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Month: April 2015

The Painful Joys of Learning a New Technology

The Painful Joys of Learning a New Technology

I decided a while ago that I wanted to try a next-gen firewall.  So I recently acquired a small ARM-based PC with dual LAN interfaces, installed a disk in it and set to work getting Sophos Home UTM running.

An old friend and co-worker of mine once pointed out that we programmers and other IT types often find ourselves working at a tough problem or bug for hours or even days.  Then we hit upon the solution.  Now at this point, in the popular imagination, we erupt in celebratory exclamations along the lines of, “Eureka!”  Any of us who have been through the process, however, know that what is vastly more likely is that we erupt in vicious, self-directed insults along the lines of “Idiot!”

I have had my share so far of “Idiot!” moments.  Let me share them with you.


By the way: my only justification for being such a moron in the vignettes that follow is, this is my hobby and even though it is frustrating at times, I am having fun.

I got the software and tried several different utilities to make a bootable USB stick from the ISO.  A Linux utility called “USB Image Writer” quickly proved itself nigh-on useless.  Unetbootin works well for Windows or Ubuntu, not so much for anything else.  I discovered that there is one of this scruffy class of programs that actually works well, including adjusting the varieties of the output USB stick formats to how the ISO it’s laying down is set up, and that is Rufus.

Now, with a USB stick in hand that would boot the installer and begin, I quickly encountered an error message during the formatting of the disk, “install.tar not found”.  I probably could have resorted more quickly to the “just google the error message verbatim” strategy and saved myself a lot of time on this one, so that will count as my first “Idiot!” moment.  It turns out that you have to work around the fact that the Sophos ISO is designed to lay down a CD image with links to files as well as files, and this is not well-replicated on the USB version.  Also, for reasons not clear to me, the installer dismounts the install medium during the disk formatting process.  So you need some redundancy that the Rufus utility will not create.  I found this sequence of commands, which worked well:

Start the Installer, then

1. On the First Screen, hit Alt-F2. [gets a command prompt]
2. bash-3.2# mount /dev/sdb1 /mnt [mounting your install USB]
3. bash-3.2# cd /install
4. bash-3.2# mkdir install
5. bash-3.2# cd install
6. bash-3.2# cp -a /mnt/install/* .
7. bash-3.2# cd ..
8. bash-3.2# cp -a /mnt/* .
9. bash-3.2# cd /
10. Hit Alt-F1  [returns to main installer]
11. Finish the Installation, Reboot.

OK, now with this scriptlet, I can get the install to run to completion.  Along the way it takes a default for its static IP, which occasioned my “Idiot!” moment #2, by just clicking past that.  Oh, it also takes a default for the netmask, so my “Idiot!” moment #3 followed #2 pretty quickly.  I hear you objecting that we can change these after install with ifconfig.  It’s true, yes… but are you willing to assume that the installation of all that other firewall functionality did not record those bad defaults somewhere your after-the-fact change will not reach?

Let’s just say, I got good at that command sequence above.

Last but not least, after getting it working to the point of being able to put it on the bench and do as much pre-configuration work as possible prior to setting it inline and trying it out… I made the one mistake that should really have me considering a second career in pottery.  I created a new admin account with a complex password that I recorded in my password manager… and then deleted the default admin account… and then discovered that the new admin password was mistranscribed and therefore useless.  After a break, I get to practice that command sequence again.

And yet, I know how this movie ends.  My persistence at these things is close to boundless, and I will have a functional installation at the end.  And a newly deepened respect for sysadmin and netadmin types who do this for a living.

Sony: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

Sony: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

As you may recall, late last fall, Sony Pictures Entertainment acknowledged that their entire IT infrastructure had been severely breached.  At the time, the attackers were announced to be the North Koreans.  But serious analysis absent political axes to grind has put that conclusion in doubt, to say the least.  More evidence points to the actions of an unhappy employee/former employee and roughly half a dozen accomplices.

One of the things that the attackers did was release a huge cache of internal emails, emails that did not put anyone from within Sony in the best light.  Who among us can say that the release of all our emails would treat us much better?  Still, these were dumped onto public sites, e.g., PasteBin.

Sony’s immediate response was to try to shut down the press from covering this aspect of the situation by sending legal-ish letters to all major media outlets, claiming that just because they were public didn’t mean that they could be reported.  To understand how this is consistent with the First Amendment, I think you need a law degree and a fat paycheck from Sony.  Needless to say, the folks at WikiLeaks were not impressed.  They spent the next few months building everything that was released into a searchable archive.  You can read about that site they just opened here.

Sony’s well-compensated lawyers have jumped right back into the fray, of course.  Unable to do anything about the WikiLeaks site itself, they have once again taken their, um, peculiar understanding of Freedom of the Press to the medium of threatening letters directed at the press (sample here).

