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Why My New VPN is ProtonVPN

The team of scientists and engineers that came out last year with the wildly successful end-to-end encrypted email service, ProtonMail, has now officially made public their new highly secure (and very fast!) virtual private network (VPN) called ProtonVPN.

As a ProtonMail user I’ve been incredibly pleased with the service and its security and this morning I signed up for their newest offering, ProtonVPN. I did so mainly because of the features, but also because it’s from a company I trust and, as a beta user, found it to be fast, robust, secure, and rock-solid.

I’m also stunned by how quickly they’ve nailed the key features needed in both email and VPN to keep us private and secure. A big plus also is that the company, Proton Technologies AG, is based in Switzerland, a country whose laws favor privacy, security and non-disclosure which is the perfect place to headquarter the firm:

“ProtonMail was founded in 2013 by scientists who met at CERN and were drawn together by a shared vision of a more secure and private Internet. Since then, ProtonMail has evolved into a global effort to protect civil liberties and build a more secure Internet, with team members also hailing from Caltech, Harvard, ETH Zurich and many other research institutions.

Today, we help our community of millions of users secure their private data online. More than 10,000 supporters have assisted us in this mission by donating to make this project possible. Thanks to your support, we are continuing to develop state of the art email privacy and security technology from our home base of Geneva, Switzerland.”

ProtonVPN has several key features that are a bit geeky, but have turned my head as someone who is deep in to cyber security:

  • Secure Core: This architecture gives their secure VPN service the unique ability to defend against network based attacks. Secure Core protects your connection by routing your traffic through multiple servers before leaving our network. This means an advanced adversary who can monitor the network traffic at the exit server will not be able to discover the true IP address of ProtonVPN users, nor match browsing activity to that IP.
  • Strong Encryption: All your network traffic is encrypted with AES-256, key exchange is done with 2048-bit RSA, and HMAC with SHA256 is used for message authentication which means it is VERY secure.
  • Forward Secrecy: The encryption cipher suites they use only include ones that have Perfect Forward Secrecy. This means that your encrypted traffic cannot be captured and decrypted later if the encryption key from a subsequent session gets compromised. With each connection, ProtonVPN generates a new encryption key, so a key is never used for more than one session.
  • Strong Protocols: They exclusively use VPN protocols which are known to be secure (OpenVPN and IKEv2). Though I’m not a cryptographer, every one that is whom I follow online swears by both of those protocols which have been examined and certified secure by top cryptographers all over the world.
  • Physical Security: The company has gone to extreme lengths to protect ProtonVPN’s Secure Core servers to ensure their security. Critical infrastructure in Switzerland is located in a former Swiss army fallout shelter 1000 meters below the surface. Similarly, our Iceland infrastructure resides in a secure former military base. Our servers in Sweden are also located in an underground datacenter. By shipping our own equipment to these locations, we ensure that our servers are also secure at the hardware level.

Other Key Features Include:

  • Open Source: Goes without saying that their transparency level is very high and having their software reliant on open source software examination and certification is a big selling point for any of us.
  • No Logs Kept: Under Swiss law they don’t have to keep them so they do not.
  • DNS Leak Protection: They ensure that your browsing activity cannot be exposed by leaks from domain name service (DNS) queries.
  • Kill Switch: Their desktop and mobile applications come with a built-in Kill Switch feature which will block all network connections in the event that the connection with the VPN server is lost.
  • Tor VPN: ProtonVPN comes with Tor support built-in. Through their selected Tor servers, you can route all your traffic through the Tor anonymity network and also access dark web sites. This provides a convenient way to access Onion sites with just a single click.

Take a look at their pricing page. They have a free offering (which is currently shutdown due to the overwhelming response and signups this week) and I signed up for the “PLUS” level today since, as a current ProtonMail user, I got a bit of a larger discount on both ProtonMail and ProtonVPN as a bundle.

I need to end with this: I’ve analyzed more than a dozen of the top VPN providers and previously chose Private Internet Access (which I still have active since I’m paid through April of 2018) and, especially for the non-geeks out there, it’s still the easiest to use, they keep no logs, have the most data centers, and still has my strong recommendation.

But if you’re extra-serious about your VPN — or have specific needs to be highly secure when online — I’d absolutely recommend you immediately go and signup for ProtonVPN.

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A Few Ideas About Staying Safe and Anonymous Online

My daughter sent me an email last night asking me if an app called Disconnect might work to help keep her safe online, especially since she has experienced her virtual private network (VPN) connection slowing down her online activity.

