Privacy Compromising Updates in Windows 7/8.1

Since the release of Windows 10 it has been no secret that Windows is collecting a great deal of data about its adopters be default.  Though some of this tracking cannot be opted out of most of it can, and this blog will cover these techniques for Win10 next week.  What is more alarming (at least to me) is that Windows is quietly installing some of these privacy-invading “features” on Windows 7 and 8.1 machines in the form of updates.  These updates send a great deal of information about your usage back to Microsoft.  Fortunately for users of Windows 7 and 8.1 these updates can be quickly and easily uninstalled.

The updates are (each is hyperlinked to a full description at microsoft.com) :

To uninstall these updates navigate to Control Panel>>System and Security>>Windows Update.  Click “View Update History”, and the click “View Installed Updates”.  This will open a list of the updates that have been installed on your machine.  Search for each of the four updates listed above.  If you find that any of them have been installed, right click on the update and select Uninstall.  You will be asked to confirm your decision.

Win7 Privacy UpdateI am disappointed that Microsoft has chosen to hold user privacy in such disregard, though my disappointment does not rise to the level of surprise.  This is a great example of something I talked about in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition.  Allowing updates to download and install automatically can have some serious negative consequences.  I prefer to download updates automatically but choose when to install them.  This gives you the chance to avoid updates like these that are not in your best interest.

Private Internet Access for iOS

During the writing of Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS I had the opportunity to work with a lot of products that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise considered.  One of these is Private Internet Access for iOS (affiliate link).  Though over the years I have used a virtual private network on my iPhone and other mobile devices, and I have used Private Internet Access rather heavily, I had never used the two together until recently.  The Private Internet Access app for iOS is one of the most convenient VPNs I have used to date and the VPN that I will continue to rely on for my phones.

Private Internet Access for iOS
The iOS app’s homescreen. The PIA app is incredibly easy to use.

The PIA app is a certificate-authenticated VPN which means that installing the app also installs an authentication certificate on your device.  VPNs of this nature can be set to be always on, rather than credential based VPNs which must be manually reconnected each time you unlock the phone.  Though certificate-based VPNs are notorious for draining batteries rapidly, PIA has found a rather ingenous solution to this.  Rather than remaining always connected to the VPN server (which is the reason “always on” VPNs are notorious for killing batteries) PIA does not always remain connected.  Rather, it drops the connection when the device goes to sleep.  Upon unlocking the device, though, data connections are blocked until the connection is automatically reestablished.  Though your battery will not last as long as it would with a very judiciously used credential (username and password) authenticated VPN, the security PIA provides is well worth the shortened battery life.

Private Internet Access for iOS
Some of PIA’s exit server options from the iOS app.

I have written previously about the security and privacy benefits of using a VPN.  Private Internet Access provides all of these benefits, including encrypted traffic to and from the VPN server and mulitple exit servers in mulitple countries to choose from.  As I have also written before, PIA also allows you a number of anonymous payment options including BitCoin and redeeming store gift cards.  Yes, store gift cards, meaning if you have an old Starbuck or Home Depot gift card with a balance on it you can cash it in for VPN service.  Not only does this give you a way to use those small balances left on those gift cards at the bottom of the junk drawer, it also allows even the low-tech a way of purchasing VPN service anonymously.

Private Internet Access stores NO logs, allows unlimited bandwidth and five devices connected simultaneously, and costs just $40/per year.

ProtonMail Update: v2.0

My favorite encrypted email service, ProtonMail has moved into a new phase in its beta rollout.  Last week ProtonMail rolled out beta version 2.0.  The full details can be found on the ProtonMail blog, but there are several significant upgrades that I would like to point out here.

https://protonmail.ch
https://protonmail.ch

Encrypted Attachments to Outside Users:  ProtonMail now allows you to encrypt attachments and to outside users, not just to other ProtonMail users.  This is one of the features I wrote that I would like to see in my last post about ProtonMail (not that I think I had anything to do with the decision to add this feature).

Public Key Download:  ProtonMail now offers you the ability to download your public key.  This allows you to share it with PGP users, and allows them to send encrypted messages to your ProtonMail account.  I also wrote about this last time, but I would still like to see this feature upgraded to allow the import of others’ public keys.

Event Logging:  Under ProtonMail’s “Security” tab (in Settings) is an option to log authentication events (logins, logouts, and unsuccessful login attempts).  The Advanced Logging feature displays the event, a time and date stamp, and the IP address from which the event occurred, while the Basic Logging only displays the event and a time/date stamp.  Event logging can also be disabled completely, allowing you to (theoretically) prevent ProtonMail from recording your login times and IP addresses.  According to ProtonMail the event logs are only available in the user’s mailbox, which means they are encrypted.

