Archive for the ‘Everyday Security’ Category

The rest of the trip was uneventful, at least as far as bits were concerned. (Do not get me started on transportation. Or pest infestations either.)

My new SIMs worked as expected, with a recent legal change I can use the ones I bought in Italy to roam at no extra charge in other EU countries. This was super handy for the five hour layover in Germany. It also means (I think) I can keep them active. I go to Europe from time to time, but not Italy every year as would be needed to refresh my phone service and keep the number. (Important note: Italy requires a federal tax ID number to buy a SIM. I have one, but most tourists don’t.)

The downloadable encrypted disk worked, and once I got it I was able to access the keys for my server. I was still cut off from everything tied to my US phone, but it was tolerable. Web email only, and I had to send messages from the mail application because of my setup. So that data was still local. But there were only a few things I really had to reply to. Besides, I was supposed to be speaking Italian, not websurfing.

I have a separate laptop login, with restricted permissions, that I intended to use for general web browsing. I mostly used the phone, however. The one helpful thing was my mifi had more bandwidth than my phone, so I could connect to it by wifi and VoIP calls over the VPN were less terrible.

On the flight back home, I deleted the disk image, cleared data in all the browsers I had been using, and shut down. That logged me out of websites, with no way to get access without my US phone. Nothing actually happened at customs, but the point of practicing one’s security plans is so you are more confident they would work (and you can execute them) if actually needed. And, in my case, to write up what I thought about it.

The most unexpected surprise was the reminder that average people have no idea what two factor auth is. They were confused why I could not login to Facebook, when I had a perfectly good phone and laptop right there. I mean, everyone is on Facebook right? It was challenging to explain that I required a message that was sent to a device I didn’t have. (I think I was then deemed one of those “computer people.” Fair enough.)

The VPN set up for always-on worked about as well as it does in the US, so I’m happy with that. (Some websites still reject you tho, boo.) I tried to use public wifi in various locations (the mall, inside train stations, etc) but mostly they did not work correctly and I was stuck with whatever signal I could find on my own. (They were either over-used and not responsive, or blocked my VPN connection.)

Next time I’m going to get a plan for my phone that includes voice service. I couldn’t call taxis, and that was a pain. I was not in a big city where it’s easy to find a taxi.

I’ve been in Italy a few days now, with only travel-specific phone and laptop. Both are set up with a VPN and the laptop drive is encrypted. I’m using web versions of the services I need, with the exception of outgoing email. (My weird mail setup relies on self-hosted SMTP, that essentially forges my From: address.)

I decided to not logout of everything on the phone (my point of entry, Germany, is not known as a hotbed of traveller phone searching.) So no need to involve my spouse to relay authentication tokens from home.

I did have some trouble with iCloud two factor auth and had to resort to using a recovery key. Despite the appearance of auth tied to a device and not only a phone number, I couldn’t get the login token with my new SIM.

Once I got everything working it’s been ok, I just have to not flush browser data and lose my auth. Not having email on my phone is a minor nuisance, but I can live with that for two weeks.

I have no passwords saved locally, instead I made an encrypted disk image with passwords and other important things (like a photo of my passport and server ssh keys.) It’s on my web server, so I can download it from anywhere. For now I’m keeping the encrypted image locally and only opening it as needed. I’ll delete it before I get to the US.

The only real nuisance has been trying to minimize data cached on my phone from web browsing. I try to not open random links without a private window, but on a phone particularly it’s sometimes hard to tell what you are clicking on.

I have Twitter set up in Brave (a security-minded mobile browser), Safari configured without Javascript or cookies, and Dolphin for things that need both. This involves a lot of copying links between browsers, but it’s the same thing I do on the desktop.

I have a much better data plan for the phone than last time, so I’m actually doing most things there. I also have a new SIM for my mifi, although it’s unfortunately still locked to Vodafone. (Someone at Vodafone NZ suggested Italy could unlock it, but they won’t.)

Well, “fun” isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind right now. In fact, the primary purpose of this post is a test to track down gremlins around redirecting incoming HTTP requests to HTTPS.