Here is some of what I emailed to her and thought I’d expand it a bit and post it as it might help you too.

A VPN’s encrypted tunnel does have overhead so it will slow down your internet connection. No way around that and there are always trade-offs like this in order to have good security. A VPN’s encrypted “tunnel” through your internet connection — for your traffic to travel through — typically requires using 10-15% of your internet connection’s bandwidth, but it’s worth it almost all of the time.

One tradeoff many of us make is using good, hard to remember, and always different passwords for every website and app we use. Doing so is very challenging as is keeping track of them (which is why using a password manager like LastPass is so important).

That Disconnect app is just a tracking blocker, but it does offer a VPN in their Premium version for both blocking trackers and keeping traffic encrypted and somewhat anonymous (and it’s good to see that Disconnect does not keep logs of your VPN traffic and use). Disconnect’s VPN will slow down your internet connection just like any VPN does, but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison between Disconnect’s VPN and the one we use.

Our chosen VPN is Private Internet Access (PIA), a provider that also keeps no logs and has 3,194 servers in 36 locations across 24 countries. Our entire family (and our business) uses PIA. Unless one uses the Disconnect Premium with their built-in VPN, your ISP and trackers can still know where you go and what your iPhone’s apps do (i.e., websites you visit; connections your phone makes through apps; etc.).

My preference is to use best-in-class tracking blockers and a VPN, but want to keep them separate (e.g., Disconnect’s Premium product is $5 per month or $50 per year  for only 3 devices while PIA’s is $6.95 per month or $39.95 for a year but they allow up to 5 devices).

Just know that, even with all of the measures I’m going to outline below, you always, always want to use a VPN when you connect to public Wifi (as well as a few other things) regardless of whether you are only concerned about being tracked while online.

Also, understand that there isn’t anything that is 100% foolproof. Cyber security is an “arms race” and as the good guys build better defenses, the bad guys are building better hacking/cracking and tracking tools. For example, the tech news site Ars Technica had this comprehensive article about how sites can still fingerprint you online even when you use multiple browsers so do your best to stay untracked and anonymous as you can.

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The NSA is *Not* Securing Our Nation...On Purpose

By now you should have heard at least something about the WannaCry ransomware attack that’s been going on over the last few days. When I ask people about it and what they know, most have vague responses like, “those computers must be old or not updated” or “people were stupid and did something wrong.”

While both have some truth in it, this analysis by Richard Clarke* about an ABC News story on WannaCry had one of the best paragraphs that describe the #1 problem I’ve been mad about for years which was the root cause of this cyberattack, namely that the NSA is not disclosing so-called zero-day vulnerabilities (zero-days are ones that aren’t yet known so companies can fix them):

First, America’s own National Security Agency (NSA) found the vulnerability in Microsoft Windows that would permit a hacker to gain control of a device. When the agency found that vulnerability, it should have told Microsoft right away, so that the error could have been fixed as part of the regular monthly “patching” program without calling attention to it.

Yep. The NSA should have told Microsoft right away so they could patch the vulnerability but then the NSA couldn’t use it themselves. The NSA has a long history of not disclosing vulnerabilities though the NSA chief claims they do disclose 91% of them (which means they likely keep the good stuff, the other 9% that are devastating like WannaCry has been when leaked, to themselves).

Clearly there needs to be a balance, as this Georgetown Security Studies article suggests, between national security and actions that cause national weakness, which I would argue the NSA is doing by keeping vulnerabilities to themselves. The NSA could go a long way toward protecting the American people by disclosing vulnerabilities that are obvious to them and potentially crippling to our nation, as well as not being breached and having their tools stolen.

That Georgetown article had these words to say about the United States’ Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) that should compel the NSA to be more forthcoming, but it contains a loophole that anything before 2014 doesn’t have to be disclosed (which is millions upon millions of computers and servers running older versions of operating systems and software):

Established under President Barack Obama in 2014, the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) is an interagency framework used to determine whether the US government and its contractors should disclose software and hardware vulnerabilities to the public and private sector or foreign allies.

The public and private sector have increasingly called for full transparency of the VEP and disclosure of all known exploits. According to the National Security Agency (NSA) Director Admiral Michael Rogers, the NSA shares more than 90% of the vulnerabilities it discovers. However, the VEP currently provides a loophole that exempts any vulnerabilities discovered before 2014 from the vetting process. This is problematic for transparency given the long shelf life of a zero-day.

