Archive for the ‘Protecting Yourself and Others’ Category
How many of you have taken your computer in to be repaired? How many of you erased all of your data before taking it in? I’m often amazed by the number of people who take their computer in for servicing without either replacing the hard drive or wiping the hard drive in the computer. Whenever I take any electronic device in for servicing I wipe all of the data off of it and only install an operating system with a default user account the repairer can use to log in with. When I get the device back I wipe it again and then restore my data from a backup.
Why am I so paranoid? Because you never know who might be a paid Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) snitch:
The doctor’s attorney says the FBI essentially used the employee to perform warrantless searches on electronics that passed through the massive maintenance facility outside Louisville, Ky., where technicians known as Geek Squad agents work on devices from across the country.
Since 2009, “the FBI was dealing with a paid agent inside the Geek Squad who was used for the specific purpose of searching clients’ computers for child pornography and other contraband or evidence of crimes,” defense attorney James Riddet claimed in a court filing last month.
Riddet represents Dr. Mark Albert Rettenmaier, a gynecological oncologist who practiced at Hoag Hospital until his indictment in November 2014 on two felony counts of possession of child pornography. Rettenmaier, who is free on bond, has taken a leave from seeing patients, Riddet said.
Because the case in this story involved child pornography I’m sure somebody will accuse me of trying to protect people who possess child pornography. But data is data when it comes to security. The methods you can use to protect your confidential communications, adult pornography, medical information, financial records, and any other data can also be used to protect illicit, dangerous, and downright distasteful data. Never let somebody make you feel guilty for helping good people protect themselves because the information you’re providing them can also be used by bad people.
Due to the number of laws on the books, the average working professional commits three felonies a day. In all likelihood some data on your device could be used to charge you with a crime. Since the FBI is using computer technicians as paid informants you should practice some healthy paranoia when handing your devices over to them. The technician who works on your computer could also have a side job of feeding the FBI evidence of crimes.
But those aren’t the only threats you have to worry about when taking your electronic devices in for servicing. I mentioned that I also wipe the device when I get it back from the service center. This is because the technician who worked on my device may have also installed malware on the system:
Harwell had been a Macintosh specialist with a Los Angeles-area home computer repair company called Rezitech. That’s how he allegedly had the opportunity to install the spy software, called Camcapture, on computers.
While working on repair assignments, the 20-year-old technician secretly set up a complex system that could notify him whenever it was ready to snap a shot using the computer’s webcam, according to Sergeant Andrew Goodrich, a spokesman with the Fullerton Police Department in California. “It would let his server know that the victim’s machine was on. The server would then notify his smartphone… and then the images were recorded on his home computer,” he said.
When your device is in the hands of an unknown third party there is no telling what they may do with it. But if the data isn’t there then they can’t snoop through it and if you wipe the device when you get it back any installed malware will be wiped as well.
Be careful when you’re handing your device over to a service center. Make sure the device has been wiped before it goes in and gets wiped when it comes back.
A man in Minneapolis stands accused of raping a woman. According to the accusation he used the ploy of asking for directions to approach the woman:
The victim told police she was out for a walk that night when she saw Wilkes’ car go around the block several times. He eventually stopped and got out of his car. Assuming he was lost, the victim asked if he needed help. She said Wilkes then told her he was trying to get to 29th and Franklin.
After the victim gave Wilkes directions, she turned around and continued walking. Wilkes then grabbed her throat from behind and began choking her, saying he had a gun.
There are a lot of common ploys criminals will use to get within close range of an intended victim. Asking for directions, to borrow a cell phone, a couple of bucks to buy a bus ticket to get back home, for help in an emergency situation, and so on. These ploys all serve to drop the intended victims guard so they can be approached more easily.
During a discussion about this story I mentioned to a friend that my standard response to these types of situations is to take a defensive stance, slide my hands into my pocket (usually onto a conceal weapon), and pretend that I don’t speak English (in my experience this tends to reduce the amount of time an individual will invest in trying to interact with me). My friend told me that that sounds paranoid, which brings me to the point of this post. Our society places a stigma on perceived paranoia. People who carry a firearm, for example, are often derogatorily called paranoid. But as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
If you live in a stable area, your chances of being in a violent encounter are pretty slim. A pretty slim chance is much different than zero chance though. Most of us recognized this fact and take certain precautions such as installing locks on the exterior doors of our home and avoiding neighbors that we perceive to be bad. But that recognition seems to stop where society’s perception of paranoid begins. This is ridiculous in my opinion.
