Digital Assistants

Digital Assistants

AKA permanent spyware

You must assume: if they can hear you ever, they can hear you always.

Amazon is offering bedside units with cameras.  What could possibly go wrong?

In 1984, Orwell speculated the state would force us all to have in-home surveillance.  We did George one better and went out and bought our own voluntarily.  From Smart TVs to Alexa: I know of no way to consider these things safe to have in your home.  My advice is to throw them all in the giant disk-drive shredder.

April Fool?

April Fool?

It’s an established fact that any headline in the form of a yes/no question can safely be answered, “no.”  And so it is with today’s post, as you will see.

One of the things we humans have to watch out for is, who can use data we generate almost unconsciously.  We have to be careful about the data that flows from our fitness devices, smartphones, home gadgets and web browsers.  The web browser is a hotbed of information about you on many levels, but today we are going to focus on one of the most fundamental.  It’s something we can think of as the absolute rawest version of your browsing history: your DNS data.

DNS stands for Domain Name System.  Simply defined, DNS is the Internet utility that turns server names into numeric addresses the Internet can use to get your requests to the right place.  So to read this post you entered a request for “” and it was DNS who knew that means  Therefore your web browser’s request for this page was routed to that Internet address, and from there, this content was returned to you.  If you had to manually look up a similar address for every website you wished to visit, I am going to guess you would not use the web very much.  Or at all.  I would surely not.

Now you may have a browser function for “Private” or “Incognito” browsing.  So if you wanted to hide the fact that you read a certain website, you would invoke that function, then read your “taboo” site, then close it out.  You would trust (or maybe you verified) that once you close that session, no record of your forbidden activity is preserved.  And that might indeed be true – but only so far as the computer on which you did this browsing is concerned.  In order to get the content at all, your computer had to send in a DNS request for the site you wanted to read, which had to be interpreted and executed.  Which means your ISP had access to the request and can build from that a very intricate history of your browsing habit.

Not only that, but the ISP may decide to do more than watch.  (They are going to have to have the numeric addresses in any case, so the list of sites is not really the main issue here.)  But ISPs have been seen to use their built-in DNS to hijack some requests and outright deny others.  The so-called “Great Firewall of China” is in large part, a corrupt DNS.  ISPs in “free” countries have been observed injecting ads and altering web pages, especially those of competing services.  The current FCC, in the USA, is unlikely to provide any relief.

So the smart course of action is, in my opinion, to move away from the ISP-provided DNS.  And I have used a bunch.  OpenDNS was lovely until it was bought by Cisco and started shedding features and performance.  For a while, therefore, I have been using Google’s service.  Not bad, not great.  Google gets to spy on my web browsing habits — but they do that anyway, so I’m no worse off.

Then, yesterday, on April Fools’ Day (!), Cloudflare announced a new DNS service.  The address of their main server is  Four 1s, they said, so of course they simply had to announce it on 4/1.  They promise not to retain logs or any identifying information, so there is nothing to resel or exploit.  If they breach that promise, it will come out.  For now, the service is touted as “Privacy-First.”  And oh yeah, it’s very fast.  15 milliseconds is considered a pretty good response time for DNS.  The North American results I have seen for this have it returning responses in under 5ms.

So for now… my DNS setting is number 1! 1! 1! 1!

And no, it was not an April Fool.  The habit of tech companies to announce fake services they think will get a laugh… all it gets is an eye-roll.

The Wirecutter on 3-2-1 Backups

The Wirecutter on 3-2-1 Backups

3-2-1 is the watchword for how to do backups.  3 copies, on at least 2 different media, and 1 offsite.  I have written about this a lot, as I consider it the most basic of security basics.

If your data is backed up offsite, ransomware can’t get to it, fire and flood can’t get to it.

Now The Wirecutter has thrown its backup hat into the ring.  They might have a few (million) more readers than I do, so I will go ahead and link to them.

I am not a huge fan of their cloud pick, Backblaze.  I have tried it and found it to be unacceptably slow.  But it’s probably the easiest to use for the non-technical user, so my disagreement is little more than a quibble.

I am currently backing up with Duplicati and then syncing my backups to pCloud.  Duplicati is awesome but I can tell you: when it comes to ease of use, it’s no Backblaze!  If you just read that and felt like you were going to enjoy that challenge, I say, go for it.

pCloud is just as easy to use as Backblaze, but it does not offer anything like as much functionality as Backblaze.  But it’s comparable in price, and if you can handle Duplicati, pCloud won’t even make you break a sweat.

Anyway, here’s the TL;DR:  Make. Your. Damn. Backups!

Whose Net? Our Net!

