I had an epiphany this morning. I was on the train into Philly, and was reading a whitepaper on TDOS attacks and mitigation. In a rare moment of insight, the stars aligned inside my skull and I understood just how frightening the new dialing features of Amazon Alexa and Google Home could potentially be. Any time a new technology comes out, people flock to it like ducks to a… thing that ducks like. I’m fresh out of metaphors, sorry. What we tend to forget is that new technologies are a new challenge to hackers, to be used for ill gotten gains. I was blabbering on at the dinner table, as Pooky’s eyes got glassier and glassier. At one point I believe she may have fallen asleep, hearing only the mwa waa wa mwaa sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher. So out of necessity, I’m here to explain some of the creepier aspects of technology. Today’s topic is Ransomware.
Next week, I present my Masters Thesis on Cryptovirology. If all goes well, I’ll add some letters to my name, and re-gain my evenings and weekends for unlimited leisure time. I’m currently ABD – an acronym that means I’ve completed all my Masters-level coursework, but haven’t given my dissertation yet. Quite literally, it means All But Dissertation. If you haven’t had your head in the sand over the last few years, you’ve probably heard about Ransomware. It’s the boogyman that hides under our beds, jumping out to steal our digital vacation pics and lock them up. Here’s a Geek Guide to Ransomware.
Ransomware is a newer type of virus that affects the Availability of your stuff. That’s a fancy way of saying, it prevents you from getting at, or using, your stuff. Ransomware typically gets on your system when you click on a URL link, and it directs you to an infected web page, which runs some code and pushes the virus onto your computer – the classic Drive By Download approach to getting a virus. Once the virus gets onto your machine, it prevents you from accessing something, and demands a ransom. There are two types of Ransomware – the locker (which locks your computer, demanding a ransom to unlock it), and the crypto ransomware. Crypto Ransomware is the newest threat. It encrypts your files, deletes the original files, and then pops up a nasty message.
Typically, the message will tell you that your stuff is being held for ransom (hence the term RANSOMware). If you want your stuff back, you have to pay them some money – typically in the form of Bitcoin, a type of online currency. The Ransomware popup messages are usually very creative, using fear tactics to get you to pay up. No, it’s not REALLY the FBI or CIA who is demanding payment, it’s just a crafty hacker.
Ransomware has been running rampant across the world over the past year. Different types of Ransomware have grown from just a hand full in 2013, to several hundred in 2016. 2017 is quite possibly the year of Ransomware, with the latest strain (Wannacry) pounding computer systems across the globe. Ransomware is really a bad guy’s dream. It’s easy to seed – you just dump it on some websites, then trick people into hitting that site. Once infected, users have two choices – kiss their goodies goodbye, or pay up. And if you pay up, there is no guarantee that the nasty hacker will actually give your goodies back.
Ransomware was invented back in 1989, when a gentleman handed out floppy disks at an AIDS conference that had a virus on it. The virus, when executed, attacked the victim’s computer and renamed files. To put things back, it demanded that the victim donate money to AIDS research. The strategy and technology was incredibly basic, and easy to thwart. It used a Symmetric key, meaning all you needed to put things back was a single password (key). In 1996, the team of Young and Yung wrote an excellent paper about cryptovirology – that is, utilizing cryptology as an offensive weapon in a virus. They determined that the peanut butter and jelly of viruses would utilize more complex keys (Asymmetric keys), along with an untraceable currency (Bitcoin). It took a few years for creative virus writers to take note – but soon enough, modern Ransomware followed their advice, and the rest is history.
A Note on Keys
I’ve used two terms here that are worth discussing. Symmetric keys are a simple way to encrypt, or lock up, files. This is also called shared key technology, because a single key is used to lock up stuff. That same single key is then used to unlock stuff. Because there is only one key, it’s typically shared with the sender and the receiver. Otherwise, the receiver couldn’t unlock the stuff. And as a result, it’s easier to guess the key and unlock the stuff. If I wanted to send you a secret message, and used a symmetric key on it, I’d have to share the key with you so you could unlock the message and read it.
Asymmetric keys are different. In this case, there are two keys – a private key (that only the owner knows) and a public key (that everyone knows). If I want to share a secret message with you, you would give me your public key. I’d lock up the message with that key, in a one-way process. I could not unlock it, once I did this. The only way to unlock the message would be by using the private key, which only you know, and won’t share with anyone. This type of encryption is the foundation of modern cryptology. You’ll see this technology a lot with email encryption, such as PGP. If I want to keep my goodies secret from prying eyes, I’ll give everyone who I want to communicate with my PUBLIC KEY. They can then send me messages that are locked up with that key. To unlock the message, I use my PRIVATE KEY. Botta bing – my stuff is secure (assuming no one gets my private key). Ok, enough on keys and encryption.
Ransomware locks your stuff up with a public key – and the only way you can get it back is for the bad guy to use the private key, that only they know. It adds complexity and security to the process.
Bitcoin is an online currency that is pretty much untraceable. Because of the high degree of anonymity it offers, it’s the currency of choice on the Darkweb (the seedy underbelly of the Internet). Bitcoin transactions make it possible for the bad guy to get paid, without you being able to (easily) catch or stop them.
OK, Professor, Now What?
For the average home user, your strategy to preventing Ransomware should consist of a few key tools.
- Backups – back your data up. Do this frequently, and in several different ways. I back my data up to the cloud (using Carbonite). I also back my data up to an external hard drive, which is disconnected unless it’s backing my data up. If I were to get Ransomware, my encrypted files would automatically get backed up to Carbonite, and replace my good files. That’s why I need an external hard drive backup that is not connected to my computer. If it were connected to my computer, it would get encrypted when Ransomware hit. This is the number one way to protect yourself against Ransomware – it can’t hurt you if you have your data backed up.
- Patches and Updates – frequently install the latest security and operating system patches on your computer. This also goes for your programs and apps (tablets / phones). Hackers use bugs in the code to install their viruses on your computer / tablet / phone. Make it harder for them – update your programs and operating systems frequently. Think of it like you’re covering holes in the side of your house – holes that mice and squirrels and bats could come in, should they so choose. You want to keep them out, so patch the holes.