First of all, only you have the unique knowledge of your life experiences to know what level of defensive measures are appropriate for you. Nobody else has spent their entire life being you so relying on them to decide what level of defense is appropriate for you is an exercise in outsourcing to a less qualified entity.
I have decided that carrying a gun and training to defend myself are appropriate defensive measures based on the knowledge I’ve gained over my lifetime. This isn’t because I believe I have a high level of encountering a violent situation. It’s because the detriments of doing so are minuscule while the potential consequences of not doing so are very high.
Let’s analyze the costs and benefits of the situation of a stranger asking for directions. When somebody initiates contact I take a defensive stance, which is to say that I make it as obvious as possible that I am aware of the person and that I am maintaining awareness of my surroundings. I also maintain a neutral expression on my face and straighten my posture, which serves the purpose of making me look more intimidating without making me look aggressive. What have any of these responses cost me? At most they have cost appearance. I come off as cold and less than friendly instead of warm and friendly. Since I don’t know who this stranger is nor am I likely to ever meet them again the cost of appearance is minuscule to me.
Another thing I do is slide my hands into my pockets. This action deprives the approaching person of some information. If my hands are visible the approaching person can identify whether or not I have a potential weapon at the ready. By concealing my hands the approaching person is forced to guess whether or not I have a concealed weapon in one of my pockets. Since I also regularly carry a firearm putting my hands in my pockets often results in me having immediate access to a weapon. What does this action cost me? Again, it potentially costs me appearance in the eyes of a stranger, which I don’t place much value.
If the person asks for directions and goes about their way I’ve still lost nothing of value to me. On the other hand, if the person meant me ill my positioning may be enough to convince them to find a different target. Predatory criminals tend to prefer easy targets. Making yourself appear to be a difficult target is often enough to convince them to go elsewhere. If my posturing wasn’t enough to dissuade them then I’m in a better position to defend myself when they attack.
What many people would considered paranoid has actually costs me very little and could benefit me greatly if the small chance of something bad occurring is realized.
You have every right to be paranoid. Bad things do happen to good people. Don’t let people who lack your lifetime of experiences convince you that they know what defensive measures are appropriate for you better than you do. Instead analyze your defensive needs yourself. You may discover that you can reap some tremendous potential benefits for very little cost.
I have a sort of love/hate relationship with John McAfee. The man has a crazy history and isn’t so far up his own ass not to recognize it and poke fun at it. He’s also a very nonjudgemental person, which I appreciate. With the exception of Vermin Supreme, I think McAfee is currently the best person running for president. However, his views on security seem to be stuck in the previous decade at times. This wouldn’t be so bad but he seems to take any opportunity to speak on the subject and his statements are often taken as fact by many. Take the recent video of him posted by Business Insider:
It opens strong. McAfee refutes something that’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while, the mistaken belief that there’s such a thing as free. TANSTAAFL, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, is a principle I wish everybody learned in school. If an app or service is free then you’re the product and the app only exists to extract salable information from you.
McAfee also discusses the surveillance threat that smartphones pose, which should receive more airtime. But then he follows up with a ridiculous statement. He says that he uses dumb phones when he wants to communicate privately. I hear a lot of people spout this nonsense and it’s quickly becoming another pet peeve of mine.
Because smartphones have the builtin ability to easily install applications the threat of malware exists. In fact there have been several cases of malware making their way into both Google and Apple’s app stores. That doesn’t make smartphones less secure than dumb phones though.
The biggest weakness in dumb phones as far as privacy is concerned is their complete inability to encrypt communications. Dumb phones rely on standard cellular protocols for making both phone calls and sending text messages. In both cases the only encryption that exists is between the devices and the cell towers. And the encryption there is weak enough that any jackass with a IMSI-catcher render it meaningless. Furthermore, because the data is available in plaintext phone for the phone companies, the data is like collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) and is always available to law enforcers via a court order.
