iOS

VPNGate.net: The Free VPN Project and What it Means

There was a fascinating story on TorrentFreak.com today extolling the virtues of VPNGate.net.  It’s a project brought to us by the Graduate School of University of Tsukuba, Japan.  Essentially, it offers free VPN access to anyone in need.  The goal is to subvert censorship in the digital age.  For example, Iran and China block access to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.  But internet users in those geographic areas can bypass their nations network filters by configuring their computers to route all traffic through an internationally based Virtual Private Network, or VPN.  For example, a Chinese college student could configure his laptop to use a VPN server in Japan.  When that student’s VPN connection is properly configured, all network access will be tunneled though that VPN connection.  Any web site he visits won’t show his Chinese ISP’s IP address in the logs.  The logs will records the IP address of the VPN server in Japan.

At its most altruistic level, this is a tool of free speech.  VPNGate.net offers a range of VPN server locations based in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, and the UK.  You literally select a desired VPN end point, configure your computer, and off you go!  The project offers a wide range of VPN protocols as well.  The tried and true L2TP/IPsec is supported, as is OpenVPN, as well as SSL-VPN.  This means just about any personal computing device can use the service: Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android.  The project’s web site has documentation explaining how to configure each operating system.

First and foremost, proper configuration of the VPN tunnel is absolutely critical.  And I want to draw special attention to this point since many of the people who use VPN access on a regular basis don’t consider this.  The computers VPN configuration has an option to “send all traffic over VPN connection.”  Your OS might phrase it slightly different, but this is a critical setting.  If you want to obscure your digital traffic to the greatest possible extent, this option must be engaged.  If it is not, only some traffic will route over the VPN.  The rest of the traffic will flow out through your internet connection in a traditional manner and it is neither wrapped in encryption nor routed through the the international network.
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Google Reader to Shutdown, Feedly a Real Contender

feedly_logo_iconLast nights announcement that Google Reader would be shutdown as of July 1st, 2013 was a crushing blow to some.  The web-based RSS reader app was a vital part of the daily work flow for many.  For many— though, apparently, not enough.  Google is pulling the plug.

This marks the first major public facing project Google is disbanding after investing significant time and resources over the course of several years.  Certainly some Reader users would ague that Reader’s development has been largely nonexistent for some time.  Several UI bugs were left to bother users for far too long.  All the same, the core functionality remained and allowed us all to rely on the service.  But no more.

The death of Google Reader will create a vacuum.  Though the demise of Reader was only announced last night, some are already calling it the deathblow for RSS.  Personally I think that’s sensationalistic and inaccurate   RSS has become a vital part of the web.  It’s become a core facility for the dissemination of information across the internet.   Perhaps not in a public facing fashion as the average internet user still doesn’t understand what RSS is or what it does, but it’s functionality is still critical to behind the scenes operations.  The most obvious of which is podcasting.  Right now, RSS cannot dry up entirely because podcasting is 100% reliant on it for subscription based distribution.
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Bad Apple: The iPhone No Longer Has the Advantage

It pains me, truly, but Apple has a real problem on its hands.  That problem is called Android.  Apple’s iPhone has essentially become the same 800 pound gorilla that Microsoft was in the 1990′s: it achieved critical mass and has become slow to adapt as a result.  While Google iterate quickly with every release of the Android operating system, Apple’s iPhone is now evolving slowly in comparison.  And that inability to evolve is costing Apple.

Software is only half of the what it takes to win.  Apple still has a great thing going with the iOS.  It remains the gold standard.  It’s the mobile operating system one can hand to a novice with confidence that they can find their way alone.  People who are not accustomed or comfortable with traditional computers can grok the iOS because it has a uniform user interface and controls which remain consistent from one app to the next.  This is an area where Android is, and always has been, lacking.  But every version of Android improves dramatically.  Apple needs to pay more attention to that threat.

The significant threat to Apple’s dominance, at the moment, is the hardware running the Android operating system.  Because, to put it plainly, some of the latest Android phones are down right sexy.  They have large, high quality screens and very fast, multi-core processors.  Hardware development is advancing quickly— far faster than Apple can counter.  And, for whatever reason, Apple seems strangely reluctant to make even the most obvious hardware updates to offset their deficiency.
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How Pinger Failed. Is This a Problem with Free Apps in General?

pinger_iconI had a bad experience with an iPhone app recently that I wanted to share.  Partially to warn others to keep an eye on their Pinger app, and partially because it’s a problem that could apply to other “free” apps.  We all need to keep in mind that free apps are free for a reason.  Nothing can remain free unless it can become self supporting in some way.  And when you look at the service or feature that an app provides, often there is infrastructure behind it with associated cost.  It could be a web server with a database, or in the case of Pinger, infrastructure relating to phone number allocation and VoIP gear.

