A VPN, Tor, DNS, or just clear my cache

Stop and read this before you make a mistake

The newly passed legislation that gives your Internet provider permission to monitor your web browsing, and then sell it to marketers, is not new. In fact, before this legislation was passed, this has been the way things have been done for years. You see, the FCC rule to protect your browsing privacy has not gone into effect yet. So nothing has really changed, however, interest in Tor and Virtual Private Networks, VPN’s, has skyrocketed.

Rather than see you waste money or effort unnecessarily, I’d rather educate you so that you can make up your own mind.

1) A virtual private network or VPN, is an encrypted network connection where your browsing requests go through a private tunnel and come out somewhere else. This private tunnel is encrypted and thus only the exit node knows what you are asking for. The data within the tunnel is hidden. VPNs are the best of the available options to protect your browsing from your ISP’s spying eyes while allowing your full access to the functions of the internet. This includes media streaming, and file sharing.

This will likely cost you money and it is very difficult to tell who owns these VPN providers. So it is best for you to review these providers and use your best judgement if you opt to pick one.

2) The Onion Routing network, otherwise known as Tor, is a point to point encrypted tunnel that plays whack-a-mole with your packets. Your connection goes through the Tor software which encrypts it. Each point along the line that handles your packets continues this encryption with only the exit node, and those who control it, seeing the final destination and content of your browsing request.

A word to the wise: It has been noted that many governments have set up exit nodes for Tor connections and that includes the US government. Tor is also the only way to get to the dark web and I advise your strongly to avoid the dark web unless you know how to turn off scripting, turn off Java, turn off all active content as much of the dark web consists of serious exploits aimed at your PC.

Also, please remember that whoever controls the exit node controls your data. So plan accordingly.

Now, let’s talk about some bad advice that is out there on how to hide your browsing from your ISPs.

1) No — erasing your cache will not prevent your ISP from seeing your browsing habits.
2) No — using HTTPS for every site you visit will not protect you much either. While the data you send back and forth to the site you are visiting is encrypted, you should know that the visit to the site itself is known to your ISP.
3) No — changing your DNS server alone will also not do much to protect you unless you do that in conjunction with a VPN or Tor. What happens when you type in a URL into your browser is that a request is made to turn the letters your system sends out into a series of numbers that relate to the site your are requesting. DNS does this, however your traffic to your site must travel from your system through your ISP’s hardware, to the site you specified and then the data returns back on the same path but only in reverse.

4) Using ad blockers and using incognito mode do not provide you with any protection either.

These are just some of the things that are being talked about right now. If I missed something, or if you wish to ask any questions, please feel free to drop me an email.

WIndows Tips from the command line

A screen grab of Superfish intercepting an interaction with Bank of America (PHOTO COURTESY OF PCMagazine).

The first of several Windows tips

Starting today I am going to help you with a set of simple commands that can bail you out in the event your computer has some problem.

Windows tip #1–many of you have never used the command line interface or even know what it does. Windows has a large set of programs that run in command line mode but you do not have an icon to any of them.

One of these programs is called taskkill.exe — C:\Windows32\System32taskkill.exe

This program is very powerful and can save you if some program gets stuck.

In order to use it, you will need to know the proper name of the program running … i.e.: Internet Explorer’s executable file is iexplore.exe — in order to find the names, open up the command line tool and run it as Administrator.

There are two ways to do this:

1) Hold down the Windows key while pressing the “R” key
2) Click on the Start button (if you have it)

Either way you get the Run line to come up, type in “cmd admin” and press enter. A box that resembles an old school black and white computer screen pops up.

The first command you should know is C:\Windows\System32\tasklist.exe — this opens up a list of all running programs and gives you their name, the name of the program, the process identification number, and whether it is a service (meaning that it starts up when you boot up your computer) or if it is a console (meaning it runs when you ask it to) program.

Your screen should like this:

A printoout of the C:\Windows\System32\tasklist.exe command

Windows command line tasklist.exe

Find the AppleUpdateService.exe program. It has a process identification number of 1872. This is an example of a program that is harmless to terminate/kill.

With the commandline console still opened type in ‘C:\Windows\System32\taskkill.exe \f \im AdobeUpdateService.exe’ — now you should know that the \F means “FORCE” and the \IM means image name. There is a bunch of these and you can find them explained on DOSPrompt.com.

