Innovation in the computer industry — Personal recollections (part 1)

I’m just finishing up the excellent book by Walter Isaacson, who wrote the 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.  The book is entitled: “The Innovators How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”  The basic thesis in this book is that innovation is not really about the lone genius inventing in a garage.  Rather it’s the collaboration among a variety of people with varying skill sets, dispositions and intelligence, along with the right environment that sparks innovation.

innovators-9781476708690_lg

source: Simon and Schuster

However, what has enthralled me in reading this tome is that my career in the computer and software engineering business paralleled much of this development of computers, networking and social media.  Though I can hardly take any real credit for the advances described in the book, I had a front row seat to much of what Isaacson describes.  Also, I heartily agree with his conclusions as to the recipe for successful collaboration and innovation.  Sadly, my most innovative and enjoyable experiences in this industry occurred early in my career when collaboration was more valuable than protection of intellectual property.

So, for the balance of this post and a few posts to come, I thought I’d overview some of the parallel experiences that I had.  If you don’t care, stop reading now, but I’d still recommend reading the book if you’re interested in how technology was developed over the past 60 or so years. Continue reading

Password Managers — Worth it?

Given all the news lately about login accounts getting hacked, its time to discuss password managers and the advantages and disadvantages of using a password manager. Overall, my impression with password managers is that it’s generally a good idea to use one to manage passwords for websites and to have secure access to information that you might need, like social security numbers, drivers license numbers, credit card numbers, etc. However, be aware that there are some limitations.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 5.13.20 PM

In this post, I will discuss 1Password by agilebits.com.  However, there are other password managers on the market you might consider, such as LastPass, Dashlane and Mitro.  This isn’t a recommendation for one solution over another, just a recommendation to consider using one. Continue reading

Privacy and secure data

James Comey, the Director of the FBI in a 60 Minutes interview last night discussed the issues with Apple and Google’s new restriction that doesn’t permit them to respond to a federal warrant since the data on one’s phone can now be encrypted without either Apple or Google having access to the key. Here’s the segment from 60 minutes.  I’d recommend watching to place his comments in context.

cybermen2

source: FBI

As I’ve noted in previous posts, my concerns with security transcend governmental access to one’s data. For most US citizens, corporate access to your information, coupled with increasing hack attacks is by far the larger concern. Though I believe that proper, controlled access to phone data is highly useful for crime fighting and anti-terrorism efforts, in my view, it doesn’t outweigh the bigger privacy issues with devices. Continue reading

What is the “Cloud”?

So, I was at a gathering of friends and one of them asked me: “I keep hearing about the “Cloud”, but I don’t understand it.  What is the Cloud?” It’s an interesting question, because like it’s meteorological namesake, its existence is ephemeral and changing all the time.

1024px-Cloud_computing.svg

Source: Sam Johnston (includes Computer.svg by Sasa Stefanovic)

Let’s start with the name: Cloud. Like many things in technology, the name is largely a marketing term.  It’s a marketing term that had its genesis in the technical realm. For years, my colleagues and I used the picture of a cloud in architecture diagrams to indicate network paths and services. Sorta like: I’m in Boston communicating with you in Palo Alto and between us I’d show a cloud to indicate: There are messaging services here, but exactly how the messaging happens is not important to the overall architecture of our work.  A few years ago the term cloud was co-opted to mean any storage and services being delivered in the network, usually in the Internet. Again, the “how” is not as important as the “what”.

So, what is the Cloud (with a capital “C”)?

It’s an all-encompassing metaphor for any and all services that are delivered via the Internet (note: There are Intranet cloud services, but let’s focus on what the average consumer sees). As the figure above shows, these services can run the realm of computing services that in the past might have been run on local computers. More specifically, if you use Gmail, Dropbox, on-line photo storage, on-line backup (e.g., Mozy or Quicken on-line backup), synchronization of your address book with your devices and computers, you are leveraging the Cloud. Continue reading

Update on TrueCrypt …

So, it’s been about a week since the bombshell of TrueCrypt’s demise and I thought it would be useful to present an update.

