Social Media – Bane or Blessing?

October 17, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | 1 Comment

Social media is an interesting bird. On the one hand, it’s connecting us globally as never before. It has helped facilitate the Arab Spring and Occupy movements plus many flash mobs. It reconnects us with old friends and makes distances and differences grow smaller.

On the flip side, it’s no replacement for a social life. It depersonalizes social connection and creates false communities. Facebook discovered that users watching “friends” all-positive feeds were getting depressed. They ran experiments to manipulate users moods with fake friends data.

Many free services are funded by advertising. Companies discovered that with better user tracking, they could offer their advertisers more targeted ads. The experiment has largely been a failure but rather than backing off, there has been a sharp increase in the level of tracking. More and more services are being cross-linked and more and more companies are sharing their user data to enhance tracking. While companies have to respect your email address by law, they can do what they like with your activity data. It makes big news when hackers breach security on your purchase data but when they announce another massive data sharing agreement you didn’t approve, you don’t hear a peep.

Another trend is to consolidate services such as at Google, Microsoft, and Apple. This is being driven by the desire to consolidate user data from all services. They’re not interlinking YouTube, GMail, Search, Calendar plus your various accounts for your convenience. If you also use the Chrome browser and have an Android phone, I think you’d be a little startled how much information is being gathered about you. It’s much the same with other services. Facebook invites you to “friend” businesses so your purchasing activity gets added. They actively share info with data consolidation businesses. Did you also let them load your address book? There’s a big reason the government is making record requests of such businesses for user data.

Myself, I don’t think it’s a big deal if a web site knows a little about it’s visitors. Most sites, including this one, track what pages visitors view and how many things they click. Did you look at 3 pages or 5? If you make a comment, they record your IP address. (do you really think comments are anonymous?) Many also subscribe to get notices of new articles. But those are typically managed separately. Subscribers are not tied to page reads or comments here. Newsletters similarly track opens and clicks to see what people respond to but they don’t track web activity.

It may not seem like much when you talk about your dog here, chat about work there, put up a dating profile here, share pictures there, and so forth. But taken together, there is a massive library about many people on-line. It becomes information you often no longer own or control. Plus it can be used against you in court.

If you check out, you realize a lot of it never goes away even if you close your account or shut down your web site. The Wayback Machine now stores almost half a trillion web pages, including the first version of my original web site and comments I made on a tech site over a decade ago. Facebook doesn’t delete closed accounts. And so on.

The issue arises because this user data is not being used in a respectful way. And it’s being kept. Users are seen as objects to be manipulated. Government efforts to access this data, that they can’t legally collect themselves, is encouraging a new trend – moving the data off-shore to avoid local regulations. The players all have vested interests in expanding the collection.

It’s most prolific form is now on smart phones, the leading edge of device proliferation. Thousands of apps for your phone and many of the recommended ones want excess permissions. Why does a game need your address book and call list? User data.

Social Sharing
And this brings us to a new feature of this site.

As I discussed back in the Plug-in section of setting up a blog, there are three types of social sharing on a typical blog:
1 – Feeding new articles to your social media sites
2 – Offering the buttons to connect with you through the social media sites you use
3 – Offering the buttons to share your article with the social media sites readers use

The last is often the most visible. Below, beside or above many articles is a row of sharing buttons. These allow users to easily click the service of choice and share your article with others.

However, the tools used to provide this sharing are of 2 camps. On one side are services that simply refer the user to their account on the social site. On the other are services that track this process. In other words, they make money from tracking your site visitor activity in exchange for a free service. The shady part is they don’t usually bother to tell you that.

Unlike other features on my main site, social sharing has been one of the more problematic. I’ve tried quite a few tools but they’ve all typically had issues.

Such tools require constant updates due to regular changes to various services. The simple ones I tried often lacked many services, were out of date and thus partly broken, and/or tended to have bugs. The ones that were updated and working well typically included tracking – that’s how they’re funded.

For example, the service I originally used had many service links, was low key and promised no tracking. But with no budget, it gradually went down hill. The next one was was simple and lightweight but wasn’t getting updated or fixed. I couldn’t configure it how I was supposed to be able to and support questions went unanswered. Another very popular one is prone to bog down your site.