Whose Net? Our Net!

On Dec 14 the FCC carried out its corporate masters’ plan to gut net neutrality, responding to millions of astroturfed “comments” from dead people, etc.

This action made the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation all the more critical.

On Feb 7, one of the EFF’s key founders, John Perry Barlow, passed away.  Some remembrances: Cory Doctorow, EFF, Kevin Kelly.

This was a very, very great loss for freedom… freedom of the mind that only a chaotic and open Internet can guarantee.  It was a great loss for humanity as well.

Kottke shared Barlow’s rule for being an adult.  I think it’s worth reproducing here.  Read them and aspire.

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

I like the dynamic tension between some of them.  For example, 4 and 5, or 9 and 10.

I feel a responsibility to continue on what he started for us.  You can help: donate to the EFF, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and other causes that speak to you and that will help us hold the line against creeping corporatist fascism.

The Internet is the greatest opportunity humanity has had yet to avoid the tragedy of the commons – let’s not blow it.

Rest in Peace


Again, 10?

Again, 10?

Back in 2016, I swore off Windows completely and especially Windows 10.

One of the reasons was a “feature” called Telemetry, that basically amounts to “Windows 10 is 100% spyware.”  It was widely reported at the time, along with an elaborate hokey-pokey you could dance to disable most of it.  My choice was, “Aww, the heck with it” but many people chose to continue.

Now we have the “1709” or “Fall Creators” update before us, and guess what?  It’s time to reinvent that hokey-pokey!  Not only is all the Telemetry back on, but it’s harder than ever to disable.

Recommendations for software products are popping up to help you manage this, but if software products were put forth that disable features of a non-spyware operating system the way these things do, we’d probably consider them malware.

It seems that Microsoft has decided they can’t make decent money selling consumer operating systems, so they will go all Facebook and sell all your data instead.  If you have been wondering why Win10 was free – or nearly so – now you know why.  Only this is, if anything, worse than Facebook.  At least Facebook can only get to things you decide to upload to it.  Windows 10, if that’s your operating system, has… EVERY-DAMN-THING!

So – hey – here’s an idea.  If you want a free operating system, I have a deal for you!  Click on the cute penguin to get started.

Nukes Inbound to Hawaii! NOT!

Nukes Inbound to Hawaii! NOT!

The word on why we got treated to a false alarm about missiles heading for Hawaii is this:
(over-simplification alert!)

  1. What was supposed to be an internal-only test message got misdirected to the live alert system
  2. When presented with the much-maligned, “Are you sure?” prompt, the operator did what we all do reflexively.

They clicked Yes.

There’s a security lesson here.  Stop and take a breath and read all these prompts.  Clicking OK automatically is the road to ruin.  So many security-sensitive things are prompted like this.  You get this one chance to stay safe.  Take it.

Scam Busting

Scam Busting

Email scams have been a problem almost as long as there has been email.  Today’s joint is not about the basics of that, I have dealt with those before.   Scambusters is a great source of detailed information about these scams, and how to avoid being taken in.  But what I want to explore here is a practice that is a source of some consternation: scamming the scammers.  People reply to email scams as if they were interested in the “offers” or “opportunities.”

Their motivation for doing this is wasting the scammers’ time, supposedly keeping their attention away from others who might be taken in, while they are responding to people who, in turn, are determined not to become victims.

If you explore 419 Eater, you will find a lot of material there about this practice, including a page of discussion about whether or not this is ethical.  What is not well-treated on that page is, the fact that emailing lies intended to induce action based on false pretenses is exactly as illegal when it’s in reply to same.

419 Eater has been around for fifteen years.  A more recent innovation has been, not surprisingly, to automate the process of scam busting.  One example is Re:scam, a service of the New Zealand org NetSafe.  Its purpose is also to drain profitability out of email scamming, by wasting the scammers’ time in unproductive conversations but here using bots posing as willing marks, not volunteer cyber-vigilantes.


Now for the bad news.  I forwarded an email to Re:Scam and a reply came back telling me the service was on hiatus.  A forward to another site publicized recently,, simply bounced.  No specific word on why these are not currently functioning.  Possible reasons include, issues with the technology working well… issues with the resource requirements (i.e., costs), and issues with the legal authorities.  Again I caution readers on the legality and ethicality of fighting fraud with fraud.

Be careful out there!

OMC: Oh MyCloud!

OMC: Oh MyCloud!

In a revelation that should surprise exactly nobody, security researchers have revealed that Western Digital MyCloud drives have a built-in backdoor.  AI hard-coded username and password give privileged command line access to the device, which may then be compromised however the attacker sees fit.