First and foremost, it doesn’t appear that the sites have been hacked and that the developers have simply decided to abandon the project.  The note that TrueCrypt is insecure is theoretically correct in that if problems are found, the software will not be updated.  Said another way: The longer you use it, the higher the probability someone will find a weakness in the code that can be exploited.

There are some sites popping up that provide downloads of the last full version of TrueCrypt (version 7.1a), but like my previous warning, I’d not use them at this time. There is nothing to prevent someone from bundling some malware with the installation kit.

The outfit performing the security audit of TrueCrypt has pledged to continue that work.  See the twitter feed for the OpenCryptoAudit project.

James Lyne authored the following article in Forbes that provides some thoughts about TrueCrypt going forward entitled TrueCrypt is Back, but Should it be?  It’s an interesting read, though still speculative.

So, my advice remains: If you’re using TrueCrypt now, you should be able to continue to use it until you move to another solution.  The good news is that solutions exist for specific operating systems:

If you are using Windows 7 or 8, you can encrypt files and directories in-line with the file system using Encrypted File System or EFS.  For directions on how to use EFS, see the following Groovy Post article.  To encrypt an entire drive, including your “C:” drive, use BitLocker.

If you are using MacOS, then use the Disk Utility to encrypt your files and directories.  For directions on this, see the following Indigo article.  For entire drives, including your “Macintosh HD”, use FileVault2.

Finally, there are several 3rd party solutions that should provide some cross-platform use.

 

TrueCrypt appears to be belly up …

The open-source encryption offering TrueCrypt has been abruptly and (apparently) permanently been pulled off the market.  Their website www.truecrypt.org is redirecting to their sourceforge  download site, which has a warning that the product isn’t secure and offers help in migrating from TrueCrypt to BitLocker on Windows systems.  I’d recommend that if you’re using TrueCrypt to migrate to the encryption package that is integrated in your OS, BitLocker for Windows and FileVault for the Mac.  There are also commercial encryption packages available from Symantec among others.

I’ve been a proponent of TrueCrypt in the past and use it myself.  I like the ease-of-use and multi-platform support of TrueCrypt, especially since I run all three major OS platforms: Windows, MacOS and Linux.  This allows me to easily share encrypted data on all three platforms.  Also, I advocated that TrueCrypt be used for an emergency thumb drive, since there was a portable app build that would allow the software to reside on the drive.  It also had a very desirable price-point of $0.

The problem with the current situation is not everyone has access to an integrated encryption solution.  Only Windows Vista/7/8 Pro and Enterprise have the package, leaving a very large contingent out of luck.  MacOS users have it, but not all Linux packages have encryption offerings.

Also, it’s important to note that though this appears to be permanent, there is a small (but dwindling) chance that their website was hacked and there is something more nefarious going on here.  The next few days should help clarify this.

So, what to do?  First off, there is no need to panic.  As long has you have a working version of TrueCrypt, you should be fine for now, though I’d recommend moving off it as soon as is practical.   This is especially true if you’re using it for whole disk encryption.  One should use the integrated solution for whole-disk encryption if available in any case.

If you don’t have a working version of TrueCrypt and you need to mount an encrypted volume, the sourceforge site provides a version of TrueCrypt for decrypting only.  I’d highly recommend NOT downloading it at this time.  We need better assurance that this isn’t a hack first.

I’ll post more information on this topic soon, including pointers to instructions for using other solutions. Stay tuned …

Here are a couple articles that provide some more detail:

 

Do you really know where you have on-line accounts?

The latest security breach has occurred, this time on ebay.com.    In this particular case, it appears all the user identifiers and passwords have been compromised, but (as of this writing) not financial information or paypal.com accounts.  For more information, see Brian Krebs blog post.