Sadly, I don’t think the current White House administration will do anything to thwart the NSA’s runaway, do-anything-they-want agenda. Transparency is certainly not their forté so my expectations are low.

Let’s hope Congress steps-in and helps drive national cyber security a little harder when it comes to the NSA actually caring about national internet security vs. just performing signals intelligence while the nation’s I.T. infrastructure is hacked.

This WannaCry ransomware attack is a wakeup call to this nation (and the world) that all of the intelligence agencies (we’re looking at you too, CIA) had better start helping the world instead of acting like a bunch of high school hackers exploiting whatever weakness they can before they are found out and get caught.

FURTHER READING

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EFF: Encrypting the Web

Each year I donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) but did more in 2016 than ever before. You should donate too since they’re the ONLY digital legal watchdog that’s protecting our cyber rights!

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Steve's Security Tips For Keeping Your Stuff Private

While discussing cyber security and online safety with clients, family and friends, I’ve had several of them ask me for guidance on how to secure their communications and web activities. While a thorough examination of all the detail surrounding privacy, security, and good online habits could be the length of a book, let me give you some of the basics along with a few links to learn more.

There are several reasons you should care about whether your online, digital communications and web surfing are private:

a) Tracking: Ever wonder how Facebook knows you just shopped for Corningware at Amazon and suddenly the ads on Facebook are displaying other bakeware companies? Would you be surprised to know that nearly all websites you visit set a little digital file called a “cookie”—a file that can prove to be very beneficial most times—but that some cookies are set by third party companies that do nothing but track ALL of your website visits (and much more) everywhere? 

b) Are You Naked on Public Wifi? If you ever connect to a public Wifi hotspot, you should know that it is trivial for a Wifi hotspot to be spoofed and you might have already inadvertently connected to it! There are also packet-sniffers that can view any unencrypted traffic going back and forth between your laptop or device and the Wifi router and some blackhat hacker can view it.

Want to see how incredibly trivial it is to create a man-in-the-middle attack and spoof a Wifi hotspot? Then read this article which should scare the beejesus out of you (it did me). It’s called Maybe It’s Better If You Don’t Read This Story on Public WiFi and its tagline is this:

We took a hacker to a café and, in 20 minutes, he knew where everyone else was born, what schools they attended, and the last five things they googled.

If after you have read that article you are still logging on to public Wifi hotspots without using a VPN, please comment below and give me your argument as to why you think it’s OK to get online with public Wifi and no VPN. I’ve yet to hear a single, valid reason why someone shouldn’t connect securely.

c) Government Surveillance: You’ve undoubtedly heard about Edward Snowden who revealed the vacuum mass surveillance apparatus in place by the National Security Agency and that they’re are scooping up ALL metadata about who called whom; what websites you visit and searches you perform; what texts you send; who your Facebook/Twitter and other friends are; what photos you post; and much more.

As a preview to what might very well happen here in the U.S. under a Trump administration, a new law just passed in the United Kingdom and it will give you a taste of what is probably coming to America…and soon…and why we all need to be more diligent about our privacy and security. The UK Now Wields Unprecedented Surveillance Powers — Here’s What It Means spells out what we could expect in the US in the near future:

The UK is about to become one of the world’s foremost surveillance states, allowing its police and intelligence agencies to spy on its own people to a degree that is unprecedented for a democracy. The UN’s privacy chief has called the situation “worse than scary.” Edward Snowden says it’s simply “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”

The legislation in question is called the Investigatory Powers Bill. It’s been cleared by politicians and granted royal assent on November 29th — officially becoming law. The bill will legalize the UK’s global surveillance program, which scoops up communications data from around the world, but it will also introduce new domestic powers, including a government database that stores the web history of every citizen in the country. UK spies will be empowered to hack individuals, internet infrastructure, and even whole towns — if the government deems it necessary.

It is also probable that both the UK and the US will take steps to ban end-to-end encryption (one reason I use more and more services outside the US) and/or legally force companies to insert backdoors in their software so law enforcement can get in to the computer or device you own, especially without having to secure one of those pesky search warrants. It’s actually a lot more ominous than that, but writing much more about it is beyond the scope of this post.

Are you scared now?

You should be. I am, and I stay abreast of all of this every, single day. Read on for some specific tips and tricks to stay safe online.

