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Technology

Content that deals mainly with a technology issue, usually in a way to minimize jargon

Web Security for All

Accessing a web site sends information back and forth as you access pages and click on links.  This data travels through numerous computers on its way to the web site’s server and to your computer.  This varies depending on your Internet provider and the provider of the web site.  Recently, I traced my access to this site and counted 13 computers passing my data, to and fro.  And I only control one of them.  Many more people have access to these 13 computers and their connections.

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the foundation of data communication for the World Wide Web.  HTTP Secure (HTTPS) provides authentication of the website and associated web server and provides bidirectional encryption of communications between a client and server, which protects against eavesdropping and tampering with or forging the contents of the communication. In practice, this provides a reasonable guarantee that one is communicating with the website and ensuring that the contents of communications between the user and site cannot be read or forged by any third party.

HTTPS is especially important over insecure networks (such as public WiFi access points), as anyone on the same local network can packet sniff and discover sensitive information (user name, password, etc.) not protected by HTTPS.

The security of HTTPS is that of the added Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, which uses public key encryption to generate a session key which is then used to encrypt the data flow between client and server. To validate public keys, certificate authorities (CA) and public key certificates are necessary to verify the relation between the certificate and its owner, as well as to generate, sign, and administer the validity of certificates. Certificate authorities are trusted by web browser creators to provide valid certificates.  The top three certificate authorities, in 2016, issued over 75% of all certificates in use.

  1. Comodo CA – certificates for $63.95 to $809.10/year.
  2. Symantec Corp. – $399.00/year.
  3. GoDaddy – $62.99 to $269.99/year.

As of April 5, 2016, 41.7% of the Internet’s 141,160 most popular websites have a secure implementation of HTTPS.  That adds up to a lot of revenue for CAs using standard protocols and freely available software. The certificate costs are only a few cents to generate a certificate and a few dollars to administer.  That makes selling TLS certificates one of the biggest cash cows in the world.  All the certificates are exactly the same!  Otherwise they would not work in our browsers.  The only difference in certificates is marketing hype.  Even Comodo CA sells cheaper certificates for $9.00/year through their PositiveSSL brand.

Now there are free certificates available issued by Let’s Encrypt certificate authority sponsored by Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, mozilla, and facebook among others.  These certificates work the same as the certificates costing much more.  You can verify this using Qualys SSL Labs’ SSL Server Test for this site which uses a Let’s Encrypt certificate.

Password Shenanigans

There seems to be a trend in web security that requires that you type your password, no pasting allowed!

This combined with other password “requirements” are creating problems for people like me that use very secure long passwords.  That means I use a password safe that generates long random strings of letters and numbers like:

kUTaVYPuw6KdCLsqhfJ35qHdZcgCqR

BTW, this password is random and not used by me, anywhere!

So when I sign up for a site that does not allow pasting my really secure password, but requires that I type it manually, I end up with passwords like:

Secure4Stupid!

Making my password much less secure. Also most sites use the “onpaste=return false;” trick.  This only stops the stupid people, as 5-15 minutes with a Greasemonkey script will defeat that “security” feature.  So let’s not think that every idea about password security is a good idea.

Even the following idea is probably not that secure given that password crackers use dictionaries that contain the words: correct, horse, battery, and staple.

xkcd comicAnother annoyance is sites that do not tell me what the maximum length is for a password on their site.  Almost no one tells you this even though they tell you, you must enter at least 8 characters, using letter and numbers….  Since I have had several sites truncate my password, without error or warning, I now have to look at the HTML source code to see if a hint is there.

So here is some password advice for web-site developers and their customers.

  • Do tell us the minimum and maximum lengths, characters allowed (numbers, letters, symbols, etc.).  Make the maximum something like 255, to allow secure passwords and phrases.
  • Do use a hashing algorithm to store passwords for you password protected applications.  This also allows for very long passwords, but fixes the hash value length that you need to store to authenticate your users.  A really useful function is the Unix crypt() library function that is implemented in numerous languages including C, Perl, PHP, Python, and Ruby.
  • Do use standard HTML for accepting passwords for compatibility with more devices.
  • Do not disable pasting which causes users to create weaker passwords.
  • Do not store passwords in plain text on any system.  For clients, use a password safe program to generate and store passwords. For applications and servers, use a strong hashing algorithm to store and compare passwords.
  • Do not use JavaScript for security as it is easily circumvented.
  • Do not reuse passwords for multiple sites.

For more advice on password security:

39,000 emails and counting….

Today my Junk folder filled up and would not accept anymore messages!  39,019 junk/spam email messages since January 1, 2015 and that is just the blatantly junk messages.  I receive many more messages from organizations that I have contact with that can “legally” send me emails from their push marketing campaigns. Guess what?  I do not read most of these emails and if I do I will be less likely to do business with your organization!  Sending me an email every other day will not cause me to buy your product more often.  In fact, the opposite will happen and I will buy less or none at all!  Selecting the “Do Not Email” preference does not seem to work with most organizations.

