Browser extensions are fraught with danger — which is why I rarely use them — especially those extensions that request your permission to:

  • Access your data for all websites
  • Access browser tabs
  • Access recently closed tabs
  • Read and modify bookmarks
  • Download files and read and modify the browser’s download history
  • Input data to the clipboard
  • Display notifications to you
  • Read and modify browser settings.

I mean…seriously!?! There is not a snowballs-chance-in-Hell that I would ever give permission to a browser extension to rummage around in my browser and change things, possibly add malware code in to my computer or device’s memory (i.e., the clipboard), as well as essentially look over my shoulder while I use that browser!

Photo of investigator and security expert, Brian Krebs

Brian Krebs

As you may have already guessed, I’ve been wary of browser extensions for a long time. I wrote about how dangerous browser extensions are back in 2011: Why We Need a Google Condom for Chrome Extensions and again in 2017: Why Browser Extensions Are Dangerous but there are an increasing number of security experts now recommending caution on your use of browser extensions. One such expert is the cyber investigator Brian Krebs who writes the excellent Krebs on Security blog. His latest post was just published on March 3, 2020 and gives great advice and reasoning behind limiting the browser extensions you install: The Case for Limiting Your Browser Extensions.

Add to that my specific intention to limit (or completely stop) tracking as best I can — which is why I’ve moved from Google’s Chrome to Firefox as my default browser — is why I am not just concerned about malware and rogue extensions, I’m more concerned about third-party trackers and the companies that enable them to flourish to our detriment.

A CRACKDOWN ON EXTENSIONS

Fortunately there is a move by major browser companies (i.e., Google with Chrome and Mozilla with Firefox) to crack down on rogue and dangerous extensions. Ars Technica had this article published January 30, 2020: More than 200 browser extensions ejected from Firefox and Chrome stores:

The crackdowns highlight a problem that has existed for years with extensions available from both Mozilla and Google. While the vast majority are safe, a small but statistically significant sample engage in click fraudsteal user credentials and install currency miners, and spy on end users—in at least one case, millions of users, some of whom were inside large companies and other data-sensitive networks.

WHAT IF THE EXTENSION IS FROM A TRUSTED COMPANY?

Even trusted companies can give you a useful browser extension but you need to decide if you’re willing to make tracking you easier. For example, there is a long-time webpage capture browser extension which boasts “millions of users” and comes from a trusted company, Nimbus Web. Though I routinely need to capture long web pages, I would never install their extension and instead I capture page sections manually. Why wouldn’t I just install Nimbus Web’s extension? Because of the following from their privacy policy which allows them to collect and use our user data from the installed extension, combine it or leverage aggregator’s data, and facilitate advertising to us:

“When you use the Websites or Products, we automatically gather information made available by your web browser (such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome), Internet service provider (such as Comcast or Time Warner), and device (such as your computer, phone, or tablet), depending on your settings for each. For example, we may collect your IP address, information about the operating system or type of device you use, the date and time you access the Websites or Products, and the location of your device.

Generally, the information addressed under this section is anonymous and does not, standing alone, directly identify you; however, it could possibly identify you when associated with other information. For example, if a third party were to see your IP address, they would not automatically know your name—yet your name could be associated with your IP address by your Internet service provider if you are the named accountholder.

You could argue that the above is boilerplate and all organizations do some form of this type of data aggregation. But when that data is has specific intents like the following, it shows how they intend to use your data AND allow it to be shared by third parties:

To Advertise to You. We also use Cookies and web beacons, including those placed by Third Parties, to deliver advertising that may be of interest to you. For example, we use the Facebook web beacon to better target and retarget users and potential users of the Websites by advertising to them on Facebook. Twitter, Google Analytics, Google Adwords, and other Third Party Cookies may also be used in our advertising endeavors. We may also use a web beacon in email messages sent to track your response. Cookies and web beacons also help us and our Third-Party advertising partners ensure you do not see the same advertisements over and over and to identify and block unwanted ads.”

What about Third Party practices? 

Third Party Cookies and Web Beacons: Advertising agencies, advertising networks, and other companies (together, “Third Parties”) who place advertisements on the Websites and on the Internet generally may use their own cookies, web beacons, and other technology to collect information about individuals. Except as expressly provided herein, we do not control Third Parties’ use of such technology and we have no responsibility for the use of such technology to gather information about individuals. It is up to you to familiarize yourself with the privacy practices of such Third Parties.”

Remember this quote when something like this useful extension is free, “You are not the customer. You are the product.”