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream…and a few scared internet users

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Secure Your Communications *Before* Trump Takes Office

eff-ssdSeveral people I know have asked me for guidance on how to secure their communications prior to Trump taking office. The reason they are concerned is the same reason I am: The Trump administration could very well accelerate (or use extensively) the vacuum mass surveillance apparatus in place by the National Security Agency.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Guide
Here is the guide you should use for staying safe with email, chat, voice calls, if you’re at a protest, and so on.

eff-logoModern technology has given those in power new abilities to eavesdrop and collect data on innocent people. Surveillance Self-Defense is EFF’s guide to defending yourself and your friends from surveillance by using secure technology and developing careful practices.

The guide has an Overview if you’ve not yet secured your computer, tablet or smartphone, to Tutorials that include step-by-step guides on how to install software and tools, and finally with Briefings which are detailed guides for specific situations.

Bonus link from The Intercept: Surveillance Self-Defense Against the Trump Administration

Could Trump Accelerate the Use of NSA’s “Google for Private Communications?”

Illustration: Blue Delliquanti and David Axe for The Intercept

Illustration: Blue Delliquanti
and David Axe for The Intercept

Yes, possibly and perhaps even likely. I would say it is likely since the Trump administration people—especially those like the highly controversial pick of advisor to the president, Steve Bannon—won’t be able to help themselves with the power of the office and the tools at their disposal…so I am going to assume the answer is yes, they will.

One of those tools is XKEYSCORE, the name of the NSA’s Google-like search engine and one of the agency’s “…most powerful tools of mass surveillance (which) makes tracking someone’s Internet usage as easy as entering an email address, and provides no built-in technology to prevent abuse.

The NSA’s XKEYSCORE program, first revealed by The Guardian, sweeps up countless people’s Internet searches, emails, documents, usernames and passwords, and other private communications. XKEYSCORE is fed a constant flow of Internet traffic from fiber optic cables that make up the backbone of the world’s communication network, among other sources, for processing. As of 2008, the surveillance system boasted approximately 150 field sites in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Japan, Australia, as well as many other countries, consisting of over 700 servers.

NOTE: All we actually know of XKEYSCORE is from 2013 and no one knows what advances have been made in the last three years. The deep concern is that the tool has become more powerful, and access could be as simple as logging in with a White House web browser. Imagine that someone’s full communications portfolio is instantly laid out for review by anyone wanting to know what you’re texting, browsing, who you’re calling and more, all at the click of a mouse.

Unless, of course, your communications are secure.

fairy2I hope I’m wrong and President-elect Trump becomes a centrist and moves away from his childish, vindictive behaviors. That hope extends to Trump stopping his being tone-deaf on what more than half this country needs from a president. But I don’t believe in fairy tales, magic, or that “God will make it OK” like many people I know believe.

Instead, my communications are already secure so I highly recommend you make your communications secure and do so right now…while you still can.

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Why You Should Use The Signal App

hackerUnless you’ve been traveling in space for the last few years, you obviously know all about the mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden‘s revelations, as well as the continued acceleration in security hacks globally.

Besides using a virtual private network (VPN) when you are on public Wifi (here is why a VPN is extremely important), I’ve found the simplest method for my family, friends and even clients is to use a super-secure, open source app on our phones called Signal by Open Whispher Systems.

Even non-geeks know that email is laughingly insecure, which is why this app is so important and how I use it:

a) My bookkeeper sends me important, private information over the Signal app.

b) I have clients send me passwords and credentials for their services.

c) Several of my friends and family members I’m connected to use Signal to send me messages that need to be secure. We often share items like passwords, especially when I’m helping one of them with some website or online application requiring me to login.

c) But what really sold me on Signal was when my wife was on a recent business trip to Hong Kong. Her hotel’s Wifi was set up to disallow the use of VPNs so she was not able to set up a secure, encrypted channel. This is because of what is euphemistically called the great firewall of China which the country uses to restrict what their citizenry has access to outside of China.

So my wife and I connected on Signal and, because the system has both private messaging and voice calling, we knew we would be secure and assured that some Chinese government flunky wasn’t eavesdropping on our messages or listening-in on our calls.

As I’d mentioned, Signal boasts highly secure private messaging using end-to-end encryption. In fact, the Signal protocol (the underlying technology) is being used by WhatsApp (though there are other insecurity issues with the app so I do NOT recommend using it). As of this writing, all other messaging apps (yes, even Apple’s Messages) have good security layers, but some are still accessible by the NSA’s warrantless surveillance activities, law enforcement, or possibly a system administrator at the app company.