When I heard this, my first thought was: Hey, I don’t use eBay, so not a problem.  My second thought was: Wait a minute, didn’t I buy a golf club on ebay a while back?  Well, it turns out I do have an eBay account and after digging around to figure out my creds, I was indeed able to log in and reset my password.

That experience got me to thinking about how many accounts I really have on-line.  I’ve been an active participant on the Internet since there were less than 1,000 sites worldwide and I’ve probably have hundreds of accounts.  Some of these accounts are no longer valid for a variety of reasons, including the company failing.  However, as I sit here, I could do a quick accounting and still miss some, probably by half.

This is truly concerning because I don’t think I could remember all of the accounts, even if I performed a deep-dive.  I’ll bet you are in a similar place.

So, the best defense is to change up your passwords for the accounts you are aware of.  Never reuse old passwords, nor play the “one-off” game, which means don’t have a single password that you change by incrementing a number (e.g. 1password -> 2password) or some such thing.  Then change them periodically across the sites.  This way, if you forget one, hackers don’t have a complete set of credentials.

 

MacOS 10.9: Mavericks!

I finally took the time and upgraded my MacBook Pro to the latest and greatest MacOS; Mavericks (10.9.2).  I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, the decision to upgrade to a major new version of an OS for a desktop or laptop computer shouldn’t be made lightly (minor or service packs should be applied as soon as available, since they typically have security fixes).  It’s a traditional balance of features vs. cost (and risk) to upgrade.

Though Mavericks was released on October 22, 2013, I waited for roughly 6 months to allow some of the 3rd party applications and devices to catch up.  In fact, though I was running Lion (10.7.x) on my laptop previously, I hadn’t updated to Mountain Lion (10.8.x)   because the new features were not worth the potential issues with doing the upgrade (see my post on Mountain Lion).  I have one device in particular that has been troublesome with MacOS upgrades, and that has largely inhibited me from upgrading.  That device is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device by LenovoEMC (formerly Iomega) and since EMC sold it to Lenovo, its clear that MacOS priority has dropped into a black hole, so I decided to work around this device.

So, on to the upgrade.  First, some information about the upgrade itself, then I’ll have some initial impressions. Continue reading

Update on Heartbleed SSL exploit – Personal device vulnerability

When Heartbleed was announced, it was pretty clear that the issues were focused on various Cloud servers, like web servers and email servers.  Which is to say, the vulnerability is on the servers that serve your computers and devices. It didn’t seem to be a vulnerability in consumer devices and computers.  See FLASH: Heartbleed SSL vulnerability for more information.

Though this is largely true, there are some exceptions that you should be aware of. The exceptions are when your computer or device acts likes a server out to the Internet.   In these cases, if your device or computer provides encrypted connections, it’s could trip over the OpenSSL issue.

Routers provide the interface between your home network and the world-wide, wild west Internet.  The router provides the firewall between the Internet and your network, preventing connections from being made into your network from the outside (see my Security Primer for more detail).

However, you can configure your router to allow connections to be made from the Internet though to one or more computers on your home network.  You can establish a single computer to be totally open to the net, or you can selectively open ports (e.g., port 25 for email) to selected computers in your network.  The reason you might be doing this is to serve up web services or email out to the Internet.  For example, I know folks who set up a email server to serve email to their families, bypassing the need for commercial or consumer email servers like gmail or yahoo.

If you’re providing web or email services from any computer on your home network to the outside and if you’ve configured the services to use encrypted connections, then you might have this issue.  The good news here is that if you are serving these services from either Windows or MacOS, you should be OK.  it turns out that MacOS uses OpenSSL, but its an older version that doesn’t have this vulnerability (Apple is notoriously slow to update open source components, to their benefit in this case).  Windows IIS isn’t impacted either.

The only OS that is impacted are the various flavors of Linux.  The primary web server that ships with Linux is Apache and its configured by default with OpenSSL.

