Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

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

24/06/2013
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.

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Vietnam and My Interest in the Minutiae

21/06/2013
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

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AirDroid: Android File Transfer Made Easy

06/05/2013
In Direct Connect Mode, you don't need to log in and only get access to the "lite" features.

In Direct Connect Mode, you don’t need to log in and only get access to the “lite” features.

I have a bad time with MicroSD memory cards. Seriously, I have destroyed two of them in the past six months. I’d like to think that it’s because of a manufacturing defect, but I’m pretty sure it’s just my inherent clumsiness.

See, my tablet, a Galaxy Note 10.1 uses this type of storage and I spend a lot of time moving things to and from it. It’s usually large files or huge blocks of small files so it takes quite a lot of time unless I put the card itself into an adaptor  and plug it into my computer. Even the USB linking ability through the port on the tablet is painfully slow and sometimes just plain doesn’t work.

Emailing the files was sometimes the solution, but was impractical for larger files. Some times I could transfer through a USB stick, but that too was cumbersome. A few programs existed that allowed transfer between a computer and the device over Wifi, but most of them were lacking in some key respect, or didn’t function as I needed. Then I found AirDroid.

AirDroid is not exactly new to the scene, and in fact when I actually broke down and started searching for a solution to my problem, it was the first one to pop up. So I grabbed the “light” version and was throwing things to and from my tablet within minutes. All you need to do is grant it superuser permissions (so it can read/write/get updates) and sign up for the service (if you want to use the optional web version).

The GUI is very nice looking and offers a wide range of to

The GUI is very nice looking and offers a wide range of tools.

The app has two ways of connecting to your tablet, both of which involve configuring your tablet to act as a kind of file server. The first of these is to directly connect to your tablet over your current Wifi by pointing your browser to a specific IP and port (usually [Local IP Here]:8888). Then, through the gorgeous GUI, you can add/remove files, contacts, ringtones (if it’s an Android phone of course) as well as just about anything else that resides on your device.

The second way is similar to the first, except that you go through the AirDroid website (web.airdroid.com) to transfer files. This is useful if your tablet/phone is at home and you need to get something off of it. Assuming that your AirDroid app is running and connected, you can grab your files from literally anywhere in the world. There is a 1GB transfer limit on this function if you’re using the free version, though. So keep that in mind if you’re trying to pull a movie or something from your device.

If you want to grab an entire directory, you can get everything as one .ZIP file

If you want to grab an entire directory, you can get everything as one .ZIP file

Both of these look identical, in that the web interface is the same for both. The GUI has a multitasking feature, letting you add/remove files at the same time while checking your notifications and anything else you have the bandwidth for, as well as stats on your device like its battery life and storage capacity.

AirDroid did not crash or hang the entire time I used it no matter how much stress I put it under. I was transferring several Gigabytes of files to and from it while poking around in my contacts and looking at photos. Also, I run my tablet through an SSL VPN and didn’t have any troubles from that setup either.

On the whole this is a brilliant piece of software and an absolute must-have for any Android user who moves a lot of data around their mobile devices, which is probably everyone. AirDroid2 should be coming soon to my device and I am definitely looking forward to that.

Rating: 5/5 – Absolutely Perfect. You need this app.

-CJ Julius

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MOOCs: E-Learning Run Amok

03/05/2013
Classes like upper level mathematics just don't translate well to elearning environments.

Classes like upper level mathematics or philosophy just don’t translate well to elearning environments.

I can name on one hand the number of online courses that I’ve had that I enjoyed and really felt like I was part of the class. While a few have been decent, my experience with them on the whole has been less that admirable. In the right hands, and with the right professors, online courses can be good learning tools, but they invariably felt distant (not just physically) and left me wondering whether I really understood the material.