End-to-end encryption (especially the way Signal implements it) means NO ONE can eavesdrop on your messages. Same thing with phone calls made via Signal due to its quality. When my wife and I were talking over Signal between Minnesota and Hong Kong I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of those calls while using the app on our iPhones (Signal is available for both iPhones and Android phones). It was better than if we had been talking over mobile connections (she was on good Wifi in her hotel, but often other voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) phones like the insecure Skype don’t sound very good).

SIGNAL FOR THE DESKTOP
signal-iconOnce you start using Signal you will probably come to the realization (like most Signal users do, I suspect) that it would sure be great to be able to use Signal on the desktop. Well now you can!

Signal is now an app for Google Chrome, the browser I use every day (Note: it does require that you have already set up Signal on your smartphone). Besides the computer version of Chrome, I also have two colleagues that use Chromebooks and now can use Signal on them.

You can connect the Chrome app with your smartphone’s Signal app by opening the app and instantly scanning a QR code. Once done you are connected and can even have your smartphone’s Signal app contacts imported in to your desktop version.

This is so easy to use and so secure that there really is no reason why you shouldn’t be using Signal right now.

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Tinfoil Hat & Edward Snowden

tinfoil-hatsJust after the horrific tragedy of 9/11, I began to see quite disturbing things unfolding in the U.S. in the name of “security” that was (in my, and many other’s, minds) clearly trampling on the Constitution. Most of my friends teased me for several years about wearing a “tinfoil hat” to shield my brain, but then Edward Snowden came on the scene, ensuring that the unconstitutional domestic surveillance underway by the National Security Agency (NSA) was exposed.

Photo by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films

Edward Snowden
Photo by Laura Poitras, Praxis Films, under a CC BY 3.0 license.

While I was (and am) less disturbed by some of the global spying activities the NSA is performing—other than egregious hacking of world leaders’ mobile phones and such—there is no question that making U.S. citizens aware of the extent of the domestic spying was the first wake-up call for those ignoring the signs of the obvious, disturbing and unconstitutional activities going on.

After essentially reading every single news article and snippet about what Snowden (and others, I might add) have released to date, yes I believe Snowden did the world a great service and is a patriot. No, I don’t think he will get a pardon (yet) since it’s still too early on and Congress has not yet bothered to rein in the NSA in any meaningful way with regard to domestic spying.

The U.K. news organization The Guardian has an entire section called the NSA files which is likely the most comprehensive compendium of items sparked by Snowden’s whistleblowing document release. It’s a bit daunting to wade through, so I was intrigued this morning to see that Business Insider just compiled this bullet-point list of items Snowden had provided to select journalists that were released between 2013 and 2014. It’s pretty amazing to see them listed and realizing just how profound were these leaks and, in my view, extremely important. 

Here are just a handful of those links just to get you started:

  • The NSA accessed and collected data through backdoors into U.S. internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, with a program called Prism. — June 6, 2013
  • The NSA has a program codenamed EvilOlive that collects and stores large quantities of Americans’ internet metadata, which contains only certain information about online content. Email metadata, for example, reveals sender and recipient address and time but not content or subject. — June 27, 2013
  • Internal NSA document reveals an agency “loophole” that allows a secret backdoor for the agency to search its databases for U.S. citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant. —Aug. 9, 2013
  • The NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, according to an internal audit. —Aug. 15, 2013
  • Expanding upon data gleaned from the “black budget,” the NSA is found to be paying hundreds of millions of dollars each year to U.S. companies for access to their networks. — Aug. 29, 2013

Read more here at Business Insider

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Why the "Wireless Passcode" AT&T?

UPDATE on April 2, 2016

attIt’s been quite awhile since I’ve had to call AT&T but I wanted to ask a question today since my wife is headed to Puerto Rico and was wondering if there was a roaming charge when she was in this unincorporated U.S. territory.

Calling in to customer service surprised me since I asked her, “Does AT&T charge roaming for mobile use in Puerto Rico?” but the rep wouldn’t answer until I gave her my name (since she could see my mobile number) and then the surprise: “What is your wireless access code?”

Huh?

I had no idea what this was and she explained that we couldn’t do anything over the phone without it, or in-store if I didn’t have a government issued photo ID with me. I WAS JUST NEEDING AN ANSWER TO A SIMPLE QUESTION for God’s sake. But no matter, we were stuck so I hung up and figured “the Google” would satisfy my needs.  [Read more…]

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John Oliver on Encryption

John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight talks about the Apple/FBI controversy and that strong encryption poses problems for law enforcement, but is weakening it worth the risks it presents? It’s…complicated.