During another round of research, I tried another decent one but it was showing in places I didn’t want and it uses a List item structure (even though not a list). This caused it to inherit the themes List settings inappropriately. Again, no fix available.

I then discovered the potential of AddtoAny. It allows you to select the number of displayed icons, select a range of looks, and has a sub-menu with dozens more social media services. When I made suggestions to improve a recent update, they quickly came back with an even better option.

In checking it’s background, I found they also offer the service for web sites and many other platforms like Blogger, Typepad, Joomla. The big surprise though was one for free, like this site. The free doesn’t have a plug-in architecture so few such services are available for it. You get what WordPress offers. In this case it adds a few settings to Settings, Sharing. It lacks the customization of a full plug-in and it appears removing all enabled services would be the only way to “remove” it. But it’s a pretty big improvement for a free blog. The only bug I’ve seen so far is its not showing on the most recent posts. Just ones a bit older. Odd, that.

The big issue it raises is user tracking. The full plug-in shares data with your Google Analytics but the company itself tracks much more. Some of these sharing services even track activity on your site, even if a reader doesn’t click on a share icon. Just loading the plugin does it.

While they don’t bother to tell you this, it becomes very obvious if you use a browser plug-in like DoNotTrackMe. Personally, I found the plug-in overzealous and it blocked too much functionality, but it certainly gives you a sense of how much user tracking is going on. You might be surprised how much tracking your own web site is doing without your knowledge. Larger sites commonly have numerous entities, all tracking users.

To their credit, when asked AddtoAny did offer the switch to turn off tracking. However, as this article notes, AddtoAny has since been bought by another company which has added further tracking.

This page offers another illustration of how far it’s gone. It will show you how many member companies are tracking you. And this is only member companies. They check the tracking of hundreds of companies on your computer in a few minutes. The irony is that if you use an Ad Blocking plug-in (like AdBlock Plus), you don’t see the ads (whew) but they’re still tracking you. I talk about other safe browsing tools here.

Advertising does support many free services but targeted advertising has been crossing a line. They say they’re not tracking user-identifiable information but often that’s bullocks. The more they track and the more they compare notes, the bigger the picture they have of you. Would the government be asking them for records if there wasn’t traceable data?

In the meantime, it’s a balancing act. Providing the service and convenience on the one hand and  trying to mitigate the abuse on the other. You can’t really avoid it. If you’re going to use the web and email and social media, you’ll be interacting with others who are being tracked.

Be aware and safe surfing.

Do Not Search

September 7, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Economoney, Internet, Online services | Leave a comment

In a recent article, tech author Fred Langa pointed out an issue you may have run into. Search engines like Google rank web sites partly by popularity. Pages with a lot of incoming links often show higher in search rankings than others.

We might assume this is because they contain the best information. However, I’m sure you’ve noticed junk sites on the first page of your search results. Some of this is from useless sites cross-linking each other to increase Google ad hits. Google is trying to fight that now, creating problems for other sites that cross-reference each other through Guest posts and promotions. But that’s another subject.

There’s another surprising way sites rise in the ranks – bad reviews. For example, if you alert people to a scam, fraud or other questionable kind of business, those links will improve that sites search engine ranking over time. That will increase the number of people being exposed to them, defeating the point of your calling them out.

DoNotLink is a creative solution. If you want to link to a site that has issues, paste the link into their web site and they’ll give you a short URL. A short URL that is not tracked by search engines. (using server settings)

It’s a free service like other URL shorteners. If you ever want to share a link that you DON’T want to promote, DoNotLink is the easy fix.

And of course you never want to link to sites with infections. Naming them is quite enough.

Native Advertising

August 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Posted in Economoney, Humor, Internet, Media, Online services, Psychology | Leave a comment

There’s a nasty trend developing in the media. The lack of income from on-line advertising for newspapers lead to a new approach known as “native advertising”. Basically it’s advertising presented like, and mixed in with, real news stories. While these are supposedly labelled, that’s the fine print. It’s presented to look like news.

This has been much more successful so now it’s migrating into print, which is desperate to increase revenue. I’m also seeing local papers sell increasingly large sections of their front page to advertising. Sometimes, even the entire front page. How long before that formatting looks more like news?

