Sunday, 11 September 2016

Just a Few of My Favourite Things...

No, I'm not going to go all musical on you - i'm going to point out a couple of inexpensive or free bits of software that have saved my butt a couple of times over the last couple of years. This post isn't really for the more technical among you (OK, I'm pretending I have readers here, I don't), as you probably already have solutions to these problems, but rather for those who are happily wandering through their digital life with a few bits missing. I've found myself doling out the same bits of advice a couple of times to friends and family members over the last year or so, so here it is, condensed in barely readable blog form...

You gots to have backup. Please believe me when I tell you that there's no such thing as a reliable harddisk (or, these days, SSD). Not only can the storage in your PC or Mac easily take a turn for the worse, but there's now ransomware, viruses, and plain old human stupidity to contend with. The last time I suffered a total loss of an entire PC was a combination of mild stupidity, laziness, and a windows 10 upgrade. And I am supposed to know better. So my go-to tool here is Backblaze. For £50 a year you get an unlimited amount of space in Backblaze's cloud to store your data. The little bit of software you download works out which files you've added or changed, and uses your Internet connection to store a copy far, far away. You will find it chews up your internet connection for fun to begin with, as your entire life's work gets compressed, encrypted and sent to the cloud. This is but a temporary inconvenience. When everything goes wrong, you can download files ad-hoc, or buy a harddisk from them with all your data on. Lifesaver.
PC or Mac -  £50/yr -

Password Management
Most people have a fair few passwords in their possession. Actually, they don't. They have a fair few accounts, and mostly they reuse the same password, because the human brain is rubbish at storing passwords. Occasionally, one of your accounts will get popped by the bad guys, and depending on the security chops of the organisation that lost your deets, the bad guys will have your password, clear as day (the one you re-used everywhere) within a couple of hours or a couple of weeks.  Dropbox, for example, have had roughly 70 million accounts compromised. Many of those users will subsequently have their email or Amazon accounts taken too. My suggestion is to use a password manager that securely generates random passwords for you. You lock these passwords up in an electronic safe which you protect with one, strong password you don't re-use. Ever. This is putting your eggs in one basket, and watching that basket like a hawk. Personally, I keep about 4 passwords: Email, Bank, Credit card, Password manager. The Password manager looks after the other 135.
My favourite is LastPass - the free account is perfectly serviceable, I go for the $12/yr premium.
PC, Mac, IOS, Android - Free -

Old, old hat, but many people, especially Mac users (of which club I am a newly minted member, see also the Windows 10 debacle) dont bother with AV. I still wouldn't bother on a mobile device (to my mind, the app store gives a level of protection that makes the extra battery drain and aggro of AV not worth while) but on a desktop or laptop AntiVirus remains essential. Windows Security Essentials is OK, but far from perfect. I'm going to recommend Sophos, and this is for a few reasons: they're a decent enough company, they score OK on the AV comparatives, and they're the only free anti-virus out there that doesn't bombard you with ads or freemium upgrades. I picked Sophos for the mac ahead of a couple of paid-for variants. When I couldn't transfer my Bitdefender licence, the market for Apple AV is still pretty small. Sophos hit the heights in the recent comparatives on Mac, and I wasn't about to argue on price. Hopefully the simple download and install and zero cost will get you using AV if you don't already have it, or it is out of date. All management is through the web console: this is both a blessing, and occasionally a curse (less so if you have Lastpass, logging in is so much quicker!). You can add up to 10 computers to the management console.
PC or Mac - Free -

I know i've only hit the high spots here, but if you aren't using anything in these 3 categories, please, start today. I've only given you one product - Backblaze - that costs anything, and even that is fantastic value.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Converting Firefox Bookmarks

So, I recently bought a Macbook. Windows PC had died a horrible death involving Windows 10.

I have my backup - but I no longer want to use Firefox (I have Chrome, I have Safari... that'll do). I need to convert Firefox bookmarks into something useful. Normally, you'd export as "bookmarks.html" and have at it. Unfortunately I don't have the running system to export from.

Firefox has some loopy compressed json backup format - I couldn't read that based on 5 minutes googling. I used "places.sqlite" from the profile directory instead.

Here is a bit of perl which will do a very rudimentary job of converting the mozilla sqlite database into something approaching bookmarks.html. I hope somebody finds it useful, and maybe it saves them installing Firefox just for a conversion.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Wordpress goes HTTPS - Not All Good News?

Wordpress has recently turned on encryption for blogs hosted in their cloud. Good news, mostly. Particularly good for Wordpress users, who will benefit from a better google pagerank.

To be honest, that's about the only major benefit here. I hope it will help, long term, to get folks thinking about crypto. I hope it results in a few fewer security issues.

Unfortunately, it will lead to an uptick in secure traffic that's malicious. Wordpress blogs are a notoriously good place for stashing a bit of something unpleasant, and if Internet wrongdoers can get a "green padlock" on their fishing site, or avoid mixed content issues, I am sure Wordpress just got a little more attractive.

Ultimately, Wordpress are heading in the right direction, for which I admire them, but sometimes, doing right by the good guys also gives the bad guys a leg up. It's up to the rest of us to raise our game.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Last Bastion of Port 80?

It's good to see the wane of plain HTTP traffic, and the rise of almost ubiquitous HTTPS. Indeed the 30 or so tabs I happen to have open today comprise 24 HTTPS and 6 plain HTTP (3 of these belonging to a large organisation that should know better). We can't trust the transmission media in the way we did in those carefree days of the 90s, so everything sensitive must be encrypted. Of course, we know the perils of mixing plaintext delivered content within supposedly secure pages, and likewise the issues around moving from one realm to the other. As such, we have no option: HTTPS is everywhere.