When I was given a choice of colleges I made sure that I focused on brick-and-mortar schools that I could get the bulk, if not all, of my education by showing up to an actual classroom with actual classes. But with any education nowadays, you’re going to run into classes that are unavoidably online only. For the most part, that’s fine. Not every class needs the one-on-one focus of an actual classroom and I can understand that.

I stated all the above as sort of a disclaimer about my position on the subject of distance learning. Put quite simply, I think that all-distance learning degrees (ones that are online from 100-level to completion) are junk.* Now, there’s a new trend of of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) which are classes that can be taken, for free or very little cost, by anyone, even those who are not necessarily students of an educational system.

If a college or university devalues the degrees for the current students, it affects all past and future students, too.

If a college or university devalues the degrees for the current students, it affects all past and future students, too.

And to me this seems fine and interesting. There was an MOOC Stanford class a few months back on artificial intelligence that I thought was interesting. I might have taken it myself if I weren’t knee-deep in my own college classes at the time. However, now it is being considered that these courses should be college credit-worthy. Color me sceptical.

Color a whole bunch of professors sceptical as well. Whole departments of colleges and universities have flat-out told the administration that they will not participate. In the article below, they argue that the material cannot be presented properly and the class size is too big to be effective.

The AI class from Stanford that I talked about before drew 160,000 students. Did they all get a college credit’s worth of education? Call me a cynic, but I seriously doubt it. America should have a free or low-cost education system, as our current one is too costly to be useful or fair, but this is not the way to go about it. I fear we may devalue our higher education system and drive smaller schools into the dirt. MOOCs seem like a great idea in moderation, but we can’t see them as a substitute for “real” classes.

From GIGAOM:

San Jose State University, one of the biggest academic supporters of the growing MOOC (massive open online course) movement, apparently has some vocal dissenters in its ranks.

In the past year, the university has welcomed MOOC providers like edX and Udacity with open arms — in addition to launching a first-of-its kind program with Udacity to award college credit for courses taken on its platform. The school has a growing partnership with edX and plans to create a dedicated resource center for California State University faculty statewide who are interested in online content.

But discord seems to brewing among some faculty.  This week, professors in the Philosophy department said they refuse to teach an edX course on “justice” developed by a Harvard University professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university.

Read More…

-CJ Julius

*Again, I want to point out that I recently took a few online classes. In the hands of the right professor, class size and with the right subject, individual classes might be able to be done properly. This is the exception rather than the rule.

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Chrome’s Office Beta Was Not Meant For Me

29/04/2013
Google Office Viewer Beta doesn't work on Windows 8

Google Office Viewer Beta doesn’t work on Windows 8

I tweeted the other day about Google’s new Chrome Office Viewer Extension (COVE?) that was in beta. It would allow users to see Office documents (as in the Microsoft kind) right in their web browser window. I excitedly talked about how it may move me to Chrome, because I do open a lot of web-hosted word processing documents. It sounded exciting!

Moving from one browser to another would be a herculean task for me, but I was willing to do it for such a neat feature, if it worked as advertised. While importing bookmarks are no big deal, moving my encrypted passwords (some to sites that I don’t even remember I used) and tying a Google account to it are not something that I particularly wanted. But I was willing to give it a try.

...it also doesn't work on Ubuntu Linux.

…it also doesn’t work on Ubuntu Linux.

I downloaded Chrome on my laptop and desktop and set about getting the extension. However, I have been unable to get the extension to install. Google has disabled it for the two operating systems I use the most: Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux. I even tried launching Google Chrome in Windows 8 Mode, but to no avail.  While this is beta, I can’t be the only one who uses these two OSes, or just one of them exclusively.

This left me rather disappointed and solidified me more into the Firefox camp, where all my stuff resides anyway. Maybe I’ll keep Chrome around for a bit longer just to see what’s changed since I’ve last used it, or wait until the Office Viewer gets a proper release, but Firefox is still sitting pretty in my book. I’ll stay there and possibly try again when this comes out of Beta.