Pinger is a free app for the iOS that provides users with a phone number that will ring through on an iOS device.  Phone calls can be made via VoIP.  But the feature I used was limited to SMS and MMS messaging.  This was all provided free to users.  Pinger makes money, in part, by up-selling its service when users make phone calls to non-Pinger number in select circumstances.

Understandably, Pinger expires a users personal phone number after 30 days of non-use.  30 days seems like a rather limited window of opportunity but that’s their policy and their decision to make.  My problem was that my number was taken away at the end of 30 days without so much as a warning.  In the past, I had received a message warning me that I was nearing the end of 30 days and would lose my number if I didn’t use the Pinger app.  So I would use the app and all was well for the foreseeable future.  I was confident that the number that many of my friends used the contact me was relatively reliable.
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802.11g vs 802.11n and the iPad: What Does it Really Mean?

wireless_iconMany of us have wireless devices that we connect to wi-fi networks.  Those wi-fi networks then connect to the internet via a broadband connection of some kind.  But many people fail to realize that the speed of their wi-fi is often much slower than the speed of their internet connection.  The truth is, if you’re just tooling around the web, surfing Facebook, or updating Twitter, that speed won’t matter.  But if you’re playing games or download files, you might be missing out!

For maximum performance and reliability, a wired connection is king.  Wireless is susceptible to interference from cordless phones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, even that FBI field van sitting down the street.  It’s almost impossible to tell what might be wreaking havoc with your wireless signal at any given point.  So, if you have the option, go for a wired connection if you have the opertunity.  Especially if you’re running a server of some sort in the house.  Particularly media servers, and devices serving up high bandwidth audio or video files.  Wi-fi networks are only half duplex, meaning data is either sent or received at any given time.   Wired networks are full duplex meaning that the network line sends data while at the same time receiving it.  When it comes to network throughput there is no question, full duplex is your ultimate goal.
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Dropbox: How Does BoxCryptor Compare to TrueCrypt?

Following a post earlier this week extolling the virtues of BoxCryptor, I received an email from a reader asking how it compared to TrueCrypt when it came to securing the contents of a Dropbox.  This was such a great question that it warranted a followup post all its own.  For the unfamiliar, TrueCrypt is a great open-source end to end encryption tool.  It is a software package that does a lot of things and does them very well.  Many of its features are beyond the scope of this post.  We are going to take a look at the features as they pertain specifically to Dropbox.

TrueCrypt allows users to create an encrypted disk image anywhere on the computers file system.  In this case, users have been choosing to create that image inside the root of the Dropbox folder.  This means that the encrypted TrueCrypt image is then synced back to the Dropbox server cloud and all other client systems attached to that Dropbox account.  In order to use this encrypted disk image, the user must first mount it on a Mac or Windows PC.  Once the image has been mounted, files can be copied to and from the image as though the mounted image were an attached USB thumb drive.  The advantage being that any files stored on this mounted image are encrypted by the simple virtue of being saved to the TrueCrypt disk image.

There are several problems with this configuration.  First is that, while the disk image is mounted, the contents of the TrueCrypt file cannot sync back to the Dropbox cloud.  So real time sync is really out.  So the users workflow must consist of mounting the disk image that is stored in the Dropbox.  The user can then copy data to or from the image, or work on files directly off of the disk image saving their revisions back to the image.  When finished, the user then dismounts the virtual disk.  At this point Dropbox picks up the change to the TrueCrypt file and then uploads the entire TrueCrypt disk image file to the Dropbox server cloud.
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Dropbox Adds 2 Factor Authentication

dropbox_iconDropbox added support for two factor authentication earlier this week.  This is a great step in securing Dropbox data but I wonder if the less technically immersed will understand exactly what this means for them.  It’s one thing to know that two factor authentication is a good thing but something entirely different to know why.  And since it actually requires more effort to access user data a times, it is also important to understand why this extra effort is worth its weight in gold.

Anyone who banks using an ATM machine is already well versed in the concept, whether they know it or not.  Every ATM transaction uses two factor authentication.  Each transaction requires a banking card, something that the user has in their possession, and each transaction requires every user to enter their PIN code, something that the users knows.  Anyone trying to access a bank account via the ATM but lacking either one of these requirements simply is not allowed access.