Since I was rebuilding the webserver from scratch anyway, now would be a good time to get it set up with a shiny new SSL certificate. I never could quite figure it out with the old system. Plus until fairly recently it meant significant cash to buy a cert from a reputable source.

But thanks to Let’s Encrypt, everybody can get one for free. It’s awesome. Random people using encryption for whatever random thing they are doing is effectively herd immunity. People who really need the protection of encryption to, say, not be murdered by their governments, no longer stand out in the crowd. And it makes it much, much harder for those trying to enact mathematically-challenged anti-encryption laws.

So this is a good thing. And I could make it easier by configuring my sites to switch incoming visitors over to HTTPS. Except my webserver configuration is thwarting me: HTTP connections are rejected rather than nicely switched over. (And I don’t know enough about HTTP/HTTPS/Apache yet to even explain it properly. I’m working on that.)

If you got a weird message when you tried to access the site, that’s what it was about. In the meantime, I’ll be over here buried in configuration and log files.

So that happened.

I’ve, of course, considered such services for a long time. My first serious identity theft episode (besides credit cards) was about 15 years ago, when I was informed by my mortgage loan officer that I would not be getting that top-tier rate we had previously discussed.

There were items sent to collections I had never heard of. Addresses reported where I had not lived. There was an unscrupulous collections agency who took my report of fraud, attached to their record the full correct contact info they required me to give them, and submitted it again to the credit agencies as valid.

Among other things, the thieves signed up for local telephone service. But the phone company had No Earthly Idea where they might be located and apologized that they would be unable to help me on that issue, Thank You And Have A Nice Day. A police department in a state I never lived in refused to accept a report except in person. I couldn’t get anyone to tell me if the drivers license number on one of the credit applications meant someone applied for one in my name. My own state and local authorities wanted nothing to do with it, because the visible crime happened elsewhere. “You could try calling the FBI, but they are only interested in cases over a million dollars.”

At one point, when I was having a rather convoluted “discussion” with one of the credit bureaus, I offered to come to their office with paper copies of documents supporting my request to remove the fraudulent items. The main corporate office was ten minute’s walk from my workplace. They offered to call the police if explored that possibility.

This took several years to fully clean up, continuing even after I moved to California. I still have to assume that my personal information is sitting out there, waiting for someone else to abuse it. For all practical purposes, I have a lifetime subscription to credit reports on demand.

So let’s just say I’ve gotten pretty good at this. It’s a giant pain in the ass, but not enough to pay someone a monthly fee for the rest of my life (and probably after.) Particularly when the services available consisted of little more than automated credit report checking. Once in a while something happens, I spend a few weeks arguing about it with various companies, and then it goes away. (Until next time.)

So what changed?

Well, you might have noticed I know a thing or two about computers. Keeping them safe and secure, to the best of my abilities and time available. You would not be surprised to learn that I like backups. Backups! Backups as far as the eye can see! Backups that run hourly. Backups that are swapped out whenever something has the slightest suggestion of a hardware blip. Backups that live in my travel bag. Backups that live at my mother’s house. And backups that live in my car.

My usual “offsite backup” stays in the car glovebox. Every so often, I try for at least monthly, I take it inside and refresh it. We do have a storage unit, I could keep it there, but it’s far less convenient. That means it would be updated less often, and monthly is already not that great.

My laptop backup is encrypted, as are all of my USB hard drives if possible. My server backup is one of those that is not, because the OS version is too old. So my glovebox backup is one USB drive with two volumes, one encrypted and one not.

The unencrypted server backup always concerns me a bit. If someone knowledgable got it, it has all the information necessary to royally screw with my server. That’s a problem. But eventually that server will be going away, replaced with something better. And it’s a basic machine that runs a few websites and processes my outbound email. (I haven’t hosted my own inbox in years.) Yeah, having some archived files of ancient email released would not be fun. But that’s the extent of anything that would impact my actual personal life.

I’d rather not have my backup drive stolen out of the car, sure. It would be annoying, both for the car and having to lock down my server. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

So that’s not it, what else? (I’m guessing, at this point, you have some idea that there will be a car chapter to this story.)

