Archive for June, 2013


Syncing Between Linux and Windows with BitTorrent

Skip the insecure Cloud with BitTorrent Sync

Skip the insecure Cloud with BitTorrent Sync

I’ve always been a DIY kind of guy when it came to technology, and the idea of giving my data to cloud services such as Dropbox or (and whoever has access to that data besides them) seemed a little iffy. The cloud, as great as it is for some things, isn’t really built for too much security. Keeping data private on an internal system is hard enough, but throwing it out to the internet only multiplies these issues.

That’s where BitTorrent Sync comes in. Built by BitTorrent Labs (and using the BitTorrent Protocol), this solution boasts that it will allow you to sync between different OSes, securely, and without throwing any of it out to the cloud. This increases security incredibly, and isn’t that hard to set up. I put it on my Linux laptop (Stu) and a Windows 8 desktop (Zer0), both of which I’ve used in previous projects. It works, but it has a few caveats as you’ll see below.

Installation on Linux

Linux installation is fairly easy, if a bit obtuse. Instead of an installer of any kind, the package for BitTorrent Sync comes with a License.txt file and a single btsync binary. To start up the software, simply unpack it, navigate to the containing folder in a terminal and run the ./btsync command. That’s it.

$ cd /Location/of/File
$ ./btsync
The Linux binary can be configured through the webGUI (kinda) or the more robust sync.conf file.

The Linux binary can be configured through the webGUI (kinda) or the more robust sync.conf file.

However, unlike it’s Windows and MacOS brethren, there’s no independent GUI to use. You’ll need to open a browser and head to a webpage to administer it. In most cases you can use the address

From there you can select the folder you want to sync as well as generate a secret key for said location. The key is to allow other computers on your network to access the folder securely. Barring any conflicting firewall settings on your local machine, this should just be a matter of putting in the secret when you add a folder.

If you need the key from a folder you’ve set up previously, you can get it again from the gear icon next to the listing in BitTorrent Sync. Also, if you head to the Advanced tab you can grab a “Read-Only” secret. If you use this key when setting up another computer, it will read from the folder but never write to it. This is useful if you want the updates to go only one way or you want to give someone the ability to see what’s on your machine without running the risk of them deleting or altering the files.

Installation on Windows

Next, I went to Zer0, my Windows machine, and installed the software. From what I understand, the Windows and MacOS versions are pretty much the same, so other than the intricacies of the Mac platform the installation and use should be very similar.

The Windows application is a little plain, but gets the job done.

The Windows application is a little plain, but gets the job done.

After running the installer, you’ll be presented with a page that has several tabs. Go to the “Shared Folders” tab and click on “Add”. Put in the secret from the share that we want to access and click “Okay”. It should have all the information it needs to connect and start syncing. Mine did it automatically and pulled the four or so test files with no further work on my part.

You can also add a local folder and sync it here. By default it’s the btsync folder in your Documents directory. I just left this as it is for my testing purposes.

Tweaking the System

Now that it’s set up, you can do a few more things to shape it to your preferences. As you first may have noticed you can add any number of folders to sync, for no cost unlike most cloud services. So if your primary concern is just moving files back and forth behind the scenes (as I do) then that’s probably this setup’s greatest strength beyond security.

There are further options as well that fall into the more advanced users’ category. On the Preferences page in both the Linux WebGUI and the Windows application, you can set rate limits, alter whether the software loads at boot and some other odds and ends. In the Advanced section, you can do even more. Here’s a quick rundown of these options:

The conf file has pretty good explanations for every editable line

The conf file has pretty good explanations for every editable line

disk_low_priority: If True, BitTorrent Sync will set itself to Low Priority on the system. Turn this on if you’re noticing serious speed problems when using BitTorrent Sync

lan_encrypt_data: If True, BitTorrent Sync will encrypt data sent over the local network. Turn this on if you want to hide your traffic from others who may be using the same network as you.

lan_use_tcp: If True BitTorrent Sync will use TCP instead of UDP for local transfers. Will use more bandwidth but will be (at least theoretically) more reliable.

rate_limit_local_peers: If True, BitTorrent Sync will apply rate limits (set in General Preferences) to local users. By default rate limits are only applied to external peers (those not on your network).