The second biggest weakness in dumb phones is the general lack of software updates. Dumb phones still run software, which means they can still have security vulnerabilities and are therefore also vulnerable to malware. How often do dumb phone manufacturers update software? Rarely, which means security vulnerabilities remain unpatched for extensive periods of time and oftentimes indefinitely.
Smart phones can address both of these weaknesses. Encrypted communications are available to most smart phone manufacturers. Apple includes iMessage, which utilizes end-to-end encryption. Signal and WhatsApp, two application that also utilize end-to-end encryption, are available for both iOS and Android (WhatsApp is available for Windows Phone as well). Unless your communications are end-to-end encrypted they are not private. With smartphones you can have private communications, with dumb phones you cannot.
Smart phone manufacturers also address the problem of security vulnerabilities by releasing periodic software updates (although access to timely updates can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer for Android users). When a vulnerability is discovered it usually doesn’t remain unpatched forever.
When you communicate using a smartphone there is the risk of being surveilled. When you communicate with a dumb phone there is a guarantee of being surveilled.
As I said, I like a lot of things about McAfee. But much of the security advice he gives is flawed. Don’t make the mistake of assuming he’s correct on security issues just because he was involved in the antivirus industry ages ago.
There is no cloud, there are only other people’s computers. This is a phrase you should have tattooed to the inside of your eyelids so you can contemplate it every night. It seems like every company is pushing people to store their data in “the cloud.” Apple has iCloud, Google has its Cloud Platform, Microsoft has Azure, and so on. While backing up to “the cloud” is convenient it also means your data is sitting on somebody else’s computer. In all likelihood that data was uploaded in plaintext as well so it’s readable to the owner of the server.
I have good news though! You don’t have to upload your data to somebody else’s computer! If you use an iPhone it’s actually very easy to make local backups:
If you’re looking for comprehensive privacy, including protection from law enforcement entities, there’s still a loophole here: iCloud. Apple encourages the use of this service on every iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch that it sells, and when you do use the service, it backs up your device every time you plug it into its power adapter within range of a known Wi-Fi network. iCloud backups are comprehensive in a way that Android backups still aren’t, and if you’ve been following the San Bernardino case closely, you know that Apple’s own legal process guidelines (PDF) say that the company can hand iMessages, SMS/MMS messages, photos, app data, and voicemail over to law enforcement in the form of an iOS device backup (though some reports claim that Apple wants to strengthen the encryption on iCloud backups, removing the company’s ability to hand the data over to law enforcement).
For most users, this will never be a problem, and the convenience of iCloud backups and easy preservation of your data far outweigh any risks. For people who prefer full control over their data, the easiest option is to stop using iCloud and use iTunes instead. This, too, is not news, and in some ways is a regression to the days before iOS 5 when you needed to use a computer to activate, update, and back up your phone at all. But there are multiple benefits to doing local backups, so while the topic is on everyone’s mind we’ll show you how to do it (in case you don’t know) and what you get from it (in case you don’t know everything).
I backup my iPhone locally and you should too. My local backups are encrypted by iTunes and are stored on fully encrypted hard drives, which is a strategy I also encourage you to follow. Besides enhancing privacy by not making my data available to Apple and any court orders it receives this setup also prevents my data from being obtained if Apple’s iCloud servers are breached (which has happened).
iPhones aren’t the only devices that can be backed up locally. Most modern operating systems have built-in backup tools that clone data to external hard drives. These are far superior backup tools in my opinion than “cloud” backup services. If you backup to fully encrypted hard drives you ensure that your data isn’t easily accessible to unauthorized parties. And you can store some of your encrypted backup drives offsite, say at your parents’ house or place of work, to ensure everything isn’t lost if your house burns to the ground.
Don’t rely on other people’s computers.