- Awareness – users are typically click-happy on the Internet. Don’t be that person. Don’t click on links unless you know what they are. If you get a strange email that baits you to click on a link, don’t do it. This is known as a Phishing attempt. Threatening emails or popups or texts or chats are phishing attempts to get you to click on their links – which leads to an infected website – which leads to an automatic installation of a virus. Chances are, these days, that will be Ransomware. Also – never plug in a thumb drive that isn’t yours. If you find a thumb drive laying on the ground, leave it be. Leaving an infected thumb drive laying around is a very common way for hackers to infect computers. This tactic was used to great effect in the infamous Stuxnet virus campaign.
- Protect your resources – use antivirus software and antimalware software. I’m always asked to recommend one, which is difficult. They all have strengths and weaknesses. It is worth noting that there is no one single tool in this area that will catch everything. Pick a good one that is highly rated (from a reputable site like PC World or similar), and go. Let it run and scan and protect. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s better than no protection at all.
I hope this helps you in understanding Ransomware attacks, and how to protect yourself.
If time permits, I’ll tackle other bad guy stuff in the near future. Since I mentioned TDOS attacks, it’s worth a discussion on DOS attacks.
OK, so now that I have your attention, let’s break this one down.
MFA for Fun and Profit
There is a trend in information security (or InfoSec if you’d rather) towards Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA for short). What MFA means is that to authenticate (log in), you need Multiple (Multi-) forms (Factors) to gain access.
The most common types of MFA revolve around three pieces of information:
- What you know. This is most commonly a username or password or pin number. To log into a site like Facebook, you typically need to provide your username (often an email address) and your password. Both of these pieces of information are things you know.
- What you have. This is most commonly provided by a card or chip or (in many cases nowadays) a cell phone. As an example, if I swipe a badge to enter a parking garage, that is something I need to have, in order to gain access.
- What you are. This typically encompasses what is known as biometrics. Fingerprins, the iris of an eye, hand geometry, and so on. Remember the movie National Treasure with Nicholas Cage? Of course you do – great movie. In that movie, he pulled a fingerprint off a champagne glass, and used that fingerprint to get past a fingerprint scanner. He hacked this form of authentication.
So the golden rule of security, in this regard, is the more different types of authentication, the better (or more secure) it is. It’s great for me to have a bank card (something I have). It’s better, yet, to require a pin number along with that card, in order to do a transaction. If you have a newer credit card with a chip onboard, that is the direction we’re (hopefully) headed. You put in the chip, then enter a pin, and botta bing – you just bought groceries with MFA. We’re not quite there yet, and credit card numbers are bought and sold on the darkweb all the time. They are crazy easy to steal because you only need the one factor of authentication.
OK Sherlock, but why do I care?
Hey glad you asked. For some sites (most notably, banking and financial sites), you are now being required to set up security questions. These security questions cover a deeper level of only one factor – something we know. As an example, to log into my bank account online, I provide my username and password, and then I’m asked a security question that I have to answer. I set those questions up beforehand, and simply regurgitate an answer to log in.
These Security Questions are Not Very Secure
There are many websites out there that provide lists of the most common security questions. Here are a few examples I dug up, with a very quick and basic Google search:
- What is the first and last name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend?
- Which phone number do you remember most from your childhood?
- What was your favorite place to visit as a child?
- Who is your favorite actor, musician, or artist?
- What is the name of your favorite pet?
- In what city were you born?
- What high school did you attend?
- What is the name of your first school?
- What is your favorite movie?
- What is your mother’s maiden name?
- What street did you grow up on?
- What was the make of your first car?
- When is your anniversary?
- What is your favorite color?
- What is your father’s middle name?
- What is the name of your first grade teacher?
- What was your high school mascot?
- Which is your favorite web browser?
Understand, this is just a basic list – and it provides more of the one single factor of “What You Know”. While it seems on the surface to be a deeper level of security, it’s actually not. In September of 2008, the personal email account of Sarah Palin was hacked by guessing the answer to a few of these basic questions. The answers were possible through just a little bit of detective work, and once provided, gave the hacker complete access in to her email. This is just one example – and there are myriad others. Using this type of “security” doesn’t really help all that much.
Facebook Polls for the Phisher
Hey did you know that when you fill out those cute little Facebook top ten posts about yourself that you are potentially providing a hacker information about yourself? They can then use that information to potentially hack your account. The information you provide about yourself online is often etched into eternity, and publicly accessible. Palin’s hacker learned the answers to her email security questions by doing a little bit of Google work. Single Factor Authentication is not that secure.
So that brings me to the point of my rather sensational Blog title. While there are exceptions, it is generally against our nature to lie to other people. But I encourage you to lie – openly and completely – when you set these security questions. That way, when someone does try to hack your account, and has access to your history and background and life story (by sifting through your online footprint), they cannot simply guess the answers to your security questions. The trick is to remember the answer to your questions. If you can pull that off, you’re home free. This trick is recommended by Kevin Mitnick in his awesome book, The Art of Invisibility.
For example, let’s take a few of these common questions.
What is the first and last name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend?
Well, that one would be pretty easy to find out, right? Chances are, you have that person as a friend on Facebook. Someone else out there knows this information – perhaps even your first boyfriend or girlfriend. You just gave that person potential access to your account. But what if you chose a different answer – such as the school bully who you despised? What if you chose for all of these questions, the most blatant lie you could think of?
Who is your favorite actor, musician, or artist?
Who is your LEAST FAVORITE actor or actress? Who is the least musical person you know? All potential answers here.
What high school did you attend? Or what was your high school mascot?
Very easy to guess, and I think one of the questions that got Palin hacked. But what about instead picking your high school rival school? Or decide to instead pick the name of a fictional school like Hogwarts? Be creative in your lies.
OK so I could go on all day long with these, and I imagine by now you get the point. I strongly encourage you (as does Kevin Mitnick) to think outside the box here, and fabricate answers that are not easy to guess.