In Linux, these options as well as a few others are all stored in the configuration of btsync. You’ll need to go to the folder that you have btsync running in to access it. First, you’ll probably want to output a sample configuration and open it in a text editor to see all options you have. There are quite a few.

$ ./btsync --dump-sample-config > sync.conf
$ gedit sync.conf

It’s pretty self-explanatory, but I want to direct your attention to the username/password fields. Remember that webpage we went to earlier to set up the shared folder on Linux? Well it’s actually hosted from your machine, meaning that anyone who as the access to the network can pull up your BitTorrent Sync options and mess with them. So it might behoove you to set this option.

Once you’ve organized things the way you want them in your sync.conf file, save it. Now, you can import it back into the BitTorrent Sync application by running btsync with the modified conf file as such:

$ ./btsync --config sync.conf

Worth the Effort?

And that’s pretty much the ins-and-outs of the BitTorrent Sync application. I imagine that I’ll be using this not as my primary software to sync things between machines or as backups, but I will have it move files and folders from one machine to another periodically. Perhaps one could set up a backup drive on a server that just copies one way from all the machines that are linked to it. I imagine that could be a project for a different day.

On the whole this is a nice piece of software that pretty much does what it says it’s going to do, and securely. I know it’s Linux, but the lack of a real GUI and the complication of editing advanced options by way of the .conf file is kind of a downer. I’m totally fine with using the command line (in some cases I prefer it), but that drags down the score a bit on this one because it’s not very user friendly. Still, a fine piece of software that I will definitely be utilizing in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5 – Pretty darn good. However, the Linux version takes a little work to get customized and the Windows/MacOS advanced pages are a little confusing at first.

-CJ Julius


Online Privacy: How to Get It and How to Keep It.

Is complete privacy online even possible?

Is complete privacy online even possible?

In the wake of the NSA/British Intelligence scandal, and the continuing surveillance of Internet Service Providers and websites such as Google, the interest in personal privacy has grown. While this article won’t be a long-form argument for personal privacy (mostly because I don’t think I need to do so), there are a few relatively easy things you can do to keep your online persona under your control and there’s good reason for it.

The oft-repeated adage is that “you shouldn’t put anything on the internet that you want to keep private.” While this sounds logical and simple, it usually isn’t. So much of what we do is tied up in the Internet. If you’ve ever bought anything online, done a web search or even paid a bill via a website, then that information is stored somewhere and is accessible to someone. And, while many make the argument that they have nothing to hide, the truth is that you probably do.

Not all of us have a murder or mob ties to cover up necessarily, but almost everyone has a debit/credit card information that we don’t want out there, or a few less-than-flattering pictures. On a different note, just because what you’re doing isn’t illegal, it doesn’t mean that you want to broadcast it to the world. In fact, you might be breaking the law without even knowing it.

That said, what do we do about it? Is there any way to hide everything we do on the net from everyone? The answer is: not really, but there are things you can do to minimize the amount of data you drop into the internet, and at best make it anonymous (not directly tied to you).

I’m going to outline a few steps you can take if you’re concerned about your privacy that will give you the most return for time invested. Much like my recent post on internet security, this is a short list of simple to do things that give you the greatest “bang for your buck”.

Your Browsing and Searching

The browser is where most websites will get the information they collect on you. Most of it is pretty general, the OS/browser you’re using, how long you were on the site, and things like that. However, sites that are more clandestine or that you use frequently can collect a large amount of information about you.

Firefox can be set to wipe everything but passwords every time it's closed.

Firefox can be set to wipe everything but passwords every time it’s closed.

Take Google for example. This is a website that we know collects data on its users and we know has been syphoned by the NSA (National Security Agency). When you log into any of their services, or do any searches from the site, all that information is stored and linked together. This data, over time, can build a pretty accurate picture of you based on your search and browsing habits. It’s not even necessary for you to give Google a name for them to find out who you are, as this can be mined from the data you give them. If you’re constantly going to a few sites and logging in, and any one of them has your name anywhere on it, then that can be linked back to your data.

The data doesn’t even necessarily have to come from you. The recent Facebook breach allowed people to access the contact lists of people they didn’t even know and download them. If you are in the contact lists of people who have Facebook and they’ve uploaded their contact lists to Facebook, then you’re on the site… even if you’re not on the site. Your information can be compromised if you’ve never had an account.