As with every other government on the planet, Iran has a body of law enforcers whose primary job is to exploit wealth from the general populace. Just as in the United States, many of the law in Iran are based around morality. For example, if your manner of dress is deemed inappropriate the law enforcers have an excuse to expropriate wealth from you. The natural tendency of an exploited people is to find a way to avoid as much exploitation as possible. To that end a group of Iranian developers have created an app to help their fellows avoid the morality police:
Ershad’s mobile checkpoints which usually consist of a van, a few bearded men and one or two women in black chadors, are deployed in towns across Iran and appear with no notice.
Ershad personnel have a very extensive list of powers ranging from issuing warnings and forcing those they accuse of violating Iran’s Islamic code of conduct, to make a written statement pledging to never do so again, to fines or even prosecuting offenders.
The new phone app which is called “Gershad” (probably meaning get around Ershad instead of facing them) however, will alert users to checkpoints and help them to avoid them by choosing a different route.
The data for the app is crowdsourced. It relies on users to point out the location of the Ershad vans on maps and when a sufficient number of users point out the same point, an alert will show up on the map for other users. When the number decreases, the alert will fade gradually from the map.
Gershad sounds a lot like Waze, which is a traffic app that lets you report, amongst other things, police. Both are amongst the family of applications that allow the people to fight back against the State. Through crowdsourcing the much larger population of exploited individuals can enjoy a major information advantage over the State. As they used to say at the end of each episode of G.I. Joe, knowing is half the batter.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the State, because of its sheer power, is an undefeatable foe. In reality the State is greatly disadvantages by the fact it is massively outnumbered. Being a bureaucracy it is also much slower to adapt to changes than the general population. Those two facts combined means the State will always lose in the long run. By the time the Ershad adapt to this application a countermeasure to its adaptions will almost certainly already be in place.
In my position as a discount security advisor to the proles one of the hardest challenges I face is convincing people how important security is. Most people assume they have nothing to hide. They usually claim they won’t lose anything of importance if an unauthorized party gains access to their online accounts. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard, “If they get into my Facebook they’ll just learn how boring I am.”
Even if you are the most boring person in the world, preventing unauthorized persons from accessing your accounts is critically important. Failing to do so can lead to severe real life ramifications:
In one nasty spurt in May, a hacker gained control of Amy’s Twitter account, which she had used only twice before, and posted a series of racist and antisemitic messages. (See if you can tell where Amy’s tweets end and the hacker’s begin in the timeline below.)
That same day, a hacker used Amy’s email account to post a message to a Yahoo Groups list of about 300 residents of the Straters’ subdivision, including many parents of students at the elementary school that the family’s youngest daughter attends. According to local news reports, the message carried a chilling subject line—“I Will Shoot Up Your School”—and detailed a planned attack on the school. Oswego police quickly verified that Amy’s account had been hacked and that the message was a hoax, but the damage had been done.
Later that day, Amy discovered that her LinkedIn profile had been hacked, too. The hacker posted a message calling her employer, Ingalls Health System, “A TERRIBLE COMPANY RAN [sic] BY JEWS.”
Amy, who had worked at Ingalls for seven months as a director of decision support, had suspected that the trolls might target her employer. She says she had previously alerted the company’s IT department that the company’s systems might be compromised by the same people who were attacking her and her son.
She expected support—after all, if it was her house that was being repeatedly robbed, rather than her social media accounts, wouldn’t the company be sympathetic? But none came. Shortly after the hack, Ingalls fired Amy from her six-figure job, giving her 12 weeks of severance pay. Amy says she got no satisfactory explanation for her dismissal, other than a hint that she was “too much of a liability.” (A spokeswoman for Ingalls Health System declined to comment.)
She hasn’t been able to get another job in hospital administration because for months, her first page of Google results has included her LinkedIn profile and her Twitter account, both of which were filled with racist and anti-semitic language. (She recently regained access to her LinkedIn account after contacting the company’s fraud division, but her defaced Twitter account is still up, since the attacker changed the password to prevent her from restoring it.)
I won’t lie to you and claim proper security practices will thwart a dedicated attacker such as the ones praying on the Straters. What proper security practices will do is make you a harder target. The cost of attacking you will go up and when it comes to self-defense, whether it’s online or offline, the goal is to raise the cost of attacking you high enough to dissuade your attackers. If you can’t dissuade your attacker entirely you can still reduce the amount of damage they cause.