Well That’s Simply Spiffy
It is. But that covers only one Factor or Type of Authentication – what you know. It is highly advisable to layer in more forms of security authentication. Adding what you know with what you have drastically increases your level of security. It’s no secret that my Steam account username and password were recently hacked. The good news is I had MFA set up, and to log in you also had to provide the randomly generated pin number that Steam texted to my phone. That, my friends, is MFA. Consider adding more layers of authentication to your online accounts – Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and Steam all support MFA. In fact, many online accounts do. My friend (who I don’t know in real life but I’m sure I’d get along with fantastically) over at Lifehacker released this article which delves a little deeper on enabling MFA for online accounts.
Don’t Be Sad – Two Out of Three Aint’ Bad!
Yeah I know – now you have that song in your head. If you’re paying attention, we’ve talked about using two out of the three main factors (or types) of authentication. That is, what we know, and what we have. We’ve left off what you are – biometrics. I’ll be honest with you, at this point. I am not aware of any consumer-level sites or services that offer biometric authentication. Because of the high cost, this factor is typically reserved for higher security areas within companies and government agencies. I’ve used three factors, simultaneously, to access some computer data centers in my line of work. Big Brother is indeed watching, and protecting his stuff.
So anyway, I hope you will head out to your favorite online sites and sign up for their MFA services as soon as possible. Remember – even the most trivial things like Facebook can be a gold mine to a hacker. Lock your stuff down. Do it now!
In the many posts of this blog, I’ve covered a lot of ground. I’ve attempted to explain content filtering, and its many types. I’ve tried to explain some of the background technologies involved in networking, security, and computing that would help you ultimately understand content filtering. And I’ve blathered on about stuff that I find fascinating. Today’s post will be rather simple, and rather specific. It will answer a question that came in as a result of the last post.
Where do I begin? How do I start? Help!
Sometimes people describe things in avid and lurid detail, because that’s how they see the world. A lot of time, this is referred to not seeing the forest for the trees. As a supreme nerd dork dweeb, I am particularly guilty of this. This post is a departing from this trend, and will be highly practical.
The question that came across my path was from a mother who basically asked where to start. This post is for you.
First, the Disclaimers
I am targeting Windows-based computers with this post. All you IOS / Macintosh / Android users are out of luck. Take what you can from this.
I am going to focus on one specific technology, or approach to filtering. You know from previous posts (if you’ve been reading them, that is) that there are many different ways to protect a computer. I will focus on one technology – that being client-based filtering. This solution involved installing a program on a computer.
There are also myriad products out there. PC Magazine has a rather excellent article out there that lists many of the most common products on the market, with a review, pros and cons for each. For this post, I am focusing on the Symantec product.
Why I chose Symantec is rather simple – I needed antivirus on several of my home computers, and Symantec offered this, along with content filtering, at a flat cost. There are pros to this solution, as well as cons. In the interest of time, I won’t dig into these. I chose this product. Do with this information what you will.
Defense In Depth
Another disclaimer, here. It is worth noting that there is no one single foolproof method for content filtering. Each product, technology and solution has its strengths and weaknesses – ways around them. That is why security professionals recommend a fancy term called Defense in Depth, which means implementing multiple layers of defense within your computer systems. With enough different security (or content filtering) controls in place, you greatly enhance your chances of success. I personally implement several different technologies in this regard – but everyone starts somewhere, and that first step usually involves a client-based solution like the one we’re discussing.
Drop the Cash
First, you obviously have to choose and buy a product. Let’s assume you have done so, and are ready to install and configure. Symantec makes this a breeze, with this article. A summary includes creating a master account, and tying it to your email address. Once that is done, you log into their portal, and create user profiles (called “children”). Each of these profiles / users / children have their own specific settings and filters. In my household, I have a separate account for each of my teenagers, a generic account for the rest of the kids (called “Littles”, in a nod to the 80’s cartoon of which I have fond memories), and an account for us adults. You really need a profile for everyone in your household – either shared, or individual.
Access Control 101
The technical term here is called Access Control. Wikipedia defines this as such:
Access control is a fancy word for allowing (or controlling) access to something. In this case, we want Access Control for the Internet. It is worth noting here that Access Control can become as complex or simple as you want it to. You may have a computer in the living room that has one user account, and is always on, and is always logged in. In this scenario, one profile may suffice. Or you may have three computers – one in the living room that auto logs on for everyone to use, and a laptop for your teenager, and an old clunky machine in the basement that is used for gaming. You could use one profile and apply it to all three machines, meaning that it’s one set of rules for all computers. Or you could have one computer in the house, and on that computer there are three different computer accounts – one for Grandpa, one for Mommy, and one for Little Junior. If you created one profile in Symantec, the same rule set would apply to all the users who log on. Or you could create three separate user profiles, and assign those profiles to different logins.
Does this make sense? When you create a profile, or child in Symantec terms, you are creating a set of rules. You will apply that set of rules to someone, on something. I’ll shut up and move on.
Installing the Software
Well this is pretty simple. Install it. Botta bing. It’s worth noting that if you want to use the service on a device, you have to download and install the software on that device. Right? The Symantec “getting started” guide helps with this. Options for this product are to install on a Windows computer, install on an Android device (phone or tablet), or install on an IOS device (ipad, iphone, etc.).
When you install the software on your computer, it will want you to log into the service with your username and password. It will then list specific user accounts that exist on this computer / device, and ask you to tie each user to a profile. This goes back to access control. In my case, the grownups get tied to the adults profile. Teenager One’s user account gets tied to their specific profile. Teenager Two’s user account gets tied to their specific profile.
Access Control is pointless if you don’t enforce it. What I mean by this is if you create a profile for the kids, and block all the naughty stuff on that profile, and tie that profile to the kid’s computer account, it will do you no good at all if you leave the unprotected grownup user account logged on all the time. It’s specific here. If you have different profiles / rule sets, you must be disciplined to log on and off when you are at the computer. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that the kids are actually using the Kids profile. Does that make sense? The way around this is simple – create one profile, used by everyone, on all devices. But if you want your teenagers to have access to gaming sites, and the little ones to NOT have access to those sites, you would have two different profiles, and make sure the older kids actually log off – or the little ones may access those gaming sites.
I’ll also be clear here – EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE NEEDS A PROFILE. This goes for the parents, too. Don’t leave any device in the house free from a profile and protection. It’s worth noting that if you are accessing smut on a computer, it leaves residue behind that could (and often does) reach other people. When you partake of the dark side of the Internet, you are at a much higher risk for getting malware / viruses that can provide smutty popups for anyone on that machine. There are also cookies, cached pictures, etc. that are left behind each time you dip your toe into the smut pool. Not even anonymous browsing is a guarantee of safety in this regard. Own up here – block the smut for everyone, parents included. ‘Nuff said.
