Ross Anderson of the Security Research team at the University of Cambridge Computer Lab has written a blog post about how the university refused to take a research paper written by Omar Choudary offline. Choudary’s paper pointed out a flaw in the chip-and-PIN system in ATMs. Below is a letter that Anderson sent to the UK banking trade association:
Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton, and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued as a Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent….
…Fifth, you say ‘Concern was expressed to us by the police that the student was allowed to falsify a transaction in a shop in Cambridge without first warning the merchant’. I fail to understand the basis for this. The banks in France had claimed (as you did) that their systems were secure; a French TV programme wished to discredit this claim (as Newsnight discredited yours); and I understand that Omar did a No-PIN transaction on the card of a French journalist with the journalist’s consent and on camera. At no time was there any intent to commit fraud; the journalist’s account was debited in due course in accordance with his mandate and the merchant was paid. It is perfectly clear that no transaction was falsified in any material sense. I would not consider such an experiment to require a reference to our ethics committee. By that time the Newsnight programme had appeared and the No-PIN attack was entirely in the public domain. The French television programme was clearly in the public interest, as it made it more difficult for banks in France to defraud their customers by claiming that their systems were secure when they were not.
You complain that our work may undermine public confidence in the payments system. What will support public confidence in the payments system is evidence that the banks are frank and honest in admitting its weaknesses when they are exposed, and diligent in effecting the necessary remedies. Your letter shows that, instead, your member banks do their lamentable best to deprecate the work of those outside their cosy club, and indeed to censor it.