people better understand the cybercrime threat by showing them the "dark markets" that are used to sell stolen information and buy the tools with which to steal it. So I decided to highlight their “evolution” into mainstream online services for enabling cybercrime.

1. Next Generation Dark Markets? Think Amazon or eBay for the criminally-inclined
In addition, Anna set up a session with the wonderful folks at Markeplace on NPR. So, if you want to hear more about the dark web, close your eyes and take this audio tour: Exploring the dark web with Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace

A reflection on how, by acknowledging the cumulative nature of cyber-threats and understanding its implications, we can improve our approach to digital security.

I presented my analysis of the data from a large survey, paid for by ESET and designed to uncover attitudes to cybercrime and cybersecurity in North America. This confirmed that the majority of Americans fear the misuse of personal data they supply to websites, and view cybercrime as a threat to their country.

Recent news articles show that a vital part of the IT ecosystem - MSPs - are now being targeted by criminals for a variety of nefarious reasons. I wrote about why this is happening, and what MSPs should do about it.

Siegeware is what you get when cybercriminals mix the concept of ransomware with building automation systems: abuse of equipment control software to threaten access to physical facilities. It is real and it needs to be openly addressed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

It's official: I'm an award-winning technologist

Earlier this month I was delighted to receive the CompTIA Tech Champion Award, "recognizing leaders focused on driving innovation, job growth and advancements for the information technology (IT) industry." There was even a press release and a video!

To put this award in context, CompTIA is the Computing Technology Industry Association:"the leading voice and advocate for..industry and tech professionals who design, implement, manage, and safeguard the technology that powers the world’s economy."

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Risk assessment and situational awareness: minding the gender gap with the elevator question

Man and woman in elevator iconConsider this: a man and a woman get into an elevator. Which one is doing risk assessment?

I've been posing this question to random groups of people on the fringes of information security and cyber-workforce events for over a year now and the results have been very interesting to say the least. 

Almost without exception women respond to the elevator question by saying: "the woman." 

Based on my research into gender differences in risk perception that response was what I expected, but I continue to be surprised by two things:
  • How quickly that response is voiced, usually in less than a second or two. 
  • How many women, after answering, proceed to share—without any encouragement—their personal elevator strategies (more on these later).
Not so surprising is the fact that no woman has yet responded to the elevator question with words to this effect: "I've never really thought about it."

How do men answer? Quite a few say "the woman" and I take that as a positive sign. It suggests that those men understand one of the fundamental realities of gender inequality in our society: women live with a greater base level of fear for their personal safety than men do. As a result, it is reasonable to hypothesize that women tend to have a lot more "lived experience" of risk assessment than men

Although quite few men say "the woman" it usually takes longer for them to come to that conclusion than women. You see quite interesting facial expressions when someone in mixed company answers "the woman" very quickly and decisively. Some men seem genuinely puzzled. This suggests another hypothesis: some percentage of men don't realize that women live with a greater base level of fear for their personal safety than men do.

I should note that some men—notably some security professionals—have answered "the woman" very quickly.

Fear, risk perception and social science 

My original motivation in asking the elevator question was to get a sanity check on two hypotheses that I formed while researching risk perception as it relates to technology: 

Hypothesis 1: Women tend to see more risk in technology than men.

Hypothesis 2: An increase in female participation in technology development and cybersecurity would lead to reduced risk and increased security.

You can see from the graph below that H1 was validated by some formal research into risk perception as it relates to gender and technology; this is from the study by myself and Lysa Myers. back in 2017 when we were both working for ESET.

Over 700 research participants were asked how much risk they thought each of these 15 technology-related items posed to human health, safety, or prosperity: x-rays, artificial intelligence, gun ownership, genetically modified food, nuclear power, oil and gas fracking, network failures, government data monitoring, accumulation of personally identifiable information, global warming, motor vehicles, hazardous waste, theft or exposure of personally identifiable information, air pollution, and criminal hacking.