So once you have installed the software on a device, and tied the logins to your profiles, you can configure the settings for each profile, from the Symantec web portal that you are logged into. This is a two-part process. First you define the services you want to use for each profile. Web Supervision (content filtering) is a no brainer for everyone. Also, Search Supervision (which prevents limits things such as Google Image Search). Other features may (or may not) be available, depending on the type of device you have installed the software on. For example, you can’t limit text messages on a computer – but could, on an Android phone.
And finally, you can drill into specific details for each of the services. This is where you can define web search categories that are off limits. I used the example of gaming, but it could really cover just about anything. The older kid profiles may need access to gaming sites that are off limits to the younger kids. Again, I’ll reiterate that you should block certain categories such as Porn and Web Proxies (a method for getting around your security measures) for everyone. But knock yourself out here.
Symantec recommends in their tutorial (and I highly agree) that you need to discuss this with your family. How about a nice family meeting, where you talk to the kids about what you’ve implemented, and why? They should understand why you are doing this. This would also be an excellent time to discuss with your younger kids what to do when (not if) they ever come across junk on the Internet. Remember – you are responsible for your kids, but don’t have total control over other kids. This is a sad reality. A good book to go through with your kids is Good Pictures Bad Pictures by Kristen Jenson. In this sensitive area, you need to have open lines of communications within your family. Don’t let anyone in your home feel trapped alone in the confusion, guilt and shame of hidden porn addiction.
I hope that you have found this article helpful. Note that I don’t work for, or benefit from, Symantec. I chose this product – with its limitations and benefits – for reasons that are my own. Choose whatever product you wish. And as always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions, corrections, etc.
Yikes, has it really been almost a year since I last posted? Very sad…
My confession is thus: I’ve been dialing back my online footprint for a while now. In this volatile day and age, it’s a wise decision. And already, I see the confused look on your face. I’m moving too fast, please forgive me.
First, we need to define an online footprint (or digital footprint):
1. one’s unique set of digital activities, actions, and communications that leave a data trace on the Internet or on a computer or other digital device and can identify the particular user or device:
Our online browsing habits are part of our passive digital footprint, created without our consent or knowledge, but our active digital footprint, especially on social media, can more easily be managed.
2. one’s overall impact, impression, or effect as manifested on the Internet; online presence or visibility, as of a person or company: a celebrity with a large digital footprint;
Your online footprint is, in essence, the sum of your online persona. It’s everything you have ever done, online. It consists of what you post, what you say. Where you’ve been, what you’ve shared, what you’ve bought. Every photo and Twitter and comment and like. Each little piece is a cell in this organism called your digital footprint – and it’s much larger than you could imagine.
This information – this persona – can be a very significant liability.
People lose their jobs and livelihoods as a direct result of their online personas. People don’t get the jobs they want as a direct result of their online personas. People kill themselves as a direct result of their online personas. Marriages end as a direct result of their online personas. Entire fortunes have been made and lost as a direct result of online personas. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Online personas are a profitable source of revenue.
My darling Pooky claims that her phone listens to her. And while I playfully say she is crazy, there are many documented instances of this actually happening. Let me elaborate. Things that you say in the privacy of your own home have been picked up by listening devices, and used to turn a profit. This information has been sold to marketing firms, who send specific advertisements to you, based on what they believe will sell more of their widgets. There are myriad documented cases of this happening – this isn’t tinfoil hat stuff. Cell phones are the most common culprit, though devices like Amazon Alexa are making it even easier. These devices have tossed off all pretense, and are advertised as devices that sit in your home, and listen to everything that goes on, waiting for you to need something from them. All you have to say is something like “hey Alexa – what is the capital of Nigeria?” and it responds with an answer. The privacy concerns over such a device came to the front in a court case out of Arkansas, where Amazon was coerced to turn over the recorded audio (gathered without the homeowner’s knowledge) during a murder trial where an Alexa was in the home. Amazon provided a pile of information that they had about the homeowner’s smart device data, including the smart water meter readings that indicated the person on trial had used a boat load of water to fill a hot tub AFTER the victim had supposedly drowned in said hot tub. But Amazon refused to turn over audio data gathered by Alexa – and it’s unclear just how much they are actually gathering, analyzing, and churning for a profit.
This may well be the more nefarious end of the story – but similar events happen all the time. For example, if I search for a Martin guitar on Amazon, my Facebook feed immediately changes as a direct result, and serves me up advertisements for guitars. News feeds immediately change to more musically themed stories. Friend suggestions of other musicians pop up. And this behavior follows me across all of my connected devices – computers, phones, ipads, etc. All of these sites are connected in an attempt to harvest information from me (with or without my consent) and churn that data over in a quest to make money. Advertisements abound. Everything is connected. Nothing is secure.
There are numerous cases of people losing their jobs as a result of their private online activity. On June 18, 2016, Lydia Price wrote an article for People magazine entitled “20 Tales of Employees Who Were Fired Because of Social Media Posts” that provides further evidence that your online footprint can have negative repercussions. I’m sure we all remember the guy who recorded his trip through the Chic-Fil-A drive thru, with the intent to harass the young employee there about the corporate values with which he disagreed with. His attempt to grab his Warhol 15 minutes of fame backfired spectacularly.
Side Note: Andy Warhol, the famous artist, said that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. The Internet is a bloated market where many people seek to cash in on this goal.
So anyhow, this guy harassed the girl working at Chick-Fil-A, and published the video on Youtube. Later that day, he lost his job, and to date still can’t get hired anywhere. He has since then battled depression and thoughts of suicide. The mob mentality of the public Internet is a harsh and unforgiving master. Understand – I do not at all condone what he did. But there is much debate from free speech advocates (and just about everyone else) whether or not his punishment fit the crime. Either free speech is always free – even for those with whom we disagree – or it’s not free at all, and we are slaves to mob rule. Ah that’s an entirely different topic, I digress. The key takeaway here is that whatever you say online can cause you permanent harm. This extends to the pictures you take on your phone. Your phone is connected to the cloud (a fancy term for “someone else’s computer”). A photo you take on your phone is often backed up automatically to the cloud, where it is fair game (albeit illegal fair game) for others to access. The list of people who have suffered when their personal photos were smeared across the Internet is longer than we could imagine. As part of your digital footprint, photos can (and often do) harm you.