This will immediately terminate the program and it will react as if you have just unplugged the system. It will immediately stop and not allow any process it may be controlling to complete. Where the taskkill.exe command is most useful is in terminating browsers should one indicate a site that will not let you leave it unless you click on a box asking you to perform some task.

There is a reason why you will want to stop that browser immediately but we will go into that later.

You can also use the ‘C:\Windows\System32\taskkill.exe \f \PID 1872’ and it will terminate the same program. Only now, instead of using the programs name, you are using its process identification number.

This is the first of a series of tips on using the commandline in Windows. If you have questions, comments, something to add, or think this is stupid…please let me know.

For a list of commands that run in Windows command line, you can go to Microsoft’s Technet Site. You should also feel free to perform your own searches to find a list of commands that are explained in a way that makes better sense to you. Technet is a Microsoft product but it is not really meant to be used by the home user.

Time to talk Windows 10

No Windows 10 icon from BetaNews.com

No Windows 10 icon from BetaNews.com

Julie Andrews famous song from the Sound of Music starts with “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start” and this is where I am at…starting at the very beginning.

Microsoft is touting all the greatness of Windows 10. They say it is more secure and it is more useful than previous versions but in reality, Windows 10 is nothing more than Windows Vista. Technically it is Windows version 6.4 and Vista is 6.1. That tells you that they put lipstick and mascara on a pig and called it your date to the prom. Whether or not you accept it as a date is entirely up to you.

And this is why I write this…to help you make an educated decision about either upgrading to Windows 10 or if you are already there with Win10, I can help you lock it down to limit Microsoft (and it’s partner’s) ability to spy on you.

Two things to remember while you go through this…one–Microsoft is in business to make money and not to provide you with the best or even a workable operating system. Two–you cannot trust everything you read, hear, or are handed by a for-profit company.

No–this is not paranoia but truth. Each publicly traded company’s first responsibility is to its investors…not to its customers or its employees.

So with that stated…I will start walking down the Windows 10 road during this next week. It’s my way of saying thank you for reading this.

Pa$$w0rds–good or bad without breaking your brain

Every year some computer security firm releases its list of the worst passwords that people are using. While I do not know the methodology used to compile these lists, I do know that I see these passwords used over and over again in both public and private sector arenas.

password image by Linux Screenshots on Flickr.

password image by Linux Screenshots on Flickr.

Why are people using passwords like 123password? It is likely because the average person, not techno-geek, has a hard time remembering what some ‘best-practices’ list decided was a good password. You know the one; there must be on capital letter, one lower case letter, one number, one special character, and the DNA signature of your neighbor’s cat (I just made the last part up).

Now this is a big deal because passwords are a big deal. They keep people from snooping on your computer, your email service, the websites you frequent, or even keep people out of your bank or credit card accounts.

Passwords are like diapers and politicians. They should be changed and often. Why? Because if you leave a password in place for too long you give an outsider a longer opportunity to crack it open and then gain access to your data/information.

So while password, letmein, 123456, qwerty, or something similar are examples of bad passwords, using a password like 3!dxt*RT2nr$xgg5t06 is a good password but not because it is complex. It is a good password because it is long however the human brain can only remember so much of this string, you have to go back and remember that you are trying to outsmart a computer and not a human being.

A human will guess words that can be found in a dictionary or will tell a computer to look for words that exist in a dictionary. In short…words that make sense to another human being. A computer does not care about dictionary words or special characters.

I will now enter the word “entropy” into this discussion. Entropy, while sometimes relating to thermodynamic relationships in chemical processes, also means a lack of predictability or reliability that can lead to a disintegration of order leading to disorder and thus a large positive run towards randomness. This is a good thing to have in a password or pin.

For instance…your four digit PIN that you use on your debit card has a number of possible combinations of 10^4 (numbers 1-4 give us 10 and since there are 4 of them, that gives us the number of possible combinations) possibilities.

And that 16 character string of special characters, upper and lowercase letters, numbers and your cat’s DNA marker? Well that only nets you an entropy, randomness score, of 119 bits. However, if you were to take the last names of your two favorite teachers, the model of your first car, and your first home phone number..that entropy ramps up to over 200 and that would take the most power computers, hundreds, if not thousands, of years to crack that password…and by then you should have changed it more than two times to something else.

Some examples of good strong passwords in this model are: hulusucksbecauseofcommercials , bernsteincoplandRodeoin38time, spotroverslurpeepepsi

The main purpose of this blog entry is to illustrate to you that a secure password can be one that is long, and strong but more importantly, something that you can easily remember. Just do not use the names of your kids, your pets, or other personal information that you might not want disclosed to the general public.