WHAT EXTENSIONS CAN YOU SAFELY INSTALL?

In my main browser Firefox, I have only one extension installed: the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) Privacy Badger. EFF describes Privacy Badger as:

…a browser add-on that stops advertisers and other third-party trackers from secretly tracking where you go and what pages you look at on the web. If an advertiser seems to be tracking you across multiple websites without your permission, Privacy Badger automatically blocks that advertiser from loading any more content in your browser. To the advertiser, it’s like you suddenly disappeared.

Though Firefox’s new privacy and anti-tracking capabilities are excellent, Privacy Badger completes the capability I seek to make tracking and surveillance even harder for the hundreds of third-party trackers out there. Firefox’s creation organization, Mozilla, also has a rigorous vetting process for extensions and has a short list of verified extensions that do not violate their Recommended Extensions program guidelines.

Here is the best article from Mozilla that I’ve seen yet on how to determine whether or not a browser extension is worthy of (and safe to) install. but if you already know these tips (or have read Brian Krebs’ article above), at least pay attention to wise advice like this from Dan Goodin, the writer of the previously linked-to article from Ars Technica:

“There’s no sure-fire way to know if an extension is safe. One general rule is that there’s safety in numbers. An app with millions of installs is likely to receive more scrutiny from researchers than one with only a few thousand. Another guideline: apps from known developers are less likely to engage in malicious or abusive behavior. The best rule is to install extensions only when they truly provide value. Installed extensions that are used rarely or not at all should always be removed.”

UPDATE on 02/07/2020 at 6:38pm PST
Looks like Google is adamant that they do NOT track this way: Google denies Chrome tracking allegation, explains use of ‘X-Client-Data’

As I take steps to extract myself from Google (and others) ubiquitous tracking, I’ve been paying attention to anything related to Google’s Chrome browser. In my news feed yesterday, I came across this threaded discussion in Hacker News:  Google tracks individual users per Chrome installation ID.

I was stunned to learn that every install of Chrome generates a unique ID just for you and it’s possible that Google is using this install ID to track us. As soon as you log in to any Google account with that new installation of Chrome, it’s also likely linked directly to your individual Google profile.

Not only is this completely “evil” on Google’s part if true and they’re using this ID for browser fingerprinting, but it also means it is a complete violation of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) and would result in massive fines for the company.

In order to get a deeper sense of what was going on, I went out and did a bunch of online searching (using my now preferred search engine, DuckDuckGo, of course). There are dozens of developer and tech site articles and posts that helped me fully understand what is going on, and why developers (and those of us who care about security and privacy) are so upset, concerned, and making a huge fuss to get an answer out of Google.

From LongRoom News:

On Tuesday, Arnaud Granal, a software developer involved with a Chromium-based browser called Kiwi, challenged a Google engineer in a GitHub Issues post about the privacy implications of request header data that gets transmitted by Chrome. Granal called it a unique identifier and suggesting it can be used, by Google at least, for tracking people across the web.”

Even the adblocker software company, Magic Lasso, shared this insight on their blog about the controversy and explained the problem and how this potential tracking occurs:

Each and every install of Chrome, since version 54, have generated a unique ID. Depending upon which settings you configure, the unique ID may be longer or shorter.

Irrespective, when used in combination with other configuration features, Google now generates and retains a unique ID in each Chrome installation. The ID represents your particular Chrome install, and as soon as you log into any Google account, is likely also linked directly to your individual Google profile.

The evil next step is that this unique ID is then sent (in the “x-client-data” field of a Chrome web request) to Google every time the browser accesses a Google web property. This ID is not sent to any non-Google web requests; thereby restricting the tracking capability to Google itself.”

Google needs to address this and quickly. Just about every developer I know has abandoned Chrome and are using Firefox exclusively (as am I).

UPDATE July 23, 2019

February 14, 2019: President Trump congratulates his new Attorney General, William Barr

TechCrunch reported today that US attorney general William Barr says Americans should accept security risks of encryption backdoors and this idea is a very, very bad one. There is NO FUCKING WAY that I will allow my devices to have a backdoor in them … ever … and please note: this is NOT about me maintaining my social media, email or chat privacy. This is about protecting MY data and MY personal and client accounts.

If the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Medicaid, Army, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Defense — and companies with their business and reputations at stake — can’t keep hackers out of their systems, how will the government protect a backdoor?