And now we arrive at the most obvious threat: teh h@x0r.
The last little bit about photos getting leaked was a sequeway into this topic. Plenty of your information is being leaked out through legitimate (albeit frightening) ways. Your search history, your browsing habits, your Facebook and Twitter posts, even the words you speak in the privacy of your own home – all this information is most likely covered by some sort of Acceptable Use policy that you signed off on. To say it differently, you are willingly GIVING this information away. But there are other methods of accessing your information without your consent.
In 2016, a Lancaster, PA man hacked about 50 Apple iCloud accounts of many celebrities. This man then accessed (and posted online) the personal photos of many celebrities from their iCloud accounts, without their consent. In 2008 the personal email of then Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was hacked by the son of a politician from the other side of the aisle. The stolen emails were then leaked online, a term called DOXING. Bringing the discussion into 2017, the news is flooded every day with information about Russian hackers and Democratic emails and Wikileaks.
If the allegations against Russia are somehow proven beyond all doubt (a monumental task), they are pretty severe allegations. But let’s not forget that Iran, China and Syria also have sophisticated cyberwar capabilities that include hacking. And lest I be guilty of patriotic tunnel vision, the United States also has highly sophisticated offensive cyberwar capabilities that it employs across the globe. The targets of this elite government-sanctioned hacker group (can I use the term TAO out loud?) includes private citizens, foreign governments, friends, foes, and all points in between. Thanks to the Patriot Act and 9/11, nothing is off limits for the elite cyberwar arm of Murrica. I imagine the chances of Russia coming clean on its election shenanigans is about as likely as our government coming clean on the existence and use of the Stuxnet virus against Iran.
Think Like The Bad Guy.
How do the bad guys get our stuff? Why I’m glad you asked. Studies show that most hacking attacks generally begin with a phishing campaign.
The more information we provide online, the more of an advantage we provide to a hacker. I’d be willing to bet that if you’re on Facebook, you have already been approached by someone you thought was a “friend” but who actually turned out to be a hacker or phisher. Why this just happened to me not long ago. I got a friend request from my oldest brother, and it looked legit, as the profile picture was of him (which the hacker got by looking at his public profile). So I accepted the request, and within seconds, my “brother” had initiated a chat window with me. What was the hacker’s goal? To get me to click on a link he sent me. And have no doubt – that link (should I have been foolish enough to click on it) had a virus attached to it. A virus that could have given the hacker complete access to my computer. From there, they could suck out my passwords, bank account information, or *shudder* dump ransomware that could encrypt my hard drive, demanding money as a ransom.
I’ve seen so many of these phishing attacks over the years. I’ve gotten calls from “Microsoft” who said I had a virus and I needed to let their technician into my computer. I’ve had popups from websites that declared that I had won something, and needed to click on a link to claim my prize. I’ve gotten texts from people claiming that my account for ABC was locked, and I needed to tap on their link to unlock it. All over the Internet, hackers are after our stuff. Any information we give them via our online footprint can (and often is) used against us in pursuit of our stuff.
So now that I have you thoroughly freaked out, what can you do?
- Back your stuff up. Back up your documents and photos weekly to an external USB hard drive. And after each backup, unplug the drive from your computer.
- Minimize your online footprint. Don’t share information that could be used against you by a hacker. Do you really think the whole world really needs to know where you eat or when you’re at the pool? Think like a bad guy – you’ve just told me valuable information that I can use against you.
- Maximize your privacy and security settings. On sites like Facebook, disable features that allow strangers to see any of your information.
- Question the motives of everyone who asks you for information online. And don’t share it.
- Never take photos of yourself that you wouldn’t want your parents or children to see. Yeah you know what I’m talking about. Just don’t do it.
- Search for yourself online. Searching for your name, in quotes, in Google is a nice way to start. Or use a site like PIPL to really get freaked out.
- Don’t click on links unless you are confident that they are legit. Especially via chats, via emails, via message boards, via social networking sites, etc. Clicking on a bad link can cause you immense pain and suffering. You will get viruses. You will get hacked. You will get ransomware.
- If you have children, keep tabs on their activity. I cannot in good conscience recommend that any parent buy their child a smartphone, ever. You can easily control what happens on your home computers. Not so much, on a smartphone (ie. Android, iPhone, etc.). I know this is unpopular – but I’m serious. If you want your kid to have a phone, get them an old school flip phone, or something without a data plan and web browser. The social, mental and emotional drawbacks to smartphones are myriad and well documented. Resist the urge to give them any device that you can’t easily control or monitor. Protect them from sexting and cyber bullying and porn and cyber stalkers.
OK so a hearty welcome back to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll be posting again soon, my apologies. But if you have any questions about anything I’ve said, feel free to send me a comment. I do read them. I do respond. I do care.
I’ve talked at great length about using OpenDNS to filter in the cloud. You’re dying to know more, I can tell. Here you go. But first, the theory.
How Open DNS works
I’m sure you read my blog, right? Surely, you already know this!? Don’t call me Shirley.
At the very least, you should understand what DNS is. A good primer is here:
Yeah I’ve resorted to a shameless plug for my own blog.
First, the cliff notes. I know a guy named Cliff, he’s a swell guy. And he’d approve of these notes.
1. To connect to the Internet, your computer uses an IP Address, not a website address (or for the more technical of you, the DNS name).
2. To translate a website address like starwars.com to its IP Address 22.214.171.124, your computer uses DNS.
3. To see DNS in action on a Windows PC, click the start button, then type CMD and press enter. This opens a command prompt.
4. From within the command prompt, send some ICMP Packets (think of it like tossing a ping pong ball at something to see if it responds) to a website. You can do this by typing PING, followed by the name of the website. For example, in my screen shot, I’m pinging starwars.com by typing PING STARWARS.COM followed by pressing enter on the keyboard. Watch the magic.