The website TechDirt received one of these letters, and wrote about that fact (coverage).  Yeah, gossip about Julia Roberts is not truly newsworthy but there’s plenty in those emails that is.  It’s worth noting that one of two Investigative Reporting Pulitzer Prizes just given out went to Eric Lipton, who also didn’t think much of Sony’s legal theory in this matter.  Lipton used whatever he needed from that treasure trove.  TechDirt has now made a formal response to Sony, which is rather amusing.

I know Sony likes when their work product makes us want to get popcorn and settle in, but I don’t think this is what they had in mind.

The price of free games

The price of free games

What price do we pay to play our favorite games?  Especially the “free” ones?

Privacy.  It’s not that we don’t value it.  We do; we treat it as currency.  And it’s sobering how lavishly we spend it.

I just sampled the permissions requested by the following apps on my Android phone or tablet:

Ingress  Unblock Me FREE 
Pandora Slice It!
Angry Birds  Flow Free
Bubble Blast 2

Except for Pandora, a music-streaming service, all are free games.  Some support in-game purchases but I am disregarding that.

Here are the permissions they require, in aggregate:

  • access Bluetooth settings
  • add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without owners’ knowledge *
  • approximate location (network-based)
  • change network connectivity
  • change your audio settings
  • connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi
  • control vibration
  • find accounts on the device
  • full network access
  • install shortcuts
  • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • pair with Bluetooth devices
  • precise location (GPS and network-based)
  • prevent device from sleeping
  • read call log
  • read Google service configuration
  • read phone status and identity
  • read sync settings
  • read sync statistics
  • read the contents of your USB storage
  • read your contacts
  • receive data from Internet
  • retrieve running apps
  • run at startup
  • toggle sync on and off
  • use accounts on the device
  • view network connections
  • view Wi-Fi connections

* – I uninstalled the one that needs to be allowed to do that.  ~~shudder~~
For some of these games, some of these permissions make sense.  Obvious example: Ingress is simply not going to “do what it says on the tin” if it cannot know your exact location.  On the other hand, what the heck does a simple cutting-puzzle game like Slice It! need with my phone’s call history?
Not to mention, the fact that a given permission seems aligned with the game’s function does not mean that is the only use to which that info is being put.  Imagine if all of the information in the listing above were being compiled in one building.  We’d think that was the NSA and we were on some terror watch-list.
How different is the situation here?  If a game manufacturer can’t use this info themselves, they can surely find a buyer for it.  And yes their privacy policy might say that they won’t sell your individual information but I have found most of them do allow the resale of the information they collect if it’s aggregated and “anonymized.”  Except, as you can see here and here and many more places, anonymization is laughably easy to reverse.  Not to mention, the buyers of your information might have a looser privacy policy than the original collector.  Or they might have none at all.
I’m not saying, don’t play free games.  Or even don’t use a smartphone, which really has all the same issues.  I’m saying, be aware of what you’re paying for those things.
Tech To-Do List

Tech To-Do List

My home tech to-do list (in no particular order)

  • Network Zones: I would like three segregated network zones in our home LAN.  One for our general purpose computers, one for our Android and BlackBerry devices, and one for our printers and connected entertainment boxes (Roku, TiVo, etc.).  There does need to be some traffic between them, however; at least the computers need to be able to communicate with the printers. I have at my disposal for this an ASUS WiFi router and a TP-Link managed switch.  I may also soon add…
  • A UTM device in front of our Internet connection.  That ASUS router is currently connected straight to the DOCSIS 3 cable modem, and doing boundary duty as well as all its internal responsibilities.  I am considering Sophos Free Home UTM, and pfSense.  I have purchased the Intel Atom D2500 for the hardware base.  This will probably handle the Sophos – if not, pfSense will be no challenge to it, for sure.
  • Need to find a way to set up a group of Raspberry Pi units with USB DVD drives to bulk-rip all our movie and TV DVDs into a format that Plex or Serviio will serve.  This is a living-space-placement issue as well as a tech challenge because cats.
  • We have a Sony Bravia TV and a BD player/receiver combo that do a nice job of switching the sound to our 5.1 speakers… some of the time.  The receiver also has a bunch of streaming applications that are now mostly duplicated on other devices.  So I think it might be time to replace the BD-Receiver.  Anyone who knows of a non-Sony device that does “Bravia sync” please comment.  I’m willing to put in two devices here only if absolutely necessary.
  • I am trying out SpiceWorks for a combination of ticketing and monitoring but I’m leery of giving an online service the amount of internal access and authentication that a monitoring system does need.  If anyone knows of a similar facility I could stand up and host internally, shout it out.
There are probably more but they are all much lower priority.  In fact, the priority is so low I can’t think of them now.  This is why I need a ticketing system.