Barracuda Central reports that of 440,517,446 emails received 10/15/2015, by networks that use their products, only 62,534,611 (14.2%) are legitimate emails and 371,958,217 (84.44%) are spam!

The Economist reports:

[spam] is also bad for the environment. According to a report from an environmental consultancy, ICF International, commissioned by McAfee, a computer-security company, some 62 trillion unsolicited e-mails were sent in 2008, using 33 terawatt hours of electricity. That is equivalent to the energy consumed by 1.5m American homes or 3.1m cars over a year. If generated by coal-fired power stations it would release 17m tonnes of carbon dioxide, some 0.2% of global emissions of this greenhouse gas.

We need to find ways of securing the Internet email systems to prevent the overwhelming deluge of spam email.  And now I receive junk texts!  We need to act now before these good technologies become worthless for real communication.

Long Live the Internet!

Today the FCC adopted new rules for governing the Internet in the United States.  These rules will protect and insure a open and neutral Internet. The FCC’s Open Internet Order contains the following rules.

  1. No Blocking;
  2. No Throttling;
  3. No Paid Prioritization;
  4. Standard for Future Conduct;
  5. Greater Transparency;
  6. Reasonable Network Management;
  7. Interconnection;
  8. Reclassification of broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service under Title II;
  9. Major Provisions of Title II that the Order WILL APPLY:
    1. No unjust or unreasonable practices or discrimination,
    2. Allows investigation of consumer complaints,
    3. Protects consumer privacy,
    4. Ensures fair access to poles and conduits by providers,
    5. Protects people with disabilities,
    6. Bolsters universal service fund support for broadband service in the future.

You can read the entire FCC statement at http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-adopts-strong-sustainable-rules-protect-open-internet or a PDF version here.

New Year Resolutions

I usually do not make New Year’s resolutions because I mostly forget them by the Super Bowl. But this year I am getting my online life more secure.

  1. I will change all my passwords to 20+ random characters.
  2. I will store these passwords in a secure format.
  3. I will encrypt more email.

The first 2 are pretty easy since I have used a password safe program for many years. When the Heartbleed web security bug hit, I changed many passwords and upgraded to 20+ character length passwords in the process.

The third resolution will be more difficult!  Sending an encrypted email to someone requires setting up both the sender and the receiver with software and cryptographic keys.  The “easiest” setup seems to be using Thunderbird with Enigmail add-on with versions available for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.  Now I just need to convince someone else to do it.

Antivirus is Dead!

So declared Brian Dye, Symantec’s senior vice president for information security. “We don’t think of antivirus as a moneymaker in any way.”  Mr. Dye went on to say “antivirus now catches just 45% of cyberattacks.”

So because they cannot make money, this segment of the software industry is dead?  Maybe they are not any good at it!  Or maybe it is the wrong solution to the problem.  Or maybe it is too narrow of a solution.

I believe that this problem can only be dealt with effectively at the operating system level.  But the stage was set by Microsoft years ago when they allowed third party companies to deal with the problem of poor security on Microsoft Windows.  But that is just like plugging holes in a leaking boat, it just slows down the problem.

Microsoft has made feeble attempts to increase security on Windows® with equally feeble results.  A code-signing mechanism was introduced in Windows called Authenticode, but even Microsoft does not use this technology to protect the integrity of all of its software.  Microsoft finally added a firewall application, in a usable form, to the Windows operating system in 2004.

The problem of malicious access and modification of computer systems needs to be dealt with at the lowest levels and with a variety of methods.  Intrusion prevention and intrusion detection software are both needed to prevent system attacks.  Many intrusion prevention solutions exist in the form of stand-alone systems like routers and applications that can be installed on end-user systems.  For Linux systems numerous intrusion detection applications can be found such as AIDE and Tripwire.  There is even an cross-platform, open-source application called OSSEC that runs on Windows based systems.

Some of these solutions are not the “next big thing” required by most “for profit” companies.  So many solutions will come from the open-source community.

Stop Using Microsoft Internet Explorer

If you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), there are hackers actively using a software bug to gain control of Microsoft Windows computers.  Stop using IE now! This is twice as dangerous as the Heartbleed Bug because an attacker can take control of your computer and do whatever they want with it.

US-CERT issued an alert about the active exploitation of a use-after-free vulnerability in Microsoft Internet Explorer. This vulnerability affects IE versions 6 through 11 and allows a remote, unauthenticated attacker to execute arbitrary code on a vulnerable system.

US-CERT recommends that users and administrators review Microsoft Security Advisory 2963983 for mitigation actions and workarounds. If you are still using Windows XP, Microsoft will not provide updates or solutions and you should consider installing and using an alternate browser such as Mozilla Firefox (free) or Google Chrome (free).