-CJ Julius

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Bitcoins, Mobile Digital Vaults and Google Fiber (2013.04.26)

26/04/2013

As this blog is an ongoing venture, occasionally I will want to update previous entries or projects. New information is gathered, projects evolve and, in general, things change. Also, I’ve found that updates don’t work so well on old posts because few people bookmark them and then come back later. To combat this, every once in a while I will be giving updates in rapid fire about previous entries. Those posts will be automatically updated via “pingback” in the comments section, so if you actually do bookmark them, then you’ll get notified that way.

Without further ado:

Bitcoins

bitcoins

Even the experts don’t know if Bitcoin is economically viable.

On April 11, 2013, Bitcoin Exchange Halted Trades in order to bring down the price of the coins. They also released a statement denying the bubble and assuring everyone that it was a solid currency. Whether it is or not remains to be seen as it has had its share of detractors and the largest U.S. exchange shut down following the big hype. As stated in my previous post, no matter how it turns out, it’s a fascinating convergence of technology and economics, much in line with the computerized traders on the stock market today. While I’m still extremely skeptical, I’m secretly rooting for an all-digital currency.

Mobile Digital Vaults

DiskInternals Linux Reader

A little cumbersome, but you can read your EXT drives.

My last project involved taking an old 500GB SATA drive, using TrueCrypt and a snazzy drive enclosure to turn it into a mobile digital vault. This was largely successful, although I could not get Windows to format a large enough partition for some reason. This led to me formatting the virtual drive into EXT4, which meant that I could not read it on Windows. I don’t use Windows that much, so that was not a big deal, however I wanted to see if I could find a method that would let me do so.

The blue light on the front show drive access.

The blue light on the front indicates drive access.

I mentioned that I used a piece of software called EXT2READ which I found out later did not work. When I tested it prior to writing the article, I found that I was able to read the drive, though some days after when I tried to copy a .DOCX file from an EXT3 partition to my NTFS Windows drive, the file was corrupted and unreadable. So, I tried another piece of software by DiskInternals to read EXT2/3/4 drives and it worked flawlessly, seeing the newly mounted TrueCrypt drive and letting me access it.

Also, I got another drive enclosure, the Nexstar3 by Vantec to house another 250GB SATA drive. The only major difference between the two is that the NexStar3 does not have a fan built in thus making it significantly smaller. It also requires two different sized screwdrivers to get your drive in, which I thought was odd, but otherwise it seems to be a solid piece of equipment. This drive is a little more “mobile” than the other so I’ve moved all of my encrypted drives that I want to take with me over to this one making the Rosewill enclosure largely stationary on my desktop.

Google Fiber

Google Fiber is stirring up some dust in Austin

Google Fiber is stirring up some dust in Austin

AT&T is feeling threatened by Google Fiber and has launched a counter-offensive aimed at bringing fiber to mainstream consumers in Austin. Some have argued that this is just posturing, but that they even bothered to acknowledge Google’s plans means that they’re taking the move towards a fiber infrastructure seriously to some degree. On the heals of this announcement came Time Warner Cable’s decision to wire Austin for WiFi. Austin Texas is going to be one of the most internet-connected cities in the U.S. at this rate.

Again, as I said in the last post, there is no bad news.

Future Projects

I have several new projects lined up for the next month, a few which are already underway. First of all, I need to take a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive and resurrect some files that got deleted from it. I will probably be using Deft Linux for this, which should be interesting. I’ve only “carved and sifted” once before.

Also, I got my Raspberry Pi up and going, which was interesting in and of itself, but I’m thinking that I’ll drop Wheezy and move toward XBMC. I had hoped to stream video from my Windows shared drive and onto my TV. We’ll see how that goes.

Lastly, I want to do a longer Wednesday post about Security on the Internet. The utilities I use to keep myself secure might be interesting to others out there. The use of VPNs, two step authentication and software to obscure passwords will be some of the pieces I’ll touch upon.

-CJ Julius