Your computer uses DNS to determine that at this point in time, Starwars.com can be reached at the IP Address of 126.96.36.199. Yeah, with a Star Wars marathon going on right now on the TNT channel, I’m kind of biased here. Sorry.
So your computer now knows that if it wants to go to Starwars.com, behind the scenes it connects to that IP Address and botta bing. Stormtroopers.
That’s the magic of DNS. There are many DNS servers in use throughout the Internet. Typically, our Internet Service Provider assigns one to us and we don’t even know it’s there. But because we’re uber l33t, we want to have our computer use OpenDNS servers so the folks at OpenDNS can do some content filtering for us. How? Let me explain. Once again, cliff notes.
- The Incredible Hulk wants to purchase illegal performance enhancing green drugs off the Internet and roid out while playing virtual poker on an online gambling site. Captain America is aware of this terrible behavior taking place from the Avengers base, and as the network guy, decides to block him.
- He sets up an OpenDNS account and blocks the category for Drugs and Gambling.
- Hulk tries to access a gambling site. He types in the website name and attempts to connect.
- The computer connects to an OpenDNS server to translate the website name to an IP Address.
- The OpenDNS server sees the request coming from the Avengers base, and recognizes that traffic coming from that network shouldn’t be accessing a gambling site, based on the OpenDNS category block settings.
- The OpenDNS server sends Hulk an IP Address to an OpenDNS block page, instead of the gambling page.
- An OpenDNS block page appears in Hulk’s web browser.
- Hulk realizes he shouldn’t gamble, and decides to change his wayward ways. No more smash.
So now that you understand the high level, let’s get more specific.
Take note that there are a lot of numbered lists in this blog. That means I’m serious here.
I’m stepping on the toes of the setup guide OpenDNS provides, which is actually quite good. Their directions, which are much more better than mine, is here: https://support.opendns.com/entries/53936430-Configuring-OpenDNS-on-your-Network
- Go to https://www.opendns.com/home-internet-security/ and Sign Up for a free Personal account.
- You’ll have to provide, at the very least, a valid email address. I highly recommend creating a generic email account for all your Spam-related sign up stuff. For example, if your normal email address is America@gmail.com, consider creating a new account called Captain.Spam.America@gmail.com and only use this account for signing up for junk on the Internet. You know, deep down, that they will send you tons of junk emails if you sign up for stuff.
- Log into your newly created account, and set up a network to monitor. For our sample Captain America, he wants to block the Hulk from purchasing illegal performance enhancing drugs at the Avengers base. With that goal in mind, he creates a network called TheAvengersBase.
- Enter the settings for your network, and you can set up your categories for Web Content Filtering.
- Captain checks off Drugs and Gambling. The Hulk better behave now. Making and saving the changes generally takes a few minutes to take effect.
- Download the OpenDNS updater client. This needs to run on a computer inside your home all the time, so OpenDNS knows who you are and where you’re coming from when on the Internet. Download it here: https://support.opendns.com/entries/23282614-Where-do-I-download-an-OpenDNS-Dynamic-IP-updater-client-
- Install and run the updater client. It will ask you for your OpenDNS login credentials.
- Once you have it set up, it will periodically check in with the OpenDNS servers to make sure they know who you are, and where you are coming from.
- Configure your computer to use the OpenDNS servers of 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206. There are several ways to do this – either on a single computer by tweaking its IP Address settings, or (better yet) by tweaking the DHCP options on your router for every computer that connects to your house and wants to hit the Internet.
- Remember my blog post on taming your router with style and grace? Of course you do. https://pookyandthegeek.com/2013/12/01/taming-your-router-with-style-and-grace/
- For my home DHCP server, I forced it to use the OpenDNS servers. Now everyone who connects to my network or wireless goes through OpenDNS.
- Test everything to make sure it works.
An added step that OpenDNS doesn’t think about is you may want to create an Access List on your router to only allow access to the OpenDNS servers and block all other DNS traffic. This is called egress filtering (a big twelve dollar word) and prevents the Hulk from sneakily modifying his DNS Server settings to try and get around OpenDNS. Boom. Hulk smashed. Egress filtering is a topic for another post, as I haven’t done it justice at all. This basic approach above will keep most users at bay.
Something doesn’t work? Ping me. I’m here to help.
Today I’m going to talk about the latest gaming phenomenon called Pokemon Go. Chances are you just returned from your month-long vacation on the not-planet Pluto and haven’t noticed people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors walking around like mindless zombies, drooling on themselves as they hold their cell phones out in front of them. Those are common side effects from Pokemon Go Syndrome (PGS), a potentially fatal illness sweeping the planet. Meandering mindless miscreants, holding their phones out in front of their faces, shall henceforth be called Pokemon Go Zombies (PGZ). Consider this blog your immunization against the sickness. I guarantee this blog won’t cause Autism or contain tiny microchips supplied by the shady and top secret Government tracking program. I’ll cover the history of Pokemon, what the game is about, and then turn it about in my hand like a multifaceted Charizard, covering many of the related features of the game. This will touch on technology, information security, psychology, physical security, exercise, and cultural gaming trends. That’s a lot to pack into one blog, so this is Part One of the series, until I’ve milked the proverbial Pokemon of all its Go. Corny puns and frequent use of the word “squirtle” and “charizard” are forthcoming, mainly because I just like to say them. You have been warned.
The History of Pokemon
Pokemon, the merging together of the words Pocket and Monster, was introduced on February 27, 1996 on the Nintendo Game Boy system. The goal of the game was to catch, train and trade creatures to become a Pokemon Master. The first few games led to the release of Pokemon trading cards, which led to a very fast rise in popularity. This, in turn, led to an anime series, manga book series, toys, more games, more toys, more cards, large creepy marching stuffed yellow animals, a healthy dose of more toys and cards and games and movies, and then… Pokemon Go.
Though I didn’t participate or collect or even care, I vividly remember back in the day the
huge rise in popularity of the card game. There was a resultant wave of anti-Pokemon sentiment from parents, teachers and the church who didn’t understand the popularity, and who mostly likely forgot those fad crazes from their childhood. I remember pestering my Dad to drive me 45 minutes to Hughesville, PA because they received a new shipment of Garbage Pail Kids. I also remember mob scenes as soccer moms fought each other over M.U.S.C.L.E. wrestlers, Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo, Beanie Babies and Harry Potter books.