This feature defect was disclosed responsibly enough to WD last July.  After six months without a fix forthcoming, the researchers went public with it.

My usual handling of devices like this is to presume they are all similarly compromised.  I do not, repeat, NOT connect them to their “cloud” services.  In fact, I only use items like these if I can see how they can be used in a state where they are specifically forbidden from connecting to the Internet, and still be worthwhile to me.

With this one, at least, it turns out my level of paranoia is insufficient.  A malicious webpage, visited from a machine on the same local area network as this MyCloud, can execute a script that pwns the device.  Now I have to consider whether all such devices can reasonably be expected to have the same mode of possible compromise.



Have a Random New Year

Have a Random New Year

Randomness is important.  You use it in the physical world when you shuffle a deck for a game of cards or roll a D12 for a result in Dungeons & Dragons.  But you need it even more in the digital world, and it’s more difficult to come by.  You need randomness to select one-time-use keys that you share for symmetrical encryption, to select strong passwords or passphrases, to run fair games at things like online poker and casino games.

The problem is, that for all the miraculous things it can do with random input, software is very bad at generating it.  Algorithms are deterministic, even if they are designed to be difficult to predict. When you use a function like RAND() in Excel, or get randomized challenges in low-stakes gaming, you’re usually getting the output of what’s called a pseudo-random number generator (PRNG).  The PRNG takes a numerical value, called a seed, and generates a series of new values from it.  If the seed is known, then the new values are easy to predict.  If the seed is not known, it’s a lot more difficult — but not impossible.  If you reuse the same seed you get the same sequence.  This property can be useful sometimes, for example, if you want to be able to reproduce a series of plays in a game.  But mostly, it’s a very bad flaw in any process that needs randomness.

PRNGs are fine when it doesn’t matter.  But when it matters you need to harness the unpredictability of the physical world.  One great Internet resource,, uses atmospheric noise to generate its random numbers.  At that site, random bits are available anytime you want, in many forms.  Some are free and some are available to paid members.  It’s an important function for the safety of the Internet as a whole, and it’s worth supporting.

Another use of physical randomness is in EFF’s Dice passphrase scheme.  If you read the instructions, you’ll see that they really don’t want you using a computer — which might be compromised — in any step of the selection of a password/passphrase that matters.

Internet companies have to generate thousands of strong keys per second for encrypted sessions.  Cloudflare, for example, found a very groovy way to solve this problem:

[Photo: Dani Grant]

So my New Year’s wish to you: keep it random!


Safer Social Media

Safer Social Media

click through for more privacy tips, via Gizmodo

We live in the age of social media, that’s for sure.  Facebook claims over 2 billion people as its users.  Twitter is how we first get breaking news, how we know it’s time to turn on CNN or MSNBC to see what happened when the earth moved in Iran, how the Executive Branch of the US government distracts the press and the people from its horrifying agenda.

To keep up with sorta friends from high school, third cousins, and D-list celebs, we give Internet companies startling amounts of information about ourselves and our activities.  Not using social media at all is an option, but not one many of us take.  I use Twitter 99.5% in read-only mode.  I use Facebook and LinkedIn not at all.  I use Google+ more actively.  Some of you reading this just went either, “uh, what’s Google+?” or, “I didn’t know anyone still used that!”

The reason I don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn comes down to the privacy nightmare that these social network products are.  As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying, you’re not a customer.  You’re the product.”  Consider that whatever benefit you get from the use of these sites, you pay for it with information about your life, your family, your friends.  Everything you post is analyzed in detail that would shock you.

So the least you can do is not to overdo the sharing.  Lock down what you place online so that only the audience you intend can enjoy it.  It means, in general, going into the Privacy and Security settings, and taking a lot of options that are not the default.  Because the products you’re using are guiding you to share and share and share some more.  The more you share, the more their shares appreciate.

Here is a roundup of fairly current articles that will guide you how to max out the privacy possible in all the major social media products

Like everything in information security, this is a trade-off.  How much you want to protect your privacy vs. how much you want to take advantage of the instant connections and the interest groups you can find in the virtual worlds of social media.  Not everyone will choose my complete abstention from “major” networks, and I don’t expect them to.

But one final word: To whatever extent you can live with it, please try not to use these products on your phones.  Yes, I know, the spur-of-the-moment selfie or that Hey, Internet! Look At My Food! moment when you’re out and about can be irresistible.  But every single social media corporation does much, much more than you visualize with the information you give it by letting it operate on your phone.  You location — at all times.  Your contacts.  Whatever your phone’s camera can see or its mic can hear.  Anytime.  Please, think about it.