Do you really need an 802.11AC wireless router for your home/home office?

802.11ac is the newest wireless networking standard on the market.

802.11ac is the newest wireless networking standard on the market.

They are here and on shelves everywhere… and they are the newest standard for 802.11AC wireless routers for home and small business.

Outside of having the standard set of rules for WEP, WPA, WPA2, and WPS encryption modes, it adds a stronger security framework. Take the Asus RT-AC66R WiFi router, available in most stores for around $200 (the price you pay may vary from $295 down to $165).

This particular router does stateful packet inspection, detects denial of service attacks, provides access control, parental control, network service filter, URL filter, and a port filter. All of these security features have to be understood by the end-user, though, in order to be effective.

Asus  RT-AC66U

Asus RT-AC66U

So why would the average user run out and buy one of these new devices? The answer is plain and simple and the same reason why so many people want a Bugatti over a Yugo–speed! Yes…the maximum theoretical speed of an older 802.11g wireless router is around 54Mbps. This is fast enough for most loading content from most web sites or to view streaming media over an Internet connection.

An 802.11N wireless router will get your data transferred over your home network’s connection at speeds around 100-150 Mbps throughput. To give you an example of how fast that is, consider downloading the latest drivers for your computer from the manufacturer’s website. There is a 250 MB file and your average download speed on the connecttion to the manufacturer’s FTP server is somewhere between 1-2 Mbps. If this were a straw being used to slurp down a shake, then think of it as you are using 1/64th of the straw for the shake and the other 63/64 parts are empty waiting for another shake, a soda, some beer, or whatever it is you wish to fill that up with.

That is one way of looking at bandwidth.

The reason why it is so much faster is that 802.11AC uses up to eight (8) MIMO (multiple in/multiple out) connections and each connection utilizes up to 180MHz per connection. Couple this capacity with using 256-QAM, a method for twisting the signals so that they can handle 256 different different signals that are being twisted/manipulated of each of these 256 streams and you come up with the capability of hitting close to 7Gbps bandwidth. To give you an idea of what that is, if you paid a small fortune and ran fiber optic data lines inside your home, you will be using close to 10Gbps and that is maximum theoretical speed.

If you home cable modem tops out at 20Mbps then that leaves a large amount of bandwidth of your network untouched. And since, right now, nothing inside your laptop, desktop, tablet or smart phone can come close to using all of that bandwidth, and given that the full potential of this technology has been touched, we have a ways to go before this is going to be incorporated in your computer or personal device.

Currently the Asus RT-AC66R is one of the fastest AC standard routers on the market and it tops out at speeds between 1300 and 1700 Mbps. This is a long way away from its maximum potential of 8 MIMO streams at 180MHz but instead it currently is using 4 MIMO streams at approximately 80 MHz for a combined total of 1750 Mbps. The limits now are the routers and the wireless cards in our computers and smart phones.

So do you need one of these devices? Maybe not now. Most of the best uses for this bandwidth will occur within the local network as the end user begins transferring video and photo files from one machine to another and the realization that what today takes 45 minutes to move will take approximately five minutes in the next two years or so. Right now, AC wireless cards are planning on being used in notebooks, desktops, and smart phones sometime in 2014 and 2015. So save your dimes, save your time and learn how to use a cable connection on your laptop to take advantage of the next to 3 Gbps data transfer speeds of a hard wired network connection.

If you have questions, let me know!

Online Photo Storage solutions–use them or else

I had this talk with the students both in my hardware and in my networking classes this week and feel it’s an important enough thing to warrant its own post. I have a student, who had an issue with his hard drive, for those technically saavy amongst you, his hard drive lost its partition table and hence all of the contents of that drive. For the uninitiated let me explain; the partition table is like a giant database that gives the operating system a map of where things are. So when the system loses this map, it loses everything and all you can do is reinstall Windows, Linux, or whatever operating system that you use and start all over.

You can see how easy it is to lose everything…all those special moments and all those memories…gone.

So let’s talk about backups…the hard part is choosing a service. There are many free services available to help you store your images online. What you are looking for is a service that is reliable, does not change your image sizes (and there are many that do), provides you plenty of free space online and makes it easy for you to upload and access your content.

For simplicity’s sake, I will put these in a list for you:

Windows Live SkyDrive–This is probably the largest online storage site that you can find for free. If you use Windows and Internet Explorer (and that’s most of you), this is real simple. You simply sign up and begin using this. You get 25GB of storage on their servers to use as you see fit.