As a historical note, I also remember the backlash from churches against Cabbage Patch Kids, Pokemon Cards and Harry Potter. They were all from the devil, right? There is an age old church story of a pagan witch doctor who became a converted Christian, and was presented with a <Cabbage Patch Kid, Pokemon Card, Christian Rock album, Harry Potter book, etc.>. In every story, the converted pagan frantically exclaimed that this object was used in their own pagan rituals! Oh no! The story has conveniently been recycled throughout the years to cover the latest fad or trend of society. Because it is completely unverifiable, and includes an authoritative source (the converted pagan witch doctor), it is of course believed and circulated. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – first, let’s cover what Pokemon Go is, and some of the various aspects of it, before we head into the territory of making any sort of value judgement.
What is Pokemon Go?
Pokemon Go is the latest Pokemon game to hit the swarming masses. It was created by the California game making company Niantic, who creatively combined the real world of Google Maps with an imaginary virtual overlay realm of Pokemon creatures. As Niantic is owned by Google, it’s the perfect strawberry jam to Google’s monstrous peanut butter sandwich. The game is free to download on your mobile phone (either Android or iPhone). The interface is a colorful dumbed down rendition of Google Maps, where occasional Pokemon creatures randomly appear for you to capture. To capture a Pokemon, you must toss a Pokeball at the creature, much in the same way you would toss a ball to knock down bottles in a carnival game. Once captured, the monsters are yours to level up, evolve, power up, and send into battle against other owners’ monsters. This epic battle takes place in Pokemon gyms, which appear on the map as landmarks pulled from Google Maps. There are also Pokestops where you can periodically get free stuff, which are also landmarks found on Google Maps. These gyms and stops are typically Churches, restaurants, historical landmarks, post offices, art statues, and so on.
You gain experience points and loot by capturing Pokemon, visiting Pokestops, and winning battles against other trainers’ Pokemons. As you level up, you are able to capture more powerful Pokemon, and use more powerful loot. This loot can also be purchased with coins which can, naturally, be purchased with real world money. Thus far, about 50% of Pokemon Go players are dumping real world cash to buy loot. And thus far, Pokemon Go is raking in between 1 and 2 million dollars a day, which is remarkable for a free game. Companies are lining up to bow before this new golden cash cow, with McDonalds leading the way to request that its restaurants become Pokestops for weary trainers. Oh and while you are there, you can drop some cash for a Pokemon Go Happy Meal toy. Because who doesn’t want a little plastic Pikachu toy? Another method to acquire Pokemon is to hatch an egg in an incubator. To hatch an egg, you of course need to acquire an egg, and deposit it inside an acquired incubator (one is provided to everyone at the start of the game with infinite uses). Once an egg is inside an incubator, you need to Go. That is, you need to move a certain distance (as measured on the map) for the egg to hatch. There are 2k, 5k and 10k eggs. The higher the distance the egg requires to hatch, the more likely it will hatch a rare Pokemon. You can acquire additional incubators as drops or by dropping cash, so at any given time you could be walking your way towards hatching a Pokemon army. Now I hear you chuckling to yourself. Sure, you’ll just jump in the rusted out car and drive around and around to hatch those eggs, right? Not so fast. No, really. Not so fast – if you go faster than 20mph, it stops clocking towards your eggs. It wants to force you to get exercise by walking or biking or roller skating or piggy backing or driving really, really slow. That’s why it’s called Pokemon Go (emphasis on Go).
There are lots of other odds and ends tossed in there, such as leveling up your monsters, their attack strength, their life points, healing potions and crystals to heal your Pokemon if they get injured in gym battles. There are lures and bait that can cause Pokemon to come to you, whereas normally you have to use the in-game radar to find the Pokemon. There is lots to this game, and Niantic provided very little documentation or helpful information to explain what on earth you are supposed to actually do. Viva la Internet, there are countless web pages and blog posts that give you tips and tricks. Hey – you’re reading one right now.
So that’s the high level overview of Pokemon Go. All of the myriad pieces and parts are ingredients in a giant pot of addictive soup – and people are lining up in droves to ingest this soup. Their tag line is pretty accurate – Gotta Catch Them All! No, I mean it – you GOT TO catch them all. You are powerless to resist.
Coming up next: Hey! Now my kids are getting exercise!
Once upon a time my facebook feed was filled with many
Pretty pics of family and witty memes aplenty.
But then I shared a point of view that set my friends afire;
I hardly could conceive the controversy that transpired.
I labored to explain my thoughts and never to offend.
Alas, a few could not decipher what my heart intended.
No matter how I spelled it out, expounded, clarified,
They only heard a hate-filled bigot shouting, “Crucify!”
So now I must resign myself to gaining their reproval,
A bitter pill to swallow, losing their approval.
But wiser now I come to thee with insight to allot:
‘Tis better to reflect alone than share your inner thought
If frenemies you do not wish to make along the way,
For frenemies are destined if conviction you display.
In the past few years, the game Minecraft has become wildly popular. You can walk into just about any mall and find at least one Minecraft graphic t-shirt or stuffed animal (usually way overpriced). According to the Minecraft website, over ten million people all around the world have bought the game. There are Minecraft YouTube channels, Minecraft player guides, Minecraft wikis, Minecraft conventions, Minecraft servers, and more. Most kids (and many adults) have played Minecraft at least once. However, there are still many people who have no idea what Minecraft is and what all the fuss is about. It is for their sake that I am going to attempt to explain what the game is.
Note: The purpose of this post is to give a basic overview of Minecraft to those who have no idea what it is. Keyword: basic. I am not going to get into every little detail about the game (like crafting recipes, potion-making, horse taming, farming, bosses, villagers, the most efficient way to kill the ender dragon, etc.). I apologize to everyone who was expecting an extensive player guide.