There is one last place, however, where plain ol' HTTP reigns supreme - home network appliances. Things like the new NAS I treated myself to the other day to replace an aging linux server. What do I need to bother with keeping that running - all I really need is a DLNA server, Samba... case closed, the NAS is perfect. Trouble is, these devices all encourage us to administer them over port 80. I can see why, as well. Because of all the issues secure sites have had being spoofed, it is more and more difficult to visit a site with no "real" certificate. You need to click through 101 warnings and find the "advanced" section to allow the transaction to continue. This is a good thing for the Internet at large, but it brings difficulties in cases like this.

What's the answer? Well, there's not a good one - at least not yet. I appreciate the efforts Buffalo have gone to in allowing me to upload a certificate for my NAS. That's a start. I'd like to see HSTS as an option: so that once I have either sorted the cert, or added it as an exception I don't accidentally go back to plaintext.

Is there room for an extension to HTTP/2 that can help us set up these home devices, where we've got no infrastructure? Perhaps. It sounds like something that could be exploited, however - so would need careful thought. If the "Internet of Things" is going to be a reality, though, we must do better (perhaps the "everything has it's own webserver" paradigm is what needs to die?)

In the meantime,  make sure you give each of these devices a unique password, so if it is sniffed off your network by the cat (my cat's not that into hacking, so I'm ok), she can't log into your amazon account.

Monday, 9 November 2015

UK to get "Fast Broadband" as a "Right"

So, Mr Cameron has helpfully announced that the UK is to get 100% coverage of "Fast Broadband" by 2020. A lot of broadband bigmouths are engaged in useless chatter about what constitutes "fast", so I thought i'd lob in my £0.02. I mean, why not? Nobody reads this anyway :)

I know what slow broadband is. I get 5Meg. I live in an area where there's FTTC and cable broadband at speeds of 10 or 20 times that, but I happen to occupy a neat little "notspot". Would I be happy to double my speed to 10? Sure. But I'd give up the extra 5 in a heartbeat for another 1 upstream.

All this "superfast" is doing is making us superfast consumers! What about those of us who would like to work from home? Are you going to guarantee us reasonable connections to our co-workers? Backup is something most people do appallingly - but something like Backblaze is a massive win, you need never lose a byte again, but my 17megapixel camera takes huge images, so my backup lasts longer than my holiday.

If we're going to relegate ourselves to consumers - and don't get me wrong, I'd like to be able to binge watch box sets  of "House" in HD as much as the next man - we need to think a little about latency too. High latency can choke a video stream as effectively as crappy bandwidth.

"Mbit/sec" as a measure of "Internets" is about as good as "Mhz" as a measure of CPU performance. Why do I expect any better from politicians?

Saturday, 3 October 2015

US Chip & Pin Implementation Fudged Again - but is it Relevant?

Over here in the UK, we have become quite used to chip & pin transactions. In fact, visiting a Chinese restaurant in Leeds last night I saw a sign saying "To combat fraud, we will only accept chip & pin" - must have been there years. I can't remember the last time I saw a card with only a magstripe.

Wait, yes I can - it was a few months ago, in Boston.  In the US, chip and pin is virtually unknown. I'd say I've seen more chip & pin in Kenya than in the states, and they too aren't far on with adoption. It seems, yet again, that a move to introduce chip & pin in the US has failed - a partial move, but not really.

Does it actually matter though? Is carrying a bit of plastic around in our wallets about to become a thing of the past? Last week I saw Barclay's advertise "bPay" in a free paper at the train station. Contactless fob... wristband... sticker. Is that even too physical? I plan to pay for my ironing to be done with Paym - just using an app. My wife pays for her car detailing with Paypal. With uber we pay for taxis with a card that nobody needs to see.

Here in the UK, we seem to be going magstripe >> chip&pin >> contactless >> no-card. Is the US just going to skip a generation, in the same way landline phones never made it into Kenya? Those guys skipped straight to mobile because the cost of putting in a load of wires was higher than the cost of the latest generation of technology. These days, not every revolution has to follow all the stages!

I quite like my wallet - but it probably has too many things in it. I suspect it won't be long before there's neither plastic cards, nor pictures of her majesty.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Unhackable? I Guess it's Possible...

Stories have been doing the rounds this week of an "unhackable" computer. Of course, these are not strictly true. More credible media reports an "unhackable" kernel - here in New Scientist. The kernel is the complicated bit of software that lets other stuff (so called "userspace") not have to worry about directly fiddling with the hardware, and makes sure all of userspace plays nice together. Here's the page with the FAQ from the folk who built it.

Of course, making an unhackable kernel is an incredible feat - though calling it "unhackable" is a bit more fluff in my view (totally forgivable, given the achievement, mind!). I remember looking at formal proofs in my student days. This stuff is hard. To prove a whole kernel does what it says on the tin. Wow. To do it without needing to trust your compiler? Even better.

Don't think though that this is going put AV vendors out of business any time soon. The overwhelming majority of security break-ins have been due to userspace software - think heartbleed for example - or due to errors at "layer 8" (those foolish bags of meat that drive computers). As such, just having a secure kernel is only going to get you so far - which is why this is useful in things like military drones: you can start to write formally proven drone software, and no-one is going to install adobe flash on a predator drone (please, FFS tell me they aren't!).

What this should do, though is inspire confidence in "the Internet of Things" - well, at least a bit. If my door locks are going to be on the Interwebs, I damn sure want them running a kernel like this that's formally proven and open source. Sadly, we will probably end up with a load of never-updated proprietary hoo-ha that's got more holes than a hedgehog's pillow.