Check out this list of breaches on Wikipedia which starts out with this in the opening paragraphs, and scroll down to see how many companies and governmental organizations have been breached:

It is estimated that in the first half of 2018 alone, about 4.5 billion records were exposed as a result of data breaches. In 2019, a collection of 2.7 billion identity records, consisting of 774 million unique email addresses and 21 million unique passwords, was posted on the web for sale.

If a backdoor is legislated to be put in our smartphones, tablets and computers, I can absolutely guarantee that it will get out in to “the wild” and be used by blackhat hackers, regardless of what NON-TECHIES like Barr and Trump spout off about in rallies or articles.

Like CGPGrey has said, “There’s no way to build a digital lock that only angels can open and demons cannot. Anyone saying otherwise is either ignorant of the mathematics or less of an angel than they appear.” I submit that most leaders are not only ignorant of both the math and why it is not technically feasible to put a backdoor in to encryption, they only care that we can keep governmental (and hacker!) prying eyes out of our most sensitive information.

One glance at my iPhone shows that there are numerous apps that could destroy me financially and potentially provide access to my LastPass password manager … allowing subsequent access to nearly 2,000 passwords for clients and every website I’ve signed in to in the past. For example these apps being compromised:

  • Charles Schwab with access to my entire portfolio
  • Wells Fargo with access to my wife and my accounts
  • My Bitcoin wallet
  • My Apple Wallet with multiple credit cards and Apple Store cards with money in them
  • Signal communication app — which protects our communications when my wife, kids or myself are traveling overseas
  • My LastPass app with connections to my password vault…
  • …and too many more.

I could go on and on but let me have John Oliver amusingly inform you about the realities of having the government put a backdoor in and defeat encryption:

Congressional “theater” is happening right now and our ‘Congress Critters’ are all seemingly outraged at the privacy violations by Facebook, Google, and all the other tech companies we all use every day. Some even want to break them up as do various Democratic presidential candidates.

But I’d like you to notice that there is not a *peep* from any of them about all the other tracking companies out there, especially ones like Palantir.

Those tracking or “secondary surveillance network” companies are the REAL privacy threats. Literally everything you do digitally is tracked including:

  • Buying anything either online or offline as your credit card data can be purchased by tracking companies and combined with other data
  • Emailing and texting metadata is captured (the content is protected as a warrant is needed to search within an email)
  • Moving around with your smartphone in your pocket provides tracking data of your movements
  • Everything you do (or your devices do automatically) through your internet service provider is tracked now that net neutrality is dead (ISPs can sell your data)
  • Everywhere your face is “recognized” by a camera connected to an increasing number of systems without any regulation since your public persona can be photographed
  • And much more.

Want to See How Bad It Is?

Palantir is one company that has always scared the beejeezus out of me out of me as I’ve personally analyzed this completely opaque and secretive organization. But it wasn’t until I read this article Revealed: This Is Palantir’s Top-Secret User Manual for Cops did I say HOLY SHIT THIS IS BAD!

Turns out Motherboard obtained this Palantir user manual through a public records request, and it gives unprecedented insight into how the company logs and tracks individuals and their system goes far beyond what I ever imagined as a worst-case scenario:

“Palantir is one of the most significant and secretive companies in big data analysis. The company acts as an information management service for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, corporations like JP Morgan and Airbus, and dozens of other local, state, and federal agencies. It’s been described by scholars as a “secondary surveillance network,” since it extensively catalogs and maps interpersonal relationships between individuals, even those who aren’t suspected of a crime.”

In addition, this article 300 Californian Cities Secretly Have Access to Palantir shows how hard various law enforcement and other agencies are hiding the fact that even use Palantir:

Motherboard obtained documents via public record requests which reveal that the scope of Palantir’s influence in California is significantly larger than previously documented. Payment records indicate that between January 2012 and March 2017, about three hundred cities, collectively home to about 7.9 million people, had access to Palantir’s Gotham service through the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which is run through the Department of Homeland Security.

Why use Palantir’s Gotham service instead of licensing the software outright?

Gotham is one of Palantir’s two services, and the other service is Palantir Foundry. These 300 police departments could request data from Palantir, and an NCRIC agent would retrieve this data and provide it to local police. Per this arrangement, none of these departments have to disclose the fact that they have access to Palantir.

Read these articles and go scan the manual and you’ll see that it is trivial for any user of their system — whether directly with Palantir or one of their “service” companies — to obtain a HUGE ARRAY OF PERSONAL DATA on any one of us!

Again, notice how Palantir is not even in the conversation any Congress Critters or presidential candidates are having? Also, where is the mainstream media in all of this?