On Notch, alternate dimensions, and guys named Steve
Minecraft was created in 2009 by two programmers known to the Minecraft community as Jeb and Notch. They believed that it would only be a small success and planned to use the money earned by the game to make new games. However, Minecraft became infinitely more popular than they had expected, so they set up a video-game company and continued selling it. In Minecraft, you play as a man named “Steve” who exists in an alternate dimension where the world is composed of all different kinds and textures of 3D pixelated blocks. In this world, time is divided into ten-minute-long “days” and “nights”. You can dig up the blocks and build with them. After a while, you can create massive structures, tools, and items that make playing the game easier.
Here are some examples of things that I have built in the game:
There are two main ways that you can play the game, or “gamemodes”: survival and creative.
Five-second Explanation of Survival Mode
In survival, your goal is to… well, survive. You have a specific amount of health, and when your health runs out, you die. You also need food to survive, which you can get from killing animals. At night, monsters come out and try to kill you, which makes the game more difficult.
Five-second Explanation of Creative Mode
In creative, you don’t have to worry about surviving because you’re invincible. You can also fly. In this gamemode, you have an unlimited number of every kind of block in the game, so you can build anything you want without having to dig up the blocks first.
Even More Useful-ish Information
Now obviously, the game is much more complicated than the explanation I gave. Remember, this is just a basic overview. However, there are some “details” that might be nice to know.
What is that?
That is a monster in the game known as a “creeper”. It has become one of the most recognizable things in Minecraft (I’m not entirely sure why).
How about that?
That is a block of dirt (a 3D block with the texture of dirt). The green stuff on top of it is grass. It is also a famous symbol of Minecraft.
Why is Minecraft called Minecraft?
“Minecraft” pretty much sums up what you do in the game. “Mine” refers to digging up blocks, and “craft” refers to building things with those blocks.
What’s the point of the game?
Actually, there is no ultimate goal in Minecraft. That’s part of its beauty. You have the freedom to do just about anything you want in it without having to complete any particular tasks.
Is there any way to play with other people?
Yes. People have created servers that are entirely devoted to playing Minecraft. Several people (sometimes hundreds, depending on the server) can all play at the same time.
So That’s Cool, But Why Is It So Popular?
That is actually a really hard question. It’s probably so popular because there are so many possibilities for it. As I said before, there is no particular goal or plot to the game (other than not dying). That makes it possible to do almost anything in the game. Another part of it is that you have to work hard to do things in Minecraft, so that makes creations on the game even more impressive, especially in survival mode. Also, it can be a very social game. If you get on a server, you will have to collaborate with other people to play.
That’s all, folks!
So, that’s Minecraft in a nutshell. As I said before, this is only a basic explanation of the game, so if you’re making plans to start a YouTube channel on Minecraft based on the info in this blog post, I’d recommend learning a bit more about the game. However, it should be enough information to help you at least somewhat understand what all the fuss is about.
So I promised a good friend I’d get back on the blogging horse and finally cover this topic. I must confess, Pooky and I were on a roll in blogging. Then the holidays kicked in, and with it little flu germies ran rampant through the home like cloaked nerds at a Star Wars convention. Let’s recap some of the key technologies that got us to this point:
Simply stated, any computer that wants to talk to another computer needs to use an IP Address. An IP Address is the binary name for that computer. Never forget the secret to the Internet: When you go to a website, you are actually looking at files on another computer somewhere in the world, which you accessed by its IP Address.
This was one of my favorite blog posts, the romantic fireside scene fills me with teh lulz. That’s a fancy nerd way of saying it makes me lol. Oh man, sorry, how about this – it milk were in my mouth, it would squirt out my nose. DNS is done by some computers on the Internet that translate friendly names to IP Addresses. If you type http://www.google.com into your web browser, your computer uses DNS to determine that Google has an IP Address 220.127.116.11. Your computer then loads the website from that IP Address. All that takes place within a few milliseconds – Pretty impressive.
Four Main Methods to Content Filtering
- At the client: content filtering software like K9 or Net Nanny is installed on the computer and allows everything that you have not specifically blocked. This can cause lots of false positives when it blocks legitimate traffic. For example, K9 loves to attack Minecraft traffic, causing no end of grief for my kids. I’m not a fan of this method, I’ll explain why in more detail later on.
- At the proxy: a proxy server is a computer that stands for or represents another computer on the Internet. On a computer network, you would connect to the proxy server and the proxy would connect to the Internet for you. The proxy would pass on “good” traffic and drop “bad” traffic. Most companies use this approach with a dedicated content filter appliance such as Websense. We can get similar functionality out of our home router, for free, using key word blocking.
- At the gateway: using access lists (a list that determines whether or not you can access something), you can filter requests before they leave or return to your network. This could be done on your router, assuming that functionality is built into your router. I have a Verizon Fios router, which has this built in. I also have a Netgear router, which also has this feature built in. I’d wager that most home routers have this functionality – but when in doubt, google it.
- In the cloud: your computer attempts to connect to something out on the Internet (the cloud), and is routed through a proxy or guardian that determines whether or not the traffic comes back to you. This would include using OpenDNS – you send your DNS requests (hey OpenDNS – what is the IP for google.com?) and if the website you want an IP for fits a category that you have designated to block, OpenDNS redirects you to a “this site has been blocked” page.
You could put all your eggs in one basket, then crash and burn if that one method fails. I personally recommend combining at least two, if not three methods. Each method has its own pros and cons, and ways to circumvent. From my own experience, most companies utilize a proxy, and most home users utilize locally installed software. I will say that I’m not a fan of the locally installed software. You have to install filtering software on every single device, but software isn’t always available FOR every single device. Do you have a web enabled television or video game console? Good luck with blocking that. Little Billy’s best friend Barry comes over to visit and connects his iPod to your wireless? He has free reign. Little Suzie boots from a parasite drive, and can get anywhere on the Internet.
Sorry, I should define that one – A parasite drive is a bootable thumb drive or CD/DVD that runs an Operating System on top of your existing hardware, like a deer tick latched onto a young buck. It uses all your hardware while bypassing your locally installed Operating System – and without running any software you may have installed to filter content. This sneaky tactic was used to great effect by Edward Snowden to avoid online detection by the government who desperately wants to hang him out to dry for leaking all their nasty monitoring secrets.
So anyhow, this is a short post about the theory behind home content filtering. Next up – step by step directions on how to make it happen, starting with how to set up and tweak OpenDNS like a boss.