There’s not too much that you can do about the Facebook debacle, short of making sure that no one who has you as a contact uploads their data to the site. Though, there are a few things that you can do in general to reduce your footprint online.

As mentioned in my Internet security post, set your browser to hide you online. Most major browsers now have a “Do Not Track” option in them that will tell sites that you want to opt out of being watched. Most “good” sites will honour this and not track you. However, a few will still do so.

DuckDuckGo is not the most powerful search engine, but it's definitely the most stealthy.

DuckDuckGo is not the most powerful search engine, but it’s definitely the most stealthy.

To combat this, we need to take the browser work a bit further. Having the browser automatically use incognito mode (Chromium/Chrome) will greatly reduce the amount of tracking data that the browser can pass on. However, incognito mode can cause problems with certain websites, so, you can do like I do and have the browser clear everything every time you close it. Firefox has this option, and while it’s not as robust as the incognito/stealth mode, it does make browsing significantly easier. Every time I close the browser and reopen it, it’s like I’ve just installed the browser; websites have nothing to track because as far as they can see, I’ve never been to any websites.

Now, if you don’t want to make any changes to your browser or you want another layer of security, you can change the search engine that you use. While the biggest ones such as Yahoo! and Bing also collect your data and share it, there are ones that are built specifically with privacy in mind. The main engine I use to do all of my searching is DuckDuckGo which keeps no logs on its users and sets up an encrypted connection (via SSL) between you and the search engine so nothing can be intercepted.*

Using the above techniques you can keep your search history private, or at the very least separate you from your searches.

Your Connection and Software

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t protect you against someone snooping on your connection to the internet. Even though you’re anonymous to the search engine, you’re not so anonymous someone who’s watching you browse, such as your ISP or someone sniffing packets in a cafe. To secure that, we’re going to need to hide your internet connection.

The easiest (cheapest) way to do this is to always try the https:// version of a website before the http:// (note the “s” for secure). This little change will create a secure connection between you and the website, making your traffic unintelligible to a malicious viewer. Not all sites support this, but some of the big ones do. The site you’re going to will still be visible, but the contents will not. Keep in mind that this is the “free” option and is very hit-or-miss.

Private Internet Access’s “Why use a VPN?” video.

Another option, which is the route I would recommend, is to push all your data through an encrypted VPN (Virtual Private Network). There are a lot of them out there, depending on how much privacy you want and what price you’re willing to pay for it. Some offer a full range of services including news access as well as other benefits like VyperVPN (will run you about $20/month) or simple unlogged access like PrivateInternetAccess **(about $4/month). In both cases, the system creates an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) VPN between you and their servers and then pipes you with an anonymous IP out to the internet.

Someone spying on you would only see a mass of garbled data being sent to some server somewhere where it disappears. Any website or person on the internet would see your data coming from a block of IPs owned by a VPN company. There’s virtually no way to connect the two (no pun intended).

Skype will allow you to stop cookies and not keep a history as well as other privacy options.

Skype will allow you to stop cookies and not keep a history as well as other privacy options.

If you’re only concerned about eaves-dropping when you’re out and about, you can also use something like Hamachi Log Me In to create an SSL VPN between a mobile device/another computer and a home machine. Keep in mind that with this system, anyone watching your home machine will be able to see the data unencrypted. The secure connection is only between your remote device and the home computer.

Lastly, the software you use on the internet that isn’t your browser, such as Skype or Yahoo! messenger is also targetable. While there’s only a little you can do to secure these, you can do a few things. First of all, check your privacy settings and make sure you have everything locked down. Most of these services have a small but useful section in the options called “Privacy”. Also, make sure your chat history isn’t being saved. You can turn this off in every messenger. While it doesn’t guarantee that the data isn’t being stored elsewhere, it does reduce the lifetime of the data and the chance that it will be recovered.

Am I Private Yet?

So the question remains as to what affect will all this have? The truth is that we don’t know entirely. Depending on who’s targeting you and why, the things listed above, if implemented properly, can range from significant annoyance to complete blackout. However, if you implement no privacy measures you can rest assured that some, if not all, of your data is being collected and catalogued.

Tor is a more advanced way of getting privacy online, but it has it's own weaknesses. Check it out here.

Tor is a more advanced way of getting privacy online, but it has its own weaknesses.