The same functionality can now be added to Dropbox, though in a slightly different implementation.  Normal access to a Dropbox account is authenticated via a login, also known as a username and password combination.  This is considered more traditional security.  It is something that the user knows.  But the potentially fatal flaw here is that anyone who knows the login information can access the entire contents of the Dropbox account.  And since it is a Dropbox account, this means that data can be accessed from anywhere in the world.  So, should a users login information be compromised by a virus or malware, or even a disgruntled trusted friend, this means that anyone with that login information has access to the contents of the Dropbox from anywhere on the planet.  Ouch.
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BoxCryptor: Secure Your Dropbox

Two factor authentication entered public testing this week and is being welcomed with open arms by the security conscious among us.  But since the very first release of Dropbox, I have hungered for the ultimate in personal information security: the ability to specify a personal encryption key for my account and the data contained within.  While I consider two factor authentication a serious win for security, I still won’t trust the cloud with any truly sensitive information until I know that my files are wrapped in encryption that only I can decode.

Enter BoxCryptor, an application that runs on a Mac or Windows computer.  It creates an encrypted folder, essentially a secure disk image that is placed on the local drive.  Simply save this file into the Dropbox folder and the BoxCryptor folder actually becomes a mounted drive on your Mac desktop.  When creating the BoxCryptor folder, the user is asked to enter their own encryption key.  Any files that are saved into this mounted drive (or into the BoxCryptor folder inside the Dropbox folder since they are one and the same) is then encrypted and synced to the Dropbox cloud just like normal Dropbox data.  The only significant difference is that the data has been encrypted prior to leaving the local computer.
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Encrypted Email Support for the iPhone with iOS 5

Back in November, we took a look at what it takes to encrypt email on the Mac using Apple Mail.  If you are the user of an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, and checking your email on that iOS device while sometimes sending encrypted email from your Mac, you will find that you have a problem.  The certificate used to encrypt outgoing mail and decrypt incoming mail is stored on the Mac and is not installed on the iOS device by default.  Oddly, Apple engineers have not seen fit to make the certificate files part of the information that is synchronized between the computer and the mobile device.  But, not to worry.  With the release of iOS5, email encryption is now supported.  You just have to know the tricks necessary to get the certificate installed and the iOS configured to use the certificate.  As it stands now, iOS encrypted email support is technically functional.  Its just not smoothly implemented or what I would describe as “up to typical Apple standards.”

We start by assuming that you have already implemented encrypted email on your desktop/laptop Mac OS computer.  If you have not, check out this post for the details explaining everything you need to know.  The steps detailed below assume that you have the email encryption certificate installed and working on OS X as you will need to export some of that information in order to install it into the iOS based device.

First, open the application called Keychain Access, found in /Application/Utilities of your OS X based computer.  Select My Certificates from the Category pane of the main window the locate the certificate that has the name of the email address you want to use for encrypted email on your iOS device.  Right click on that certificate and select Export (your email here)…  This will create a .p12 file.  Give it any time you like and then save it to your Desktop for easy access.  There will be a prompt to create a password.  Come up with something secure but also make sure it will be easy to type on your iOS device.  Once you have created a password, Keychain will require you to enter your system password before it allows you to complete the export of the key.  This is just an additional authentication step to insure that someone did not run up to your machine and try to export your certificate while you were away at the coffee machine.

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iPhone and iPad iOS 5 Wi-Fi Auto Sync Disabled

This is an issue that will likely only affect a small number of users.  But since it was an problem for me, it worth a post to explain the fix.

One of the great new features of iOS 5 is the ability to sync with iTunes over Wi-Fi and eliminate the need to plug the iOS device directly into the computer in order to backup and update software, content and playlists.  To enable this feature, first plug the device into the computer via USB.  When it appears in the Devices list on the left side of the main iTunes window simply click once in your devices icon.  Then select Summary from the top of the main window on the right.

Scrolling to the bottom of the main window, there is a section labeled Options.  Be sure to select the box labeled Sync this Device over Wi-Fi.  Until that box is checked, the iOS device will not sync over Wi-Fi.  If the box was already checked by default, you’re set.  But if you had to check it yourself, be sure to click the Sync button in the lower right hand corner of the window.  This insures that the settings take effect.

Apple’s documentation explains that iOS devices should auto sync with iTunes when the iOS device and the computer running iTunes are located on the same wireless network.  The auto sync is supposed to kick in shortly after the iOS device is plugged into a power cable to recharge.  But in my case this sync was not kicking in automatically.  I had to engage the sync manually.
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