For all 15 items, women rated the risk higher than men.

Unlike that study, posing the elevator question to random groups of people does not count as formal social science. The reactions that you get may be influenced by the uncontrolled demographics of the group (all male, all female, mixed). But I think there's a solid and potentially career-boosting research project somewhere in the elevator question, ripe for anyone with the resources to undertake a more formal study.

What the graph above illustrates is the gender gap in technology-related risk perception. Numerous studies have documented this over the course of several decades (see the 1994 paper "Gender, race, and perception of environmental health risks" by Flynn, Slovic, and Mertz for early references: Risk Analysis, 14, pp. 1101-1108, with pre-print PDF freely accessible here).

As far as I know, it was studies of public sentiment around environmental issues that led to the first documentation of a gender gap in technology-related risk perception. The research that I did with my colleague at ESET, Lysa Myers, was to the best of our knowledge the first to show that this gender gap also exists with respect to risks related to digital technologies. That finding led us to hypothesize that women—on average or in the aggregate—are more aware of cyber-related risks than men.

A counter-argument might be that men are more realistic in their assessment of risk because the true level of risk is lower than women think and closer to the population mean. To this I say: how many people have a clear picture of the level to which digital technology has been criminally hacked, broken, and abused for selfish purposes? That's why, in my opinion, the risks from digital technology are higher than the mean. Therefore, women are more accurate in their technology risk perception than men (on average or in the aggregate). 

Research into the gender and ethnic variations in risk perception has shown that it is white males, as a whole, who see less risk in technology than black males, white females, or black females (these were the names of the categories used by the researchers). But that score—which has been dubbed the white male effect—is the result of a subset of while males seeing drastically less risk than anybody else. The group, possibly 30% of white males, lowers the overall risk scores for all white males, creating the gap you see in this chart from the 1994 Flynn, Slovic, and Mertz study (adapted):
As I indicated earlier, this study was not an outlier, other studies point in the same direction and I am not aware of any that point in the opposite direction (I did look for them). You can find quite a few studies, as well as deep dives into why some people see less risk in technology than others, at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.

What does it all mean? As I suggested in my 2015 TEDx talk, I think it means that the rate at which new technology risks are created would go down if decision-making roles in tech companies were more evenly distributed between genders.

Back then I said "we need more women in decision-making roles in techn ology" and some surveys suggest that there are now more women in such roles than there used to be; but I think we are nowhere near the level of gender equality needed to put the brakes on fresh technological blunders.

In the coming months and years I will continue to articulate these views. In the meantime, I have another study idea, a slightly different elevator question, that you might want to consider. Document what happens when you ask women this question: "What goes through your mind if you're alone in an elevator and a man gets on."

I think you will hear some interesting personal elevator strategies. The ones that I have heard certainly gave me a better sense of just how unequal life is for women and men, even now, two decades in to the 21st century.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

How serious is the cybercrime problem in America?

The short answer to "how serious is the cybercrime problem in America?" is: Way more serious than our government seems to realize. That is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from recent ESET research into public attitudes to cybercrime, cybersecurity, and data privacy.

To check out the details, please visit this article I wrote at WeLiveSecurity, which is where you can download the full report. It has some pretty solid that may help us persuade policy makers to move cybercrime deterrence up the public policy agenda and make it the #1 priority that it should already be.

Frankly, as a student of criminology I was shocked to see that respondents thought cybercrime was a more important challenge than drug trafficking or money laundering. Almost equally worrying was the finding that less than half of Americans surveyed think that the authorities, including law enforcement, are doing enough to fight cybercrime.

So here is the conclusion that I wrote for the sruvey report: unless cybersecurity initiatives and cybercrime deterrence are made a top priority of government agencies and corporations, the rate at which systems and data are abused will continue to rise, further undermining the public’s trust in technology, trust that is vital to America’s economic well-being, now and in the future.

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