Not all of these may be for you. But a smattering of them in some form or another will help, especially the VPN services, and I recommend you at the very least lock down your browser as mentioned above and in my previous internet security post. Even if you think you have nothing to hide, you may find out in the worst way possible, that yes, you did.

* You can get the add-on/plugin for your browser of choice as well so it’s automatically in the upper right search box on your browser.

** If you’re just looking for privacy and nothing else, this is the way to go.


Vietnam and My Interest in the Minutiae

Image (c)2010 by Think0.

Image (c)2010 by Think0.

As I had mentioned on a placeholder post (since deleted) I have been in Vietnam for the past few weeks on an academic trip. This blog is generally geared towards technology, so I won’t be focusing on my trip per se, but on the technology I encountered there. There are a few things of interesting note to me and perhaps others that are part of every day life in Vietnam. I decided to combine these all into this one post.

This has got to be a nightmare for installers.

This has got to be a nightmare for installers.

Keep in mind that this is from an American’s point of view, so some of this stuff may be, and is, used all over the world, but this was my first encounter with it in mass. The air conditioning systems mentioned later are a good example of this minutiae that I find interesting, but is probably old-hat for people who’ve always used this stuff.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the cabling over the streets. While Vietnam is generally well “wired” in the sense that basic broadband was available in the cities I went to, the majority of it seems to be above ground. Cabling that would normally be hidden beneath the streets was up on posts, creating some very haphazard-looking displays close to that of spider webbing.

I actually saw some installers putting in some new wiring, but I was unable to catch any video of it. It mostly involved threading the wiring around the post and to its destination. It wasn’t clear to me how they were differentiating different cables from each other, or how they were avoiding cross-talk and interference, or if they were even concerned about that.

One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, "found" open.

One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, “found” open.

Speaking of being wired, the city of Da Nang was in the process of implementing a city-wide WiFi service. Even though it wasn’t officially available (it should be by the time this post hits) I was able to use it almost everywhere in the city with varying levels of success. It was about what you’d expect from a public wireless service. Useful, but not as robust as a privately-owned system.

3G service was fairly ubiquitous, and the VNMobile Blackberry that I had been given had signal just about everywhere I went. I did not have the ability to test data transfer speeds, but 3-4 bars was present in most locations, and cities were generally solid throughout. Mobile devices themselves were everywhere, just as in any city anywhere in the world, though I saw much fewer tablets than state-side. I’m not sure the reason for this, but I imagine transportation might be part of it. Most Vietnamese ride motorbikes so maybe finding a place for a device of that size is difficult. I can only speculate.

The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.

The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.

Moving on to more minutiae, the traffic light systems are quite similar to what you’ll find in just about every country, with the addition of a timer. Especially in the larger cities, lights had timers that would tell you how many seconds until it would change. It was my understanding that this was prevent people from preempting the lights and causing accidents, as well letting motorists check their mobile devices or do other things at a stop light without holding up traffic when it suddenly went green.

Also, while this might be odd to point out, the air conditioners, both in private residences I visited as well as in most hotels, were these single-room setups. They were mostly operated by a remote, and as I found out later, called “ductless” air conditioners. Here in the United States, A/C units are usually large affairs (especially in the case of central heating and air), even the small units, and have to be planted on the outside of a residence. The ones I encountered in Vietnam used less power, could be placed anywhere in a building and were hyper-efficient. However, they had the drawback of not quite offering quite the cooling power of some of the Western ones that I’m accustomed to.

The A/C on the inside feeds through a tube to a fan mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.

The A/C on the inside (top) feeds through a tube to a fan (bottom) mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.

Lastly, along the same line as the air conditioners, the most common type of water heater was not a tank water heater as is common in the States. Almost every place I went used in-line tankless water heaters. These work by heating water as it’s used rather than heating and holding it until use. These can be set up to heat with electricity (the most common I saw), natural gas or even propane. The only problem I had with these was that they sometimes didn’t get hot enough or took a long time to get “warmed up”. Again, very efficient but not as robust as the tank ones I’m used to using in the US.

I did a lot more on this trip than look at water heaters and street lights, but I thought that these little tidbits were the best suited for this blog. I find the differences in the technology that people use on a daily basis the most interesting, as all “good” technology intertwines itself seamlessly into our lives.

-CJ Julius