skip to primary navigationskip to content

Department of Computer Science and Technology



Course pages 2020–21

Computer Security: Principles and Foundations

Principal lecturers: Prof Ross Anderson, Prof Alastair Beresford, Dr Robert Watson, Dr Alice Hutchings
Taken by: MPhil ACS, Part III
Code: R209
Hours: 16 (8 × two-hour seminar sessions)
Prerequisites: Undergraduate operating systems course; an undergraduate networking course would be useful. Students taking the Cybercrime R254 course may also wish to take this Lent term course.


This course aims to provide students with an introduction to the history and central themes of computer security, from its 1970s foundations to some current research topics, with a theme of how to defend cloud-based systems against capable motivated opponents. The course considers first local computer systems and then distributed systems; however, we will rapidly discover that this is an artificial distinction that only becomes more awkward as we enter the current period. Throughout the course, we will consider proposed systems along with the adversarial research intended to identify gaps and vulnerabilities.


There will be eight two-hour seminars on topics along the lines of the following. 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.

  • Origins and foundations of computer security
  • Adversarial Reasoning
  • Access control
  • Security economics
  • Passwords
  • Capability systems
  • Cryptographic protocols
  • Correctness vs. mitigation


On completion of this module, students should:

  • understand the principles of computer security
  • be familiar with long-term and recent research themes
  • appreciate the challenges of defending high-value systems


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 a weekly essay summarising assigned papers or, as assigned by the course instructor, preparing and delivering a 20-minute presentation on a specific paper
  • Essay text or presentation slides must be submitted via Moodle, by the specified deadline
  • Participating in class discussion on both the assigned papers and broader issues raised by the week's readings

Each week, the lecturers will lead an interactive session to discuss the assigned reading material, drawing on the presentations and essays submitted by the students before the start of the class.

Weekly essays will be up to 1,250 words summarising the complete set of assigned papers, identifying common themes, discussing the broader context, and enumerating possible class discussion topics. While essays need not be 1,250 words in length, participants are advised that essays under 1000 words are unlikely to contain sufficient detail or discussion to achieve full marks.

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

Practical work



From the second week onwards, course participants are awarded a maximum of 10 marks each week reflecting the quality of the submitted essay or presentation. The lowest essay or presentation mark of the term will be dropped. Remaining marks will be scaled to a maximum final score out of 100.

For essays, a total of ten marks can be awarded. Up to two marks are assigned for adequate coverage of each of five sections/areas: summary of papers; discussion of key themes spanning the papers; consideration of current context; literature review; and class discussion questions.

For presentations, a total of ten marks can be awarded. Criteria include: effective teaching of the key ideas; a critical evaluation of the work; tracing related research; considering current implications vs historical context of the work; and successful answering of Q&A as well as triggering a useful and interesting class discussion.

Neither essays nor presentations are due in the first week. All submitted essays should provide a word count.

Recommended reading

Anderson, R. J. (2020). Security Engineering, Wiley (third edition)
Gollmann, D. (2010). Computer Security, Wiley
Marshall Kirk McKusick, George V. Neville-Neil, and Robert N. M. Watson. 'Chapter 5 - Security', The Design and Implementation of the FreeBSD Operating System, 2nd Edition, Pearson Education, Boston, MA, USA, September 2014

Further Information

Due to COVID-19, the method of teaching for this module will be adjusted to cater for physical distancing and students who are working remotely. We will confirm precisely how the module will be taught closer to the start of term.