The most exciting feature won’t be around until a little later this week though: on August 20th ProtonMail will release beta apps for both iOS and Android.

I am very happy to see ProtonMail adding features like these. I would still very much like to have a two-factor authentication option, and I am told that we should expect one late this year.  Updates to follow.

Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS

I am thrilled to announce the upcoming August 20th release of Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS!  The second book in the series, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS is intended to help the layman with both basic digital security and in the development of a comprehensive digital security perimeter.  Written in plain English, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS takes a step-by-step approach to enhancing mobile device security, and will help you reclaim some privacy in both the physical and digital realms.

Your Ultimate Security Guide IOS - 3DSome of the techniques readers of this book will understand how to employ include:

  • Harden the iOS operating system by manipulating nearly every setting that impacts security and/or privacy
  • Use password managers to create and use strong usernames, passwords, and to employ two-factor authentication
  • Use apps that provide end-to-end encryption for your text, voice, email, and chat communications, and take steps to mitigate location tracking and other metadata collection
  • Use “disposable” phone numbers to protect your real number from data marketers, telemarketers, and lower your online profile
  • Lock down your Wi-Fi network and protect your internet traffic using virtual private networks
  • Replace a variety of insecure native apps with security- and privacy-focused alternatives
  • Protect your sensitive online accounts through a comprehensive, systematic approach
  • Employ best practices to lower online exposure and minimize your attack surface

Look for Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS on Amazon on August 20th.

Tutanota Encrypted Email

I love encrypted email, and I love writing about it.  In researching the next book in the Your Ultimate Security Guide series, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS, I decided to give Tutanota a try and I’m glad I did.

Tutanota_logo

 

The name “Tutanota” comes from the Latin words “tuta” (secure) and “nota” (message).  Tutanota offers free, end-to-end encrypted email accounts.  No personal information at all is required to create an account, and account creation is allowed through the Tor network.  Tutanota encrypts your message including the subject line, and any attachments and stores all of your emails in an encrypted state.  When you log in with your username and password, an encrypted version of your password is stored on Tutanota’s servers for the duration of your session.  If you lose your password it cannot be reset.  Tutanota also allows you to send encrypted emails to non-Tutanota users

Tutanota is incredibly streamlined and user-friendly and Tutanota apps are available for both iOS and Android, and Tutanota also offers a premium level of service for €1 per month.  Premium accounts offers some expanded functionality including the ability to create and use up to five aliases (alternate email addresses), unlimited outgoing emails (free accounts are capped at 100 per day), and the option to use your own domain.  Both free and paid accounts offer only 1Gb of storage but more (up to 1Tb) will be available for purchase soon.

Unfortunately Tutanota lacks several features that most of us have come to expect in an email service.  First, it does not allow you to save drafts (and as a result does not have a “Drafts” folder).  It also lacks a search function and the ability to assign labels (an important feature for email power-users).  Because of this I see it being used only for exchanging encrypted emails and not a day-to-day, Gmail-replacement system.

Though I am a fan of Protonmail and have been using it much longer, I do like the look and feel of Tutanota and will work it into my daily email routine.

AxCrypt – File Encryption Made Simple

Immediately after finishing Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition a close friend who’d bought the book called me and asked why I hadn’t included AxCrypt.  The answer I gave him was that I was unfamiliar with the program.  After looking into it and testing it for a few weeks I’m sorry that I didn’t include it; it will definitely be included in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 10.

AxCrypt 256x256 logo

AxCrypt uses the AES encryption algorithm (128-bit) and operates entirely from the right-click context menu.  When you want to encrypt a file right-click it, find AxCrypt in the context menu, and hover until the flyout appears.  The flyout menu allows you the option to Encrypt, Encrypt a Copy, and Enrypt to .EXE, among several other options.  Encrypt does exactly what you would think – it encrypts the file.  Encrypt a copy creates a new, encrypted copy of the file and leaves the original unencrypted.  Encrypt to .EXE allows you to create an executable file that can be opened on a computer that does not have AxCrypt installed.  AxCrypt also offers you the ability to use keyfiles in addition to a password, though it restricts the types of files that may be used to keyfiles generated by AxCrypt.  If you’ve read Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition,  you know I’m a fan of keyfiles.

Opening a file encrypted with AxCrypt is even easier – just double-click and enter the password (and keyfile if necessary).  The file will open where you may view and edit it; closing the file will revert it back to its encrypted state.  If you wish to decrypt the file permanently, right click on it, hover on AxCrypt, and select Decrypt from the flyout.  After you enter the correct password the file will be decrypted and written in plain text to your hard drive.

AxCrypt also has a “Secure Delete” function that overwrites files with a single, pseudo-random pass.   After speaking to Axantum Software founder Svante Seleborg I also learned that it can be configured to do a seven-pass overwrite via the registry, but I will  stick to using Eraser for my data erasure needs due to its flexibility and convenience.