These secondary surveillance network/tracking companies are already out of control. Congress must act now but they won’t unless you tell them to do so and vote accordingly going forward.

Want to know more and/or take action like I have?

Ask your Congressperson and Senators to pay attention to and regulate these tracking/secondary surveillance network companies:

Since I care (as we all should) about privacy, security, government surveillance, third-party trackers, and all the other downsides that have already happened to this thing we love called the internet, WE ALL need to stand up and make our voices heard about the recent bill passage to gut net neutrality. That's why I just donated (and have continued to donate) to the Fight for the Future cause and will be watching the livestream next Tuesday, June 11th, to see what is happening and to leverage social media to bring attention to it.

What’s happening?

One year ago, Big Cable’s dream came true: they killed net neutrality, giving ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T control over what we see and do online. Millions of people demanded that Congress restore net neutrality. In response, the House of Representatives passed the landmark Save the Internet Act. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has taken over $1 million in campaign donations from Big Cable — is refusing to allow his branch of Congress to vote on this popular bill. So on June 11th, net neutrality supporters in the Senate will try to force a vote using a procedure called “Unanimous Consent.”

How can you help?

We’re organizing an epic livestream so that millions of everyday people just like you can watch their lawmakers, and hold their lawmakers accountable for their actions … or inaction. Fill out the form above and tell Congress why you support net neutrality. We'll make sure your comment gets hand-delivered to Congress, and we'll be reading our favorite comments during the livestream on June 11th. You can also spread the word on social media to make sure everyone knows what's happening.

Watch the livestream on June 11th

UPDATE ON July 11, 2018
Yesterday I reached out to ProtonVPN and received a lengthy reply and also did a couple of hours of research on my own. They pointed me to this reddit thread where they respond in detail. The company is also preparing to take legal actions if the blog owners don’t remove false allegations and defamation. As such, I NOW RECOMMEND you go ahead and sign up for ProtonVPN (NordVPN is still an unknown).

UPDATE ON July 10, 2018
Just came across a post ProtonVPN is a SCAM – Unveiling the Dirty Secrets of Proton and NordVPN and dug in to a bit. It seems that ProtonMail — in order to rollout their ProtonVPN service quickly — engaged a Lithuanian data mining organization called Tesonet. As such, I recommend you hold off on signing up for either ProtonVPN or NordVPN until further notice.

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.

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

Read More

Click for an update - 4:04pm
Update: Was just emailed an article by iOS forensics expert, Jonathan Zdziarski, who wrote, “Apple, FBI and the Burden of Forensic Methodology” which refutes some people’s characterization that it’s a trivial matter for Apple to break-in to the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone 5c and that it’s not. Apple would have to create “an instrument” which would be vetted by multiple parties, making it highly likely the tool would escape “into the wild” and therefore compromise iPhones all over the world. Read his post to see all the ways this is likely to happen!

iphone-in-handTo say I was stunned reading this editorial in this morning’s Minneapolis StarTribune is an understatement. I rarely get fired up enough to write a letter to the editor, but this time I felt compelled since they got this so wrong and I’m embarrassed for them that they published this editorial.

I just sent them my rebuttal and I reprint it below with the StarTribune’s paragraphs in italics and green. Also, since the StarTribune apparently did little-to-no research, I’ve provided them with helpful links.

Curiously the StarTribune changed the linkbait-like editorial title in the online version by toning it down, perhaps realizing that characterizing it as “Apple defies order” is wrong: National security is at stake in Apple’s faceoff with feds.

U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order

Apple Inc., the world’s largest info-tech company, now stands in defiance of a federal court order, saying it will fight attempts to force it to help the FBI crack the iPhone of a San Bernardino terrorist involved in a major attack on U.S. soil that left 14 dead and 22 injured. Apple says the government is overreaching and would be setting a dangerous precedent.

The company is wrong on both counts, but the world of encrypted information is a complex one. It is worthwhile to proceed carefully, because this could prove to be a critical showdown in the growing clash between privacy and national security.

Your editorial, “U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order” was one of the most stunningly naive positions I’ve read yet when it comes to the controversy over Apple’s stand on weakening the encryption of one, single iPhone. A weakening that would instantly open a Pandora’s box of cyber threat problems of which you are obviously clueless and seemingly dismissed out-of-hand.

First, it should be noted that the government negotiated for two months with Apple executives. When those talks fell apart, Justice Department officials turned to a federal judge, who ordered the company to create a way to bypass the security feature on the phone. The FBI had obtained a warrant to search the phone and, not incidentally, the consent of the employer that had issued the phone to Syed Rizwah Farook.