Windows Live Photo is another free service from Microsoft. The Skydrive is designed for your documents and photos while Photos Live is a cross between social networking and photo storage.  You get the same 25GB that is in your SkyDrive account. This is simply branded under a different name.

Flickr is a free service from Yahoo. Your access is limited and you need to check their site as the terms may change. http://www.flickr.com/help/limits/#28 will explain the details. (Please note–I have an upgraded account with Flickr and it works well for my purposes).

Photobucket is pretty much a mirror image of Flickr. They allow you to store up to 5,000 images on their site for free.

Imageshack is another free service that I am not that familiar with. I know they provide you with URL’s to your images much like Flickr and Photobucket so that you can embed them in webpages, emails, or online posts. They also have some limitations.

Photoshop.com is the site I reviewed in my last post. In addition to giving you editting tools, it also provides you with 2GB of free space and 20 GB will cost you $20/year. Now most sites give you access to some sort of photo editting software. Flickr provides you with access to online editor Picnik and  Microsoft’s Live tools give you access to a Microsoft’s Live Photo Gallery.

Picasa  is the free image hosting service from Google. Picasa lets you store up to 1GB of web albums on their servers. Now this is the smallest I’ve seen however, if you use Firefox and have a Gmail account, you can download a plugin which will allow you to use the 8GB of email space Google has given you for file storage. There are some limited editting tools which will suffice for most purposes.

Now the one thing to remember is that if you are uploading very large files (the Canon Mark V raw file is about 77MB in size) these sites may alter them and convert them to JPG or it may simply shrink them in size. Flickr’s free service restricts the image size that you or your users can download and others may do the same. Your mileage may vary.

But remember that even if you lost you original version of that special pic, any sized backup is better than nothing. I am writing this in the hopes of encouraging you to save your history and to save artifacts for those who will follow us; our children, grandchildren, great-great-great grandchildren plus who knows which descendant of ours will be famous one day and a cousin can point to an old photo and say “See? we are too related!”

Next time…we’ll talk about pay image hosting sites.

Using Adobe Photoshop online

Sunflower in my backyard editted in Adobe Photoshop.com

With some mild fear I decided to try out Adobe’s online image editting solution, Photoshop.com. Now this is a nicely crafted site. It has many of the features that sites like Piknik and Picasa offer with something that are decidedly Adobe.

The first thing you should know is that the basic account is free. It’ll cost you an email account but that email account that I used to sign up with has yet to see one single piece of spam from Adobe or Photoshop.com. The basic account will let you hold up to 2GB worth of images. That sounds like a lot and it is for most point and shoot camera users.
If you are using a high end Canon Mark V with the default 77MB file sizes, then you know what your limits are and you probably are not looking for free online storage solutions for your photos.
Now let’s talk about free solutions for a minute. It is important that you do not store precious and rare photographs only on your home PC. Heaven forbid that a catastrophe strike, you will lose those memories. It is okay to do backups of your home pc files, pictures, and video on to DVD’s or some other onsite storage solution however, you should also make use of Flickr, Picasa, Photoshop.com, Photobucket, SmugMug or the plethora of online storage offerings.
So now that we have established that it is wise to move your photos off of your home PC and on to a storage site where backups are done routinely, let me add that you should have a copy at home too.
Now Photoshop.com gives you many tools for editting, cropping, and in many other ways manipulating your images. It does not give you all of the tools that you would get with Photoshop CS4, CS3, or any other Adobe Photoshop boxed software offering. It does however give you just enough tools to take a plain image and spice it up a little or maybe get rid of those demon eyes your puppy gets from the flash bulb.
It also lets you integrate your images with Picasa, Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook and possibly more coming soon. You can choose to share photos on Photoshop.com with friends or ban outsiders from viewing your work.
Adobe also makes available paid versions of this site which offer you more storage. You should check the site for pricing as it may change from the time I write this and the time you read this.
I really cannot applaud this product properly. You will have to try it for yourself.

A digital photographer has lots of help today

A podcast is a simple audio or sometimes video file that provides you with any of a long list of items that can be used to teach you different languages, math, science, and even digital photography.

Some of the best guides and tutorials are podcasts. 

Here are some of them that I listen to:

The main advantage of these podcast tutorials is that you can run them on your iPod or media player while you sit at your PC or in the field. 

If you know of any others, please let me know and I can add this to the list.