A few weeks ago, my spouse decided that this offsite backup thing wasn’t such a bad idea. The thought of having to use it, because the house burned down or all our stuff was stolen, is not pretty. But it’s better to have something in that situation than have nothing. And it’s not that difficult to remember to update and put back once in a while. So he did.

Given that he’s the inspiration for the “tinfoil hat” userpic I have on one of my social media accounts, I presumed it was encrypted. He has many years’ experience in professional system administration and is far, far more paranoid than I am. Nothing with a name or address is discarded intact. He insists the shredding goes to a facility where he can watch it being shredded. When I moved to California, he would not use the cheap 900 MHz cordless phone I brought with me because it was insecure. He doesn’t like my passwords because sometimes I have to choose ones that are capable of being manually typed within two or three tries.

Guess what. Oops.

A few days ago, someone broke into our car and ransacked the glovebox. The only things taken were a small bag of charging cables and two hard drives, mainly because there was nearly nothing else to be had. (This is, by far, not my first rodeo.) Car documents, paper napkins, and some random receipts were scattered about.

One of those hard drives is my spouse’s unencrypted laptop backup.

First I dealt with the immediate problem of filing a police report, which took about 20 minutes on the phone. It is a process that is at least highly efficient, since it is almost certainly useless in getting our stuff back or even in identifying a suspect. But to be able to discuss this with my insurance company, it needed to be done.

Then came the discussion on what, exactly, was on that hard drive: it’s a copy of his user directory. So it didn’t contain system passwords, but that was about the only good thing that could be said. He uses a password manager for many things, but it’s not possible to protect everything that way. Years of email, confidential documents, client project details, credit card statements, tax returns, the medical documents I needed him to scan for me while I was out of town. All there. I handle most of the household finances, so a great many more items are instead on my machine. But sometimes you have to share, and things get passed around.

It’s almost certain that the thief didn’t care about the data. But wherever those drives get dumped, or whoever they are sold to, somebody very easily could. Names, addresses past and present, names and addresses of family members, birth dates, social security numbers, financial account numbers, everything necessary to utterly ruin our financial lives.

I’ll have more to say in other posts: which service I chose, what happened with the car, and how this story develops. But that explains why now, after many years of not being impressed with paid monitoring services, I now have forked over my money for one.

From Stolen Wallet to ID Theft, Wrongful Arrest

I saw this article today and it reminded me of one of the identity theft disasters I went through many years ago. While I was investigating accounts that had been opened in my name, I found that one had a drivers license number associated with it. It obviously wasn’t mine, because it was from a state I never lived in. But if it had been, things could have gone very differently.

This person discovered it the hard way, as he was arrested for crimes committed by someone pretending to be him. And that was even after having reported the theft to the local police.

The blog post goes on to discuss things to do after a wallet is stolen. It’s a list worth reading.

I try to make it difficult to grab my bag, but as we’ve noticed that doesn’t always help. But isolating the valuable and important things I do have to carry around with me did. They only got my phone, cash and a few other minor things that were in my transit wallet, and the effort required to get past the security features of my bag meant I knew immediately.

While I was writing the previous post, I came across this:

I got hacked mid-air while writing an Apple-FBI story

A journalist, working on a story, was shocked to have a fellow passenger quote back to him emails he had written while using the onboard network. It changed his mind about the “nothing to hide” argument that argues privacy and encryption aren’t a big deal so why make such a fuss about it. (You can likely guess my opinion on that.)

A couple of weeks ago I finally paid for wifi on a flight, mostly to check it out. And the very first thing I did was make sure I could turn on my VPN. Just as on any public network.

Now I’m not always the most diligent about ensuring no unencrypted communications leak out, but I try. Sometimes I forget to shut down apps, and they send and receive data before the VPN finishes comes up. That’s where I need to try harder. Turning off wifi before closing the laptop is also part of it. (I could configure my machine to block anything not using the VPN, but that is annoying when I’m home.)

Now what I don’t know is what is visible when I’m connected to the aircraft’s access point but don’t have a real Internet connection. I do that a lot to check the flight status, but without actual Internet there’s no way to enable my VPN. Other applications may be trying to send data anyway.