If you are looking for a simple, painless application for encrypting individual files AxCrypt is definitely worth considering.  AxCrypt is free and available from http://www.axantum.com/AxCrypt/.

Thoughts on the LastPass Breach

I have a couple of thoughts regarding the breach on the popular password manager LastPass earlier this week.  Initially I was disheartened to hear about the breach but was very glad that LastPass dealt with it swiftly and responsibly.  I actually learned of the breach from LastPass, with an email alerting me to change my master password.  Additionally LastPass is verifying all intial post-breach logins via email unless two-factor authentication is enabled on the account. I was also glad to hear that the attackers were unable to make off with anything more substantial than very strongly hashed (encrypted) master passwords, cryptographic salts, and email addresses.  Though certainly less than ideal, the attackers were still unable to capture plaintext password vaults.

LastPassLogo822x100

Though I don’t use LastPass anymore I did for several years and because of this and my comfort with it, I recommended it in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition and plan to in the upcoming iOS 8.3 Edition.  The two big take-aways from this breach (at least in my mind) are:

Cloud-based password managers are inherently risky.  This may be a provocative statement because many people use web-based password managers without incident.  But for how long?  Because of the treasure trove of information a password manager contains they are naturally a target.  Secondly, because they are a more complex system than a host-based password manager like Password Safe there are more potential points of failure.  The data must transit the internet, back and forth from your computer to the internet, be decrypted locally to be used, be re-encrypted before being re-uploaded to the cloud server, etc.  A lot of things have to be done correctly for it to be secure throughout the entire process.

Two-factor authentication is important.  When I first saw the email from LastPass about the breach my heart sank.  I no longer use LastPass but I know a lot of people who do.  Fortunately I know that msot of them also use two-factor authentication and as I learned more about the breach I realized that accounts protected with two-factor were still safe.  I gave high praise to LastPass in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition for the multitudinous two-factor options it offers: “The Grid” (my favorite), Google Authenticator, fingerprints, Yubikey, etc.  With two-factor enabled my friends were able to rest easy that their passwords had not been breached.  This is the kind of confidence I want in an internet system, especially one with which so much critical data is entrusted.

As I said earlier, I would still recommend LastPass to anyone who is determined to have a web-based password manager.  The convenience of the system is hard to deny, but personally, I’d rather have the security of knowing exactly where all of my passwords are stored.

Why YOU Need a Virtual Private Network

Using a virtual private network (VPN) is an important part of strong digital security.  A VPN can accomplish several tasks.  First, it creates an encrypted tunnel to a remote server through which your traffic transits.  This means that anyone inspecting your traffic (from internet service providers to malicious hackers) will capture nothing but unusable, encrypted data.  For best security I recommend using the OpenVPN or IPSec encryption protocols.  Next, because your traffic appears to originate from a remote server your IP address is not correlated with your browsing.  This is important: if you visit a website that logs your IP address they can use the IP address to find your geographical location, your internet service provider, and all your visits to that site.  Using a VPN server that hundreds of other people also use makes you less distinctive and protects your physical location.  Lastly, VPNs can be used to help bypass geographical restrictions.  If you are in a country that blocks certain content you can use your VPN to connect to a server in another country, bypassing geographical restriction.

IPv6 Test

I recommend strongly against using free VPN services.  The recent story about a free VPN known as Hola! last week is an excellent reminder of why paying for a VPN is worth it: Hola! was selling the bandwidth of anyone who had their plugin installed, sometimes to malicious users who conducted botnet activity.  This opens users up to a number of security risks.  Free VPN providers have also been known to monetize by collecting and selling user information which defeats much of the raison d’être for a VPN.

To determine if your VPN is leaking information about you or how much information you are leaking if you are not using a VPN, Private Internet Access (with which I am an affiliate) has some helpful links.  They will test whether your DNS is leaked, if your IP address is leaked when you send an email, and if your IPv6 address is leaked.

Though I like Astrill, Private Internet Access, and WiTopia, there are pleny of great VPN options out there.  Most are under $100 per year and offer a great many features.  This is a very small price to pay for the disporportionate level of security and privacy they provide.

Fixing Firefox’s WebRTC Vulnerability

Earlier this year a major vulnerability called the WebRTC vulnerability was discovered in Windows machines running Chrome and Firefox.  This vulnerability can compromise your privacy by allowing websites to see your true IPv6 address despite the use of a VPN.  When using a VPN any site you visit should only see the IP address of the VPN’s exit server.  This prevents them from correlating you with your visit with your geographic location, and building profiles based on your IP address.  To test your system and see if your IP is leaking you can visit https://ipleak.net/.