First off, it should be noted that the FBI permitted San Bernardino officials to change the password on the terrorist’s iCloud account (rebutted by FBI, now blaming official) and only then, obviously realizing their mistake, requested Apple’s help. Had they not done so Apple has stated publicly it would have been possible to obtain the shooter’s iCloud backup data. Since this mistake was made, the FBI then negotiated with Apple to recover what they could. Discovering that doing so was not possible, and subsequently failing in convincing Apple to create software to weaken iOS (the operating system that controls the iPhone and iPad) so they could break into the device without having it ‘wiped’ by its ten password attempt limit, the FBI then obtained a court order hoping to force Apple to create a method to do so.

Apple has complied with what Justice officials characterize as “a significant number” of government requests in the past, including unlocking individual phones. Apple CEO Tim Cook has become increasingly concerned about customer privacy, particularly after 2013 revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about massive government surveillance operations. The company has continued to tighten its security systems and decided to no longer maintain a way into individual phones. Farook’s iPhone 5c was among those with a 10-tries-and-wipe feature that essentially turns it into a brick if too many false passwords are entered. Newer operating systems employ ever-more-sophisticated security features.

The government’s authority to get private information, such as texts, photos and other stored data, through a warrant is not at issue. The key here is whether the government can compel a private company to create a means of access that the company contends will weaken its premier product.

Cook maintains that creating a “master key” to disable security on Farook’s phone ultimately would jeopardize every iPhone. With more than 100 million in use across the country, that is no small threat. There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass — allowing for what’s called a brute force hack — without affecting other phones.

With respect to your position on Apple’s creating this sort of “bypass” for this single iPhone, all while acknowledging this is not a “small threat” for the 100 million iPhones already in existence, you then opined, “There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass” “without affecting other phones.” This is your supposed justification for minimizing the threat of putting in a backdoor (or what you euphemistically characterize as a “bypass”) for those 100 million+ iPhones already in existence? Who are these so-called “experts” anyway?  Read More

ip6-under-the-hoodThough our national security is an absolute imperative, the Edward Snowden revelations about mass NSA surveillance—and what most of us see as a direct violation of our Constitution by them (as well as their practice of passing that data to the DEA, FBI, IRS and local law enforcement)—the intelligence community made their bed…and now they have to lie in it.

From Wired’s article called Apple’s iPhone Encryption Is a Godsend, Even if Cops Hate It:

It took the upheaval of the Edward Snowden revelations to make clear to everyone that we need protection from snooping, governmental and otherwise. Snowden illustrated the capabilities of determined spies, and said what security experts have preached for years: Strong encryption of our data is a basic necessity, not a luxury.

And now Apple, that quintessential mass-market supplier of technology, seems to have gotten the message. With an eye to market demand, the company has taken a bold step to the side of privacy, making strong crypto the default for the wealth of personal information stored on the iPhone. And the backlash has been as swift and fevered as it is wrongheaded.

Though this is clearly the right thing for Apple’s business—especially if they continue to hope to sell in countries like China (see Apple iPhone a danger to China national security)—I still want to say, “Thank you Apple…seriously.

frontline-ussecrets

Last night was part two of the PBS Frontline program called United States of Secrets. It was one of the best, most thorough overviews of what is going on with the NSA’s vacuum surveillance that I’ve ever seen.

You owe it to yourself, and the future of our children, to be aware of what’s going on.

NSA Finally In The Light

nsa-logoI’ve been deeply concerned about the massive, sweeping surveillance going on for over TEN YEARS! Whenever I bring up this topic (and online security in general) too many of my family and friends just shrug and say, “Oh well.” Frankly, I just don’t understand why most people don’t seem all that concerned about our fundamental erosion of liberty caused by the NSA’s mass surveillance.

Thankfully the Edward Snowden whistleblowing finally shined a light on what I intrinsically knew was going on shortly after 9/11 (see Snowden’s revelations and the overall controversy at The Guardian’s NSA Files website section). Yes, I feel vindicated for my paranoia but that attestation is not something I longed for…instead I hoped the government’s drive to classify their constitutional violations and illegal activities as “keeping America safe from terrorism” would stop.

Unfortunately that whistleblowing has made it increasingly hard for companies who sell their technology outside of the United States. For example, the NSA was inserting hardware in Cisco routers which caused CEO John Chambers to write a letter to President Obama asking for it to cease…now.

We’ve only seen the beginning of the backlash and erosion of our competitiveness around the world since no one trusts us anymore.  Read More