This trend is not confined to small papers but is being adopted by Time, The New York Times and other supposedly reliable new sources. The separation between “church and state”, between the business and editorial side? Discarded as an outmoded concept. Are they trying to accelerate their demise?

Why is this an issue? What is news if it’s run by advertisers? Infotainment at best. It certainly doesn’t lead to an informed public, which is rather important for a democracy to function properly.

The following clip is from John Oliver, a comedy show, but they cover the situation rather well. Once again, comedy becomes the way to say things we may not otherwise.

Android Security

July 11, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | Leave a comment

I’ve noticed that a lot of smart-phone users don’t take their security as seriously as they do on Windows machines. They’re happy to surf the web without virus protection and to install software with rather appalling permissions. I’ve seen simple games wanting access to your call history, data, identity, location and more – yet they’re recommended by the Play store. Clearly, their standards are not mine.

Android has become the most widely used OS in the world. It dominates mobile devices. So it’s become a target for trouble. And for the modern trend of collecting user info and selling it.

Fred Langa recently wrote a good overview of some of the apps you might find useful for Android security. He reviews AV suites, Password management, device recovery, wiping, and VPNs.

I’ve been surprised how robust the Android security suites have become. Fred mentions Lookout, which I’m not familiar with. He runs through it’s features, making it a good comparison point for other suites. He also notes that there is some garbage posing as security software – you do want software you can trust. I’ve been using ESET Antivirus for some time on my PC’s and have been very happy with it. So it’s a natural that I checked out ESET’s Android offering. I was surprised to discover they were actually underselling it on the web site.

The app walks you through setting up each section as you choose to activate that feature set. If it recommends setting changes, it gives you easy access to those settings. I didn’t have a need for ‘Call and SMS Blocking‘ but the rest of it was rich with features I found useful.

When I tried to register on the web site for an anti-theft account prior, it failed. But when I registered through the app, it worked fine. Not sure why they have a register option on the web site when its the device that has to register. I was then able to test the anti-theft features on-line. It did catch a picture of me and did show the phones location within about 5 meters. (that’s controlled by the area and phones GPS) If you’re prone to leave your phone places, that can be really handy. You can also text commands much as Fred describes in the article, like locking the phone, have it make a loud noise, and so forth.

Most satisfying to me was the ‘Security Audit‘ feature as I’d become concerned about the behaviour of some apps and I wasn’t as informed when setting the phone up. Indeed, it found one of the games had infection issues through it’s advertising. And a few apps had stepped over reasonable permission bounds. ESET takes you right to the apps permissions and uninstall if you need it.

The free version has somewhat reduced features but is fully functional. It’s clear in the app which parts you’re test-driving during the 30 day free trial. Scroll down the page here to see a comparison chart of the differences.

Premium ESET is currently on sale for $10/ year, $15 for 2. From Fred’s article, $15/yr seems typical for paid versions, though Lookout is $30. ESET is usually in the middle.

If you travel a lot or use public hot spots, a VPN can much improve security – especially if you need to do some banking or some such. Fred reviews some of those options. Device recovery and system wiping tools are included in some AV suites, like the above, but he also suggests stand alone ones if that’s needed.

Finally, Password management. For this, you want a tool that’s useful both on your PCs and mobile. Fred suggests several which basically mean having 2 or more password stores.  Not very efficient to have different passwords in different places – the one you need is the one that will be stored somewhere else.

As readers here know, I’m a fan of LastPass, a free PC password manager. The premium version, for $12 a year, adds many other features including mobile access to your password vault from any device. It also allows you to separate work and home passwords, create family shared ones, and adds enterprise tools.

Safe surfing, wherever you are.

Troubles in the CASL

July 2, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Software | 3 Comments

Recently in Canada, a lot of small businesses and charities have been quite concerned. On July 1, new anti-spam legislation came into effect here. Many small organizations depend on low-cost messaging services to communicate and advertise. A few have been a little sloppy about their lists.

While anti-spam legislation is a good idea, when they define it with terms like “electronic address”, there are issues. Everything on the Internet has an electronic address. Also, very little spam originates from where the legislation will have any effect. Estimates I’ve seen suggest 2%.

The main thing you need to understand is that CASL is mostly about email, though Instant Messaging and SMS are included. It’s about sending directly to a person’s electronic address, typically to many such at a time.