There’s a smaller group of possible snoopers on an airplane, but aside from that it’s no different from any other public network. That’s an important point to remember.

I did say that this blog would avoid getting into political issues and stick to practical concerns. But the events of the past week with Apple and the FBI are pretty disturbing and I want to talk about why.

First, nothing about the technical matters involved in the conversation (with one exception) is anything that you or I or any other private individual can do anything about. It’s all taking place in the rarified air of law enforcement vs public policy, from those who believe they know what is good for us, and have the power to change how others are allowed to access our personal data. We can lobby our elected officials and hope somebody can get past the fear mongering enough to listen.

Next, there is one technical thing you can do to protect your personal device: choose a strong passcode. I’m going to assume you already use a passcode, but the default four or six digit number isn’t going to stand up to a brute force attempt to break it. Make it longer. Make it numbers and letters if you can stand to (it’s a real pain to enter, I know.) Do it not because you “have something to hide” but because you will always have something you don’t want shared and it’s not possible to know in advance what, when, or how that might come about. Make protecting your personal data a normal activity. The longer and more complicated your passcode, the more effort it will take to guess. As long as we continue to use passcodes this will be true, and the goalpost is always moving.

Now, on with the real subject of this post. Get comfortable, this will take a while.

Folks who have followed this issue know that Apple (along with other companies) have routinely responded to search warrants and other official requests for customer data. From a practical standpoint, they have to. But they also have been re-designing parts of their systems to make it less feasible. (It’s important to note that recovering data from a locked device is not the same as unlocking it.) Not only is it now more difficult for people outside Apple to access private data on iOS devices, it’s also more difficult for Apple itself to do.

Discussion of the two current court cases, with detail on what is possible to recover from a locked device for various iOS versions
No, Apple Has Not Unlocked 70 iPhones For Law Enforcement

Court order requiring Apple to comply

The reason for this has many parts, and one very important part is of course to make their product more attractive to customers. Apple is in the business of selling equipment, that’s what they do. When it came out that we tinfoil hats hadn’t just been making up stuff we suspected the NSA was snooping on (and they far exceeded our speculations) suddenly US companies had a huge problem: international customers. Foreign organizations, businesses and governments alike, were none too keen to have confirmed in excruciating detail the extent that the US government was spying on everyone. If US companies want to continue to sell products, they have to be able to convince security-conscious customers that they aren’t just a lapdog for the NSA.

When somebody says “Apple is only doing this because of marketing” consider what that means. People don’t buy your product without “marketing.” Unless you have somehow managed a sweet exclusive deal that can never be taken away, your company depends on marketing for its continued existence. And your marketing and the products it promotes have to appeal to customers. All over the world, more and more people are saying “You know, I don’t much like the idea that the US Government could walk in and see my stuff.”

Strong cryptography is not just for protecting business interests. Livelihoods, and sometimes lives, also depend on the ability to keep private things private. For years people have claimed that products built in China are untrustworthy because the Chinese government can force their makers to provide a way in to protected data. It’s better to buy from trusted companies in enlightened countries where that won’t happen. Who is left on that list?

And what about terrorism? Of course, the things terrorists have done are awful. Nobody is contesting that. But opening up everyone to risk so governments have the ability to sneak up and overhear a potential terror plot doesn’t change how threats are discovered. The intelligence agencies already have more data than they are able to handle, it’s the process that’s broken and not that they suddenly have nothing to look at. There have been multiple cases where pronouncements of “This would have never happened without encryption” have been quickly followed by the discovery that perpetrators were using basic non-encrypted communications that were not intercepted or correctly analyzed. “Collect more data because we can” is not a rational proposal to improve the intelligence process, even if the abuse of privacy could be constitutionally justified.

There is no such thing as a magic key that only authorized users are permitted to use and all others will be kept out forever. If there’s a way in, someone will find it. Nothing is perfect, a defect will eventually be found, maybe even those authorized users will slip up and open the door. Also, state actors are hardly trustworthy when they say these powers will only be used to fight the most egregious terror threats and everybody else will be left alone. Even if they could prevent backdoors from being used without authorization, their own histories belie their claims.