Twitter, Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and many other websites now offer two factor authentication. Two factor authentication requires both a password and an additional authentication token, usually tied to a physical device such as your phone, to log into an account. Enabling it is a relatively easy way to notably raise the cost of gaining unauthorized access to your accounts. If nothing else you should make sure your primary e-mail account supports two factor authentication and that it is enabled. E-mail accounts are a common method used by websites to reset passwords so gaining access to your e-mail account often allows an attacker to gain access to many of your other online accounts.
I also recommend using a password manager. There are many to choose from. I use 1Password. LastPass is still a managed I’m willing to recommend with the caveat that I don’t trust the new owners and therefore am wary of it as a longterm solution. Password managers allow you to use a unique, complex password for each of your accounts. If you use a common password for all of your accounts, which is a sadly common practice, and an unauthorized party learns that password they will have access to all of those accounts. Using a password manager allows you to limited damage by securing accounts with complex passwords that are difficult to guess and ensures an unauthorized party cannot gain access to any additional accounts by learning the password to one of them.
I must note that there is the potential threat of an unauthorized party compromising your password manager. In general the risk of this is lower than the risks involved with not using a password manager. There are also ways to mitigate the risk of unauthorized parties gaining access. LastPass, along with many other online password managers, supports two factor authentication. 1Password syncs passwords using iCloud or Dropbox, both of which support two factor authentication. You can also disable syncing in 1Password entirely so your password database never leaves your computer. LastPass, 1Password, and most other password managers also encrypt your password database so even if an unauthorized party does obtain a copy of the database they cannot read it without your decryption key.
Using two factor authentication and a password manager are by no means the only actions you can take. I mention them because they are simple ways for the average person to bolster the security of their online accounts quickly.
Nothing I’ve described above will protect you from social engineering attacks. Due to the lack of authentication inherent in many systems it’s still possible for an attacker to send the police to your home, order pizzas to be delivered to your home, call your employer and harass them enough to convince them to fire you, sending anonymous bomb threats in your name, getting your utilities disconnected, etc.
What I’ve described can reduce the risks of an attacker gaining access to your social media accounts and posting things that could cost you your job and haunt you for the rest of your life. And regardless of what most people believe, keeping attackers out of these accounts it important. Failure to do so can lead to dire consequences as demonstrated in the linked story.
There’s a lot of bad self-defense advice out there but very little of it is as harmful as telling women they shouldn’t defend themselves. I can only imagine this advice was started by some misogynist piece of shit who viewed women as such lesser creatures that they couldn’t possibly defend themselves against a big, strong man such as himself. It’s likely this asshole also had fantasies about teaching any woman who resisted him a lesson so believed it would be safer for women being attacked to just lie back and think of England.
However this crap started it has cumulated in to terrible, harmful advice such as telling women to “be realistic” about their ability to protect themselves, which is a euphemism for telling women they’re incapable of defending themselves against big, strong men so they can only resort to pissing themselves to dissuade rapists.
The fact is women who defend themselves generally fare better than those who don’t:
As a matter of fact, research conducted since the 70ies has consistently shown that fighting back is actually the most effective strategy to thwart sexual assaults.
Studies such as Kleck & Tark (2005) or Reekie & Wilson (1993) or Ullman & Knight (1992), indeed show that women who respond with physical and verbal resistance to the offender’s violent attack significantly reduce the probability that a rape would be completed.
In the 1990’s, German commissioner Susanne Paul examined 522 cases of rapes and attempted rapes to see whether fighting back was a good strategy. Result: fighting back had a 85% success rate.
Fighting back may not work 100% of the time (nothing does) but it works most of the time.
Criminals, by and large, are opportunists. They seek to fulfill their wants with the least amount of effort possible. Like any predatory animal they try to identify the weakest prey. That means they seek the unaware, the physically unimposing, and the ones unwilling to fight back. When a criminal discovers their prey is very much willing to fight back they often disengage.
If you’re attacked always fight back and give yourself as much advantages as you can. Take some self-defense courses or better yet dedicate yourself to the study of a martial art. And if at all possible carry a weapon. I highly advise carrying a firearm since they are the most effective tools for self-defense but if you’re unwilling or unable to do that there are alternatives.