Thankfully this vulnerability is very easy to correct in Firefox but it cannot be corrected through the “Options” dialogue.  To correct it go to your URL bar in Firefox and type “about:config.”  This will open a menu where power-users can make many adjustments to the application (many of these adjustments can be made through the Settings, but many cannot).  Bypass the warning and scroll down to “media.peerconnection.enabled.” This setting is “true” by default.  Double-click this line which will toggle the value to “false.”  This is all that is required to turn off WebRTC and secure this vulnerability.

WebRTC Vulnerability

There are add-ons for Chrome (WebRTC Leak Prevent and ScriptSafe) that are intended to defeat the WebRTC vulnerability.  It has been reported that these add-ons can be bypassed by a malicious adversary and should not be relied on.  However, if you must use Chrome you should enable one of these add-ons.

For full protection use Firefox and adjust as described above.  Using NoScript may also help mitigate this vulnerability.

ProtonMail Update

As I mentioned in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition, ProtonMail is one of my favorite new email providers.  As time has passed I have only grown to love this service more.  ProtonMail has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, at TED, and in many other prominent outlets.  While I mentioned ProtonMail in YUSG: Win7, those pages only allowed limited space to cover this email service so I discussed only a few of the most important features.  There are several more options that deserve some attention.

Privacy and anonymity:  Protonmail does not require you to submit your name, date of birth, telephone number or other personal information when requesting an account. Because ProtonMail is still in beta an email address is required to request an account at this time (it will be used to notify you the account is ready), but this can be anonymous, too.  I have successfully used Gmail addresses with modifiers (as discussed in Chapter 2 of YUSG: Win7), notsharingmy.info, and 33mail addresses to request Protonmail accounts.

Message expiration:  Messages can be set to expire after as little as one hour (or as many as 672 hours/28 days).  Message deletion works with ProtonMail and non-ProtonMail recipients alike and allows you to have some control over how long your messages are retained.  Be aware that this expiry is from the time it is received in the recipient’s inbox, not from the time it is opened meaning it may be deleted before the recipient has a chance to read it.  Also be aware that if the recipient replies to your message a copy of that message will be saved in the reply and stored in his or her “Sent” folder.

Secure messages to and FROM non-Protonmail users:  When I was working on YUSG: Win7 ProtonMail offered the ability to send an encrypted email to a non-ProtonMail user.  Since that time ProtonMail has added the ability for non-ProtonMail users to respond securely to these messages.  The problem with this is still exchanging a password securely (this is perhaps best done face-to-face) but if a password can be securely established this would be a fairly elegant solution for communicating with users who can’t or won’t set up a ProtonMail account.

Encrypted Attachments:  As of May 5, 2015 ProtonMail now offers encrypted attachments between ProtonMail users (it does not encrypt attachments to non-ProtonMail accounts).  Currently very few options exist for encrypting attachments (Mailvelope doesn’t do it) and this ability alone is a huge benefit.

Email Notification:  If you have a ProtonMail account but don’t use it daily, fear not!  ProtonMail offers the option of notifying you at another email address when you have email in your ProtonMail inbox.  Though I may gradually transition a large percentage of my email to ProtonMail for now I only use it occasionally and really appreciate this feature.

https://protonmail.ch
https://protonmail.ch

Things I would still like to see:  Though ProtonMail is really endearing itself to me and I find myself using it more and more there are still a few things I would like to see it offer:

  • Two-Factor Authentication.  I have a very hard time trusting my security to a password only.  I would much rather have the added security of a second authentication factor (maybe a system similar to the LastPass Grid could be a useful option?).  On the upside ProtonMail places no limit on the number or type of characters that may be used in either the login or mailbox passwords.  Both my login and mailbox passwords are in excess of 200 characters and changed frequently which gives me some peace of mind.
  • PGP Integration.  I would love the ability to import my PGP keys into ProtonMail.  This would allow me the ability to communicate securely with PGP users who have not migrated to ProtonMail, and to use my own keypair(s) if so inclined.
  • Encrypted for Attachments for Outside Users:  Being able to encrypt an attachment to outside users would be a huge benefit.  On the other hand accounts are free; if the person with whom you need to share attachments won’t set up an account you could set one up for them.
  • App(s) for Android and iPhone:  It would be great to access ProtonMail on mobile devices.  That said, it is hard to input long, complex passwords on mobile devices making two-factor authentication even more important (as well as the need for users to utilize a password manager).  According to the ProtonMail blog (scroll down to the comments) apps are forthcoming for both Android and iOS.

So how do we make this happen?  Setting all of this up costs money, and interest in ProtonMail has seen an incredibly spike in account requests over the last months.  The best way to make this happen is to donate to ProtonMail (via PayPayl or BitCoin).  I have no financial interest in ProtonMail but I strongly believe universal, easily implemented, user-friendly, encrypted email to be a worthy cause.