February 22, 2017

Archives for September 2014

It’s time to bring Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies into the computer science curriculum

In the privacy technologies grad seminar that I taught last semester, Bitcoin proved to be the most popular topic among students. Two groups did very different and equally interesting final projects on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies; more on that below.

More broadly, we’re seeing a huge demand for learning the computer science underlying Bitcoin, both at Princeton and elsewhere. But research papers on Bitcoin don’t make for great teaching materials. Identifying the core ideas, building them up in logical progression, and connecting them to other areas of computer science is a challenging task.

Over the summer, I teamed up with Joe Bonneau, Ed Felten, and Andrew Miller to do just that. We’ve produced a lecture series which will start going online soon. While we spend some time in the lectures on the specifics of Bitcoin, much of our discussion is about the underlying principles which apply to cryptocurrencies in general. Steven Goldfeder and other students are working with us to produce homeworks, programming assignments, and a textbook, which will together comprise a complete online course. We’ll announce it here when it launches.
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Google Fights Genericide Claim (and Wins)

Google’s famous trademark in its name has just survived a challenger’s attempt to have it declared generic. In Elliott v. Google, a federal court in Arizona held last week that despite the public’s use of the word “googling” to mean “searching on the Internet,” the “Google” word mark still functions in the minds of consumers primarily to identify Google, the Mountain View-based Internet company, as the source of the search service associated with the “Google” mark. The plaintiff in the case argued that the public’s use of a trademark as a verb necessarily signifies that the mark has become generic. The court disagreed:

Verb use of a trademark is not fundamentally incapable of identifying a producer or denoting source. A mark can be used as a verb in a discriminate sense so as to refer to an activity with a particular product or service, e.g., “I will PHOTOSHOP the image” could mean the act of manipulating an image by using the trademarked Photoshop graphics editing software developed and sold by Adobe Systems. This discriminate mark-as-verb usage clearly performs the statutory source-denoting function of a trademark.

The court went on to explain that a problem arises for a mark owner only if mark-as-verb usage is indiscriminate, and the mark becomes referentially unmoored in the public’s mind from the mark owner’s product or service.

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Security Audit of Safeplug "Tor in a Box"

Last month at the FOCI workshop, we presented a security analysis of the Safeplug, a $49 box which promised users “complete security and anonymity” online by sending all of their web traffic through the Tor onion routing network. Safeplug claims to offer greater usability, particularly for non-technical customers, than the state-of-the-art in anonymous Internet browsing: the Tor Browser Bundle (TBB). However, we found that the hardened browser in the TBB is very important for security, and we found a number of usability and security problems with the Safeplug, including the ability for a local or remote attacker to silently turn off Tor or modify other device settings.  Our research concluded that users should run the Tor Browser Bundle if they can; if not, then there is some value in a torifying proxy like Safeplug as long as users are aware of its limitations.  For the rest of this post I’ll review our findings and highlight the differences and tradeoffs between the Tor Browser Bundle and a torifying proxy, like the Safeplug.
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