Online backup services are convenient and offer resilience. Instead of managing your own backup drives a cloud backup service can upload your data to the Internet automatically whenever you’re connected. If your house burns down you don’t lose your data either. But, as with most things in the universe, there are trade offs. By placing your data on somebody else’s server you lose control over it. This can be mitigated by encrypting your files locally before uploading them but sometimes that’s not an option as with Apple’s iCloud Backup for iOS:
“If the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can’t provide it,” CEO Tim Cook told Charlie Rose back in 2014. “It’s encrypted and we don’t have a key.”
But there’s always been a large and often-overlooked asterisk in that statement, and its name is iCloud.
It turns out the privacy benefits Apple likes to talk about (and the FBI likes to complain about) basically disappear when iCloud Backup is enabled. Your messages, photos and whatnot are still protected while on your device and encrypted end-to-end while in transit. But you’re also telling your device to CC Apple on everything. Those copies are encrypted on iCloud using a key controlled by Apple, not you, allowing the company (and thus anyone who gets access to your account) to see their contents.
I don’t use iCloud Backup for precisely this reason. My backups are done locally on my computer. This brings me to my point: you need to fully understand the tools you use to hope to have any semblance of security. One weakness in your armor can compromise everything.
iMessage may be end-to-end encrypted but that doesn’t do you any good if you’re backing up your data in cleartext to somebody else’s server.
It’s hard to argue against handguns being the most effective self-defense tool for the average person but there are many people, either through personal conviction (which is perfectly acceptable) or legal restraints (which is entirely unacceptable), that cannot carry one. I appreciate the market providing in-between solutions that improve an individual’s ability to defend themselves but don’t go as far as a firearm. Taser, which primarily targets law enforcement agencies, has announced a new Taser that is aimed at the civilian market. Overall I think it’s a pretty decent idea:
Additionally, the Pulse comes with rechargeable batteries, two live Taser cartridges, laser-assisted targeting and a 15-foot range. Most importantly, Taser says that if you end up using it for self-defense and leave it at the scene, the device will be replaced for free.
While the $399.00 price tag seems a bit steep for me since it’s approaching real handgun territory the free replacement program makes it a bit more palatable. In fact the free replacement program may be the best feature of this weapon. It gives a person who was just subjected to a self-defense situation one less thing to worry about. As far as size goes it’s in the compact handgun territory, which I believe is an excellent size for something aimed at regular people.
I hope we begin seeing more in-between self-defense tools aimed at regular individuals. They gives people who cannot or will not carry a firearm an option other than dying. And that increases the overall cost of committing violence.
As a general rule I avoid local networks I don’t personally administer. If I’m at an event with free Wi-Fi I still use my cell phone’s data and tethering mode when I need to access the Internet on my laptop. For those times I cannot avoid using a local network I route my data through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. Although these measures won’t stop my Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their partners from snooping on me they do prevent malicious actors on a local network from snooping on me. Attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) who opted into the free Wi-Fi became excellent demonstrations on the lack of privacy you have when using a local Wi-Fi network without a VPN connection:
This week, more than 170,000 tech and media professionals converged on the city of Las Vegas to see the latest in technology at the Consumer Electronics Show, and––inevitably––some of them used their smart, connected devices to try to get laid.
Vector Media offered attendees free WiFi at major hotels, shuttle buses, and convention centers throughout the week in exchange for collecting anonymized app usage data. More than 1,800 people opted in, and Vector found a whopping 61 percent of attendees’ used Tinder while at CES––nearly five times more than productivity app Slack, which only 12.8 percent of attendees on Vector’s network used. Facebook Messenger came in first place with 74.3 percent, and Grindr also made an appearance on its list of apps in use, at 16 percent.
The amount of information a local network administrator can obtain about you would likely surprise most people. In addition to that the amount of attacks a malicious actor on a local network can perform is notable. If you value your privacy or security I would recommend avoiding Wi-Fi networks you don’t personally control as much as possible (granted, even your own network isn’t necessarily trustworthy but you have far more control in most cases than with other networks).