Computer Laboratory

Course pages 2012–13

Current Applications and Research in Computer Security

Principal lecturers: Prof Ross Anderson, Dr Steven Murdoch, Dr Robert Watson
Taken by: MPhil ACS, Part III
Code: R210
Hours: 16 (8 × two-hour seminar sessions)
Prerequisites: It is recommended that students undertaking this course also take the Michaelmas term course R209 Principles and Foundations of Computer Security.


In the second security course in the ACS, we turn our attention to active research topics in computer security at the Computer Laboratory. One unifying theme is how to build secure systems at scale that contain more secure and less secure components. Building on the lessons from multilevel secure systems and security protocols discussed in the first course, we will explore infrastructure versus applications; services versus clients; the use of smartcards and other cryptographic processors; API security; and failure modes from covert channels to concurrency vulnerabilities.


There will be eight two-hour seminars on the following topics. Students are expected to read the required set papers before each class. All students are expected to submit a brief written summary of the readings in advance of each class, and students will be nominated to give brief presentations of each paper, or of cross-cutting aspects of all the papers, to lead discussion.

  • Security of the Internet infrastructure
  • Covert and anonymous communications
  • Bootstrapping security relationships
  • Research topics: API security
  • Research topics: Tampering with hardware
  • Research topics: Contemporary capability systems
  • Research topics: Malware reverse engineering
  • Research topics: Payment systems


On completion of this module, students should:

  • understand some of the problems of protecting large-scale systems where only some of the components can be defended against capable motivated opponents
  • appreciate a number of current areas of security research at Cambridge


Participants will be expected to undertake six hours of preparatory work before each meeting. This will involve:

  • Reading a set number of papers
  • Following up references and other related work
  • Writing an essay of about a thousand words summarising of the set papers and discussing their broader context
  • Submitting the essay by noon two days before the meeting

Every week, three participants will each introduce an aspect of the set papers by giving a 20 minute presentation as if reporting the work at a conference, followed by 5 minutes of questions and 10 minutes of discussion. The final 15 minutes will be spent discussing the broader issues raised by the week's papers. Students will give 3-4 presentations each over the course of each term.

Practical work



Participants on this course will be awarded a percentage score made up from the following two components:

  • 80%: for paper reviews submitted on-time each week, with grades here fed back on a week-by-week basis; and
  • 20%: for your presentations, to be awarded by the course assessor at the end of the course.

1750-word weekly essays are marked on a scale of one to ten, to be scaled as needed to make up 80% of the total course mark, the single lowest mark to be dropped (typically the first mark), with marks reflecting the clarity of writing, quality of comprehension, and insight into the research and larger context.

Essays must be turned in by noon on Wednesdays to the Graduate Education Office. In general, extensions will not be granted, as the essays are intended as key forcing functions in (a) ensuring that papers are read before their corresponding class and (b) motivating thinking about the work and its context for a group discussion.

Presentations should be structured as though the speaker were presenting at a conference, and will be twenty minutes long. Slides will be used, and submitted in PDF format to Dr Robert Watson at least two hours before the class they are presented in. For logistical reasons, the use of your own notebook for the presentation is not possible. Marking will place significant emphasis on a clear explanation and evaluation of the technical content of the paper, with a preference for pithy over verbose. The number of presentations students give may vary, marks being scaled as appropriate.

All participants are expected to attend and participate in every class; the instructor must be notified of any absences in advance.

Recommended reading

Anderson, R. J. (2008). Security Engineering, Wiley (second edition)
Gollmann, D. (2010). Computer Security, Wiley