The dangers of having “secret” entry enforced only by policy to not give out the key
TSA Doesn’t Care That Its Luggage Locks Have Been Hacked

Intelligence agencies claim encryption is the reason they can’t identify terror plots, when the far larger problem is that mass surveillance generates vast quantities of data they don’t have the ability to use effectively
5 Myths Regarding the Paris Terror Attacks

Officials investigating the San Bernardino attack report the terrorists used encrypted communication, but the Senate briefing said they didn’t
Clueless Press Being Played To Suggest Encryption Played A Role In San Bernardino Attacks

What the expanded “Sneak-and-Peek” secret investigatory powers of the Patriot Act, claimed to be necessary because of terrorism, are actually being used for
Surprise! Controversial Patriot Act power now overwhelmingly used in drug investigations

TSA ordered searches of cars valet parked at airports
TSA Is Making Airport Valets Search Your Trunk

What is being asked of Apple in this case?

Not to unlock the phone, because everyone agrees that’s not technically possible. Not to provide data recoverable from the locked device by Apple in their own labs, which they could do for previous iOS versions but not now. What the court order actually says is they must create a special version of the operating system that prevents data from being wiped after 10 incorrect passcodes, the means to rapidly try new passcodes in an automated fashion, and the ability to install this software on the target device (that will only accept OS updates via the Apple-authorized standard mechanism.)

What would happen if Apple did this?

The government says Apple would be shown to be a fine, upstanding corporate citizen, this one single solitary special case would be “solved,” and we all go on with our lives content to know that justice was served. Apple can even delete the software they created when they are done. The FBI claims the contents of this employer-owned phone are required to know if the terrorists were communicating with other terrorists in coordinated actions. No other evidence has suggested this happened, so it must be hidden on that particular phone (and not, for example, on the non-work phones that were destroyed or in any of the data on Apple’s servers that they did provide.)

How the law enforcement community is reacting to the prospect of the FBI winning this case
FBI Says Apple Court Order Is Narrow, But Other Law Enforcers Hungry to Exploit It

Apple would, first and foremost, be compelled to spend considerable effort on creating a tool to be used by the government. Not just “we’ll hack at it and see what we find” but a testable piece of software that can stand up to being verified at a level sufficient to survive court challenges of its accuracy and reliability. Because if the FBI did find evidence they wanted to use to accuse someone else, that party’s legal team will absolutely question how it was acquired. If that can’t be done, all this effort is wasted.

A discussion of the many, many requirements for building and maintaining a tool suitable for use as as source of evidence in criminal proceedings.
Apple, FBI, and the Burden of Forensic Methodology

Next, the probability of this software escaping the confines of Apple’s labs is high. The 3rd-party testing necessary to make the results admissible in court, at absolute minimum, gives anyone in physical possession of a test device access to reverse-engineer the contents. If the FBI has the target device, it too can give it to their security researchers to evaluate. Many people will need access to the software during the course of the investigation.

Finally, everyone in the world would know that Apple, who said they had no way to do this thing, now does. And now that it does, more people will want it. Other governments would love to have this capability and Apple, as a global company, will be pressured to give in. What would that pressure be? In the US, it’s standard for the government to threaten crushing fines or imprisonment of corporate officers for defying the courts. Governments can forbid Apple to sell products in their countries or assess punitive import taxes. Any of these can destroy a company.

Non-technical people often decry security folks as eggheads crying wolf over petty concerns when there are so many more important things to discuss. That’s fine, and our role as professionals includes the responsibility to educate and explain how what we do impacts others.

I encourage you to consider this issue for yourself and what it would mean if you were the person at the other end of that search warrant. Ubiquitous communication and data collection have fundamentally changed how much of the world lives and works, and there are plenty of governments far less principled than our own who want access to private data of mobile phone users. We should not be encouraging them by saying it’s just fine, no problem, go ahead, just hand over the (cryptographic) keys and everything will be ok.

A while back, I stopped paying attention to anything at It wasn’t on purpose (a friend of mine blogs there) but because without JavaScript it serves up a big, blank, nothing. I tried a few times to selectively allow scripts via the Firefox extension NoScript, but no combination of what I considered reasonable permissions would work. I gave up.