If you’re doing so without their documented consent through some sort of relationship, this is now spamming and subject to fines. (see the implicit/ explicit summary below) Thus, you want to ensure your newsletter/ emailing list is fully Opt-in. If you’ve been using a service like MailChimp or Constant Contact, they will normally do a confirmed or double Opt-in. The end user enters an email address on-line or clicks a link and the system sends them an email to confirm – click and done. Even many blogs comment subscriptions double-confirm now (on WordPress).

However, if you’ve manually entered peoples email addresses or your list is mostly imported, then you will want to ask your subscribers to re-verify with a new Opt-in. You’ve probably seen a bunch of such emails yourself. Constant Contact handily offers a “CASL Template” for doing so. The user clicks the email link and it’s done. (though you’ll need to edit the Contacts, Signup Tools, Change of Interest email as that’s what they’ve used for an email post-confirmation – just make the message more generic.) Constant Contact has said they’ll be exposing the confirmed data in reports later this month. Managing will thus be easy.

With Constant Contact, you may also wish to update your email headers to add the Confirmation option to all emails as well.

So far MailChimp has offered an overview article on the subject. That makes setting up a confirmation email much more involved, not to mention managing the results. MadMimi just refers to the US CAN SPAM law with a link to the CASL site. Even less helpful.

If you’re emailing large groups from your home computer with no unsubscribe link and no opt-in routine, you’re falling further and further outside the law in N. America. Not such a cheap option if you get fined. If your list is under 2,000 in size and you don’t send a ton of messages, MailChimp and MadMimi are both free. I’d suggest that after you import your list, your first order of business will be to send a verification email to get everyone to opt in. Or you drop them.

You also then get all the advantages of reporting, subscription management and so forth. Much easier to manage. And the templates help you to easily design professional looking messages.

All of this will ensure your Contact list is compliant. It may also save you a bit of money as you purge email addresses that have gone stale – just look at your Open vs Send rates. Many abandon free accounts over time. And some ISP’s no longer bounce stale addresses as it can lead to them getting on spam lists, ironically.

Updates that you post on your blog, Twitter or Facebook are sent to yourself. People who then wish to partake of these updates can then choose to view or subscribe. No worries there, in spite of some comments in the news. CASL does not apply.

EasyDNS has offered an excellent summary of implicit and explicit consent and why sending an unsubscribe reminder (Opt Out) won’t cut it.

Also note that you have time. The government does not plan to enforce this for 3 years. But don’t wait – it will take time to herd your cats and you don’t want to wander onto someone’s radar meantime.

Finally, here’s a review of a CRTC presentation on the topic that should ease some minds. But it also highlights the vague language in the legislation. It’s also notable it covers unauthorized software installs but is again a little vague on meaning.

If you have any experience dealing with emailing services we’d be interested in hearing how well they supported you with CASL.

UPDATE – see comments

Network Media Centre

June 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Internet, Media, Online services, Security, Software, Technology | Leave a comment

In recent years, how we consume media has changed markedly. Video rentals stores have mostly died. Some have cancelled their cable service. Flat screen TV’s, then Smart TV’s (with built-in computers) have become common. On-line media sources as well. Movies now offer digital copies and so on.

If you mainly get your services from online sources like Netflix and Hulu, then you want a Smart TV or attached media box with a wireless keyboard and a smart remote like LG’s Magic Remote. (a standard TV remote is near useless for web browsing and such)

But if your main source is local digital media, like your movie, photo and music collections, you need a local storage solution. It might seem like hooking your computer up to your TV is a great idea, but that’s not likely to be convenient for how you normally use it. It will also create issues with backup sizes. Plus, I’ve found that TV media serving software tends to bog your computer and doesn’t update changes reliably.

Custom-building a PC as a media server may seem like a great idea, but the form factor and energy consumption are not as good. And PC’s need all those fricking updates.

Your better solution is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) that includes a media server. These are energy efficient boxes designed for handling large media files. They’re somewhat similar to an external hard drive except they plug into your network (typically the router) and contain a small computer that allows them to handle several drives. They’re a natural for the job.

You do need to check it will work for your setup though – will it hold drives large enough for your growing media collection? And does it have the right kind of media server for your TV? Typically a DLNS is supported by Smart TV’s but do check yours. Can your TV even connect to a network? Smart TV’s do.