For more details, please see VU#222929 and FireEye’s Blog entry.

Heartbleed Bug – End of the World or Non-event?

heartbleed xkcd comicThat about covers the risks.  Now what can you do about it?  First, update your computer (Windows, Mac OS X or Linux/Unix), right now!  Before you read the rest of this post.

Most software vendors/service providers recognized the serious nature of this bug and updated their software (the easy part).  So getting the fix is usually easy. The biggest problem is trying to determine if your information has been compromised.  You can’t!  Attacks leave no trace or very little on the computers that gave up their private secrets.  This bug has been out in the wild for 2 years!  Maybe nobody found it and took advantage OR somebody did and has all our passwords.  N.S.A is that you?  The actual risk is probably somewhere in between those extremes.

Most security experts are recommending that we change all our passwords and replace all of our SSL certificates.  At the very least change your password on you bank account log-in, but you probably don’t need to change your Facebook password (everybody has all that info).  And definitely change your password if you use one password for everything.  Yea, it is hard to remember all of them, but you can let your computer do the remembering.  Start using a password safe like KeePass or KeePassX to create and store long secure password using one password, that you have to remember, to save them on your system in an encrypted file.

More info about Heartbleed Bug:

 

Microsoft dropping XP support

Microsoft has finally made good on their threat to stop supporting Windows XP and on April 8, 2014 will stop providing update and fixes for one of their most popular operating system releases.  Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001 and end development of it in 2008.  They have continued to provide bug-fixes and minor updates until April 8, 2014.

To find out what version of Windows you are running you could go to this page on Microsoft’s web site, but it said I was running Windows 8.1 even though I am running Ubuntu.  So if you know you are not running Ubuntu or Mac OS X the following steps will help you find your version of Windows.

The minimum hardware you need to run Windows 8.1 is:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver

I stress this is the minimum to even install and doubling these minimums is needed to run Windows 8 in a efficient and productive way. Also this does not take into account any other applications you might install and run.

So you either need to buy new hardware, which will come with a newer version of Windows or switch to another operating system.  To use Mac OS X you need to buy an Apple Macintosh PC which, in my opinion, is a much better interface and less of a target for computer viruses that Microsoft Windows.

If do not want to buy new computer hardware there are alternatives that will run on your existing PC.  Check out the free Lubuntu, a lightweight variation of Ubuntu.

If you use you computer for just email and browsing these free alternatives will fit the bill.  You can also edit documents (in most Microsoft Office and other formats) with the free LibreOffice office suite software.

There are other free Linux distributions that will run on older computers and here is a link to the DistroWatch.com web-site that lists some of them.  Most of these offer a “live CD” download that allows you to download and create a CD that you can use to try out the new operating system and application software without installing it on your system.  A try before you install option!

If you don’t have a writable CD/DVD drive or don’t know how to create a CD, you can order a Lubuntu CD from OSDisc.com for $2.95 +S/H.  They also sell other Linux variations as well.

Other benefits of most Linux distributions are ease of update and less computer viruses that are designed to attack Linux-based computers.

Before your old Window XP system is hacked, check out the alternatives.

What Is That Thing?

Recently I purchased a Dremel® power tool and noticed a black plastic device mounted on the power cord. On this device the words “Do Not Remove” were prominently displayed.  This piqued my curiosity, so I search the web for the “Emtag” and “Do Not Remove” and found numerous results.  Most of which gave confusing information about this device.  Some said it was to suppress high frequency interference in electronic circuits.  Some said it was a tracking device.

Emtag picture

Emtag Side A

Emtag Side B

Emtag Side B

Emtag removed pic

Emtag Removed

Not being able to live with this information void, I decided to try a test, contrary to all warnings and remove the device!  I just used pliers to squeeze the device until it separated into two pieces.

The Dremel still ran!  But was I now interfering with my wireless network while grinding, shaping and polishing?  Looking at the inside of the removed Emtag™, I saw something familiar.  This flat white plastic tag (seen in the picture Emtag Removed) is commonly used in stores to prevent theft.

Emtag™ is a anti-shoplifting device that is attached to electrical product cords using electronic article surveillance (EAS) to prevent theft. The Emtag™ device is manufactured by B&G International Inc. and contains a Sensormatic Supertag acousto-magnetic (AM) tag. These AM devices are typically attached to products and packaging during manufacturing. The devices are sensed by special antennas located at exits from a store or building. The Emtag™ comes in several sizes for attachment to power codes of different sizes.

This device can safely be removed (after purchase) from power tools without affecting the performance of the tool.  This device has nothing to do with suppressing high frequency noise in electronic circuits like ferrite rings.  In fact, it is similar to those mattress tags that say “Do Not Remove” in that they are unneeded after you get your purchase home.