Then a security researcher, casually web browsing with (for a security researcher) a normal setup that includes an ad blocker, found malicious software (malware) coming from an advertisement on the Forbes website.

When easy to use tools to block web ads became available, some bemoaned the end of the Free (Internet) World because sites would no longer be able to rely on ads for revenue. Of course users, subjected to ever more annoying advertisements, disagreed.

But whether or not you believe blocking ads is a communist plot to destroy the Internet, there is another problem that this Forbes experience neatly points out: security.

The trouble is that those ads now usually include dynamic content, code sent to your browser that causes windows to open or move around, stuff to dance on your screen, and generally create a nuisance. But since you can’t know exactly what is sent, there could be other things. Popular at the moment is installing what’s called “ransomware“, software that encrypts files on your computer until you pay up.

Here’s a report of the Angler Exploit Kit, the one found in a previous Forbes malware discovery, being used for just that.

I don’t use a specific ad blocker because I’m already blocking dynamic content with NoScript. It’s basically the nuclear option, and isn’t for everyone. I still get ads, but without the singing and dancing (or malware.) If you want to try an actual ad blocker, here are some resources to look at:

The New York Times tests ad blockers for iOS 9
A survey of ad blocking browser plug-ins
Adblock Plus, a very popular plug-in for Firefox

One of the things I do to protect myself is vigorously restrict disclosure of my physical address. I use a mailbox service and only provide that unless I am compelled otherwise. For example, to register to vote I was required to give my actual residence so I can receive the correct ballot (which arrives at my mailing address.)

Then this happens:

Report: 191M voter records exposed online

Some organization that holds copies of US voter records, through a monumental database screw-up, has allowed public access on the Internet to all of the data. Nobody knows exactly how, or by whom, or even for how long, because the most likely actors are falling over themselves to disclaim any association with the breach.

The California Secretary of State reports that there were 17.7 million registered California voters in 2015. The author of the above article quotes a security researcher who verified access to “over 17 million California voters.” I will leave as an exercise for the reader the percent chance of my information having been exposed.

The problem with secret information is that once it’s released there’s no way to pull it back. Access to voter information varies by state, but many states restrict who can access it and for what purposes. California is particularly strict in that it can only be used for campaign or government purposes. Without question, this disclosure is violating the law. There will be investigations, and charges, and lawyers will wrangle over this for years to come. Maybe, eventually, some person or organization will be held to account.

But for some people, none of that will matter. It’s not just an academic discussion when I have friends and colleagues who regularly receive threats of death and other abuse of the most vile nature. Even for those who have similarly assiduously protected their physical addresses, they will need to face the possibility that the only option to protect themselves from their harassers is to move.

For those friends and colleagues, I can at least report that the State of California has a program that provides a free Post Office Box to qualifying abuse victims, than can legally be used to register to vote and access other government services. So if it comes to that horrible decision, perhaps you can get some help to protect yourself after.

For me, and everybody else, we are on our own. If you live in California and want to express an opinion in this matter, here are some suggestions:

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Find Your California Representative

For other states:
Find Your Senators and Representatives – OpenCongress

This, friends, is the future.

You may recall my previous post about Apple’s two-step verification and how I reluctantly disabled it for a long trip outside the US. Now I find out that the government of Australia came to the same conclusion. Only one of us seems to be troubled by it, however.

Australian government tells citizens to turn off two-factor authentication
When going abroad, turn off additional security. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m not going to get into any conspiracy theories about why the Australian government might wish to discourage the use of better authentication methods. If they wanted to get into someone’s government services account, I presume they have other ways to do it than hope they can guess at their lousy password.

But putting out the suggestion that two factor auth is something maybe not so important? There’s the real offense. “Go ahead and enjoy your holiday, don’t bother your pretty little head about that complicated security thing.”

Yes, the problems of handling two factor auth when swapping SIMs are a concern. A concern for the people who design these systems that are complex and cumbersome to use and seem to forget that real people don’t conveniently stay put all the time. But how about we talk about that instead of discouraging people from using them?