In my own case, I have an LG Smart TV and their Magic remote.

Normally with a NAS, the drives are set up to appear as a single massive drive or are mirrored in pairs. A mirrored drive creates an immediate backup of everything that’s on the main drive. This is a common practice on servers. You get half the available space but a perfect backup.

Buying a NAS, they don’t typically come with drives pre-installed – you choose your own. The exception would be some home offerings like HP’s My Cloud models. They’re more limited and pricey but get good reviews. The reviews oddly seem to compare wildly different types of NAS (with huge variations in price) rather than separating out home and business systems. Ideally, you get matching drives – especially if you’re going to mirror them. But you can start with one and add the other later.

I got a Shuttle OmniNAS KD20 on sale. This is a basic model made by an established small-format computer maker. It’s not a fast NAS but is much less expensive than many and does fine at turning your TV into a media centre from local content. We’re not talking about your office data centre here. The box is well designed and I found it very straightforward to set up. They indicate it’s supported by Win XP+, Mac and Linux.

In buying drives, the OmniNAS supports 2 drives up to 4TB each for max of 8 TB. That’s a lot of media. The WD Reds get the best reviews for the purpose, but this is a budget project. I found 2x 3TB Seagate external drives that were on sale for much less than the bare drives. Removing them from the case is straightforward but this does void the warranty. Thus it’s a good idea to test the drives in their cases prior to removal, if you take such a route. It’s also a slight bit more work.

Also note that setting up the NAS will erase anything on the drives, so copy anything off them before installing in the NAS. They’re generally configured to be in an array in a NAS. That way they appear as a single drive on the network.

In my case I was disassembling Seagate Expansion drives and used the free Seatools to test the drives prior. Seatools is not restricted to Seagate drives. This video reviews both the testing and the drive removal for that model. Shims do a better job than a screwdriver to avoid breaking the clips or damaging the surface – then you have spare cases for another external drive.

The OmniNAS supports both PC and laptop-sized SATA drives. Installing the drives is straightforward. Just follow the Quickstart Guide. You screw them onto the drive tray, then slide them in. Screws provided, as was a network cable. Plug it in and turn it on, voilà!

You then install Finder software on your PC. You can get the newer version from the web site. This finds the NAS on the network, then opens a browser window to configure the device.

It will ask for an Admin password, then later wants to set up a username and password. Make sure you have strong passwords, especially if you plan to share the media through the Internet. A tool like LastPass can help you track all your passwords securely.

I highly recommend you install the Firmware upgrade through the browser interface. (see the Downloads tab) The problems I saw reported with the unit when I researched it prior are addressed with this update. If you loose access to it on the network prior to updating, shut it down and then restart.

Be sure to edit the Workgroup name to match your LAN if it’s not the default “Workgroup”. (on your computer, right-click My Computer and select Properties. Scroll down to see the Workgroup name)

In my case I set up mirrored drives as the backup was more useful than all that drive space. I can easily change that later if I need more space.

Share Box sets your NAS up to serve media onto the Internet as your own “private cloud”, accessible from your Internet connected devices. Basically your own Dropbox service. This is done through an Omninas domain portal. You can skip that and set it up later if your main desire is for your local network and TV.

The box has a Twonky DLNS media server included free, which the LG TV happily and easily supported. Anything added to the “disc” folder is available to the TV. I added a lot of files – this took a bit of time to copy over on my non-Gigabit network – but the NAS had no trouble serving it all. In contrast, the LG PC software choked on a fraction of it and didn’t update reliably.

It also has an iTunes server, if you’re in Mac world or like serving your media that way. If not, turn it off.

And it has a print server to share your USB printer on the network. And an SD card reader and USB ports if you want to add or copy media that way.

It even has a torrent server, although you have to disable the media server for that. Several reviews criticised that but it may be a security measure.

The OmniNAS also comes with a copy of Acronis imaging software if you wish to use the NAS for your backups as well. It will work fine with recent editions of Microsoft Backup and Mac Time Machine as well – in fact any software that will backup to network locations.

If you want your backup to also serve as a remote access store, use a tool like Cobain Gravity that copies files rather than images them. Imaging software is ideal for the operating system and programs but copy software is better for your files to ensure immediate access in the event of trouble.

If you Map