Scholars chip in with a defence of freedom

January 6, 2011

Academics at the University of Cambridge have been praised for their staunch defence of academic freedom after research on bank-card security was criticised by an industry group.

Melanie Johnson, chair of the UK Cards Association, wrote to the university to complain about the publication online of a student thesis that exposed flaws in the chip and PIN system used to protect bank cards from fraudulent use.

She said the paper, "The smart card detective: A hand-held EMV interceptor", by Omar Choudary, a master's student in philosophy in advanced computer science, divulged too much detail about how the chip and PIN system could be compromised and claimed that it could encourage "nuisance attacks" or "give organised crime access to material that they might be able to develop further".

Her letter says: "Our key that this type of research was ever considered suitable for publication by the university."

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, wrote a strongly worded letter in response, chastising Ms Johnson and her organisation for their lack of understanding of academia.

"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...censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values," his letter says.

"The University of Cambridge is a self-governing community of scholars rather than a corporate hierarchy. Omar's work was not 'published by the university'...if you wanted him to take his thesis offline, you should have asked him."

The response earned support on the blog Light Blue Touchpaper, which is written by researchers in the security research group at Cambridge's Computer Laboratory.

A comment posted by one reader, Doug Smith, says: "British scholars with guts to speak truth to power. The UK is not in decline after all."

Professor Anderson said he was "delighted" that senior colleagues at Cambridge had supported his robust defence of the academy. "This isn't personal heroics, it's a point that had to be made," he said.

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