Also, some routers are impacted by this issue, especially if they permit management of the router from the Internet.  Again, this is typically via an encrypted connection.  If you manage your network from the outside, check with your router manufacturer.  I do know that some D-Link and Cisco routers are vulnerable.  Linksys and Apple Airport routers are safe.

 

FLASH: Heartbleed SSL vulnerability

There is a new exploit that has been detected in the fundamental security protocol that enables secure communications between a company’s servers and your computer or device. The exploit has been dubbed “Heartbleed” (CVE-2014-0160), because it exploits a vulnerability in the the heartbeat of the OpenSSL version of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security protocol. The thing that makes this problem particularly serious is that while exploiting the weakness, the hackers leave no indication of their activities or whether it’s been exploited at all.

source: Codenomicon

source: Codenomicon

Before getting into this in more detail, here’s some background. SSL is the protocol that establishes a AES-256 encrypted connection between a computer/device and a web server (see the Encryption section of the Glossary for more information). There are several software packages available to companies that support SSL, though two of the most popular are from RSA and OpenSSL. Only specific versions of OpenSSL are at risk and there is no risk from non-OpenSSL packages. Though roughly 2/3 of servers use OpenSSL, it’s not clear how many are using the tainted versions. The tainted versions have been available for roughly 2 years. OpenSSL is preferred because (a) it’s cheaper and (b) it’s bundled with most Linux server software, which is the most commonly used OS for servers (again, because of its lower cost).

The “heartbeat” is a periodic data packet (64 KB in size) that one computer sends to another that says: “I’m still alive here, let’s keep the connection in place.” An “exploit” is a weakness in a server or computer that will allow a hacker to gain unauthorized data and/or control from a computer.

In this particular exploit, the heartbeat can be used to read unauthorized data from the web server’s memory in 64 KB chunks. This has the following implications:

  • The data that is acquired is from the web server and not your computer or device.
  • The data that is acquired is read from the server’s memory and not its disks or databases. Whatever data it acquires, is data that is currently active on the server. This means that for any of your personal data or login credentials to be at risk, the exploit needs to be occurring while you are connected to the server (or recently been connected to the server).
  • Since the exploit can be used to acquire a web site’s primary or secondary encryption key, it can allow the hacker to listen into communications (which of course has more wide-ranging implications).

So, this is a different type of exploit than the type where a hacker gets access to a company’s databases to download data from their customers. However, since it’s at the heart of secure communications, its even more serious diabolical.

So, what should I do?

As noted, though the exploit has been shown to be real and relatively easy to leverage, companies have been scrambling to identify servers at risk and fix them (there is a repaired version of OpenSSL available). Though there is evidence that the hacker community has known about the weakness, there is no evidence anything has been stolen.

There is a way to determine if a given website is clean of this exploit. Go to http://filippo.io/Heartbleed/ and enter in the URL of the site you’re concerned about.  It will tell you if the site is clean or at risk.  Be aware that you might get timeouts or other errors, which largely mean that they are rejecting or ignoring the heartbeat. I’ve done it with all the critical sites that I usually use, including Amazon.com and gmail.com.  All sites were clean of the problem.

Do not log into a site that isn’t clean.  So, for the foreseeable future, when attempting to use an encrypted site, check the URL first, then log in. BTW: Once you check the site, you don’t need to check it again.

Finally, once you know a site is clean, it’s a good idea to change your password. There is no test to determine whether a given site was infected and I suspect companies are not going to rush to provide notification. All normal password recommendations remain crucial going forward.  See the change passwords section of my post Your technical New Year’s Resolutions for thoughts about passwords.

Keep an eye on financial transactions, your credit report and for any other anomalous  activity that might indicate your data has been compromised.

For more information about this particular exploit, see the following sites:

If I get any more pertinent information on this exploit, I’ll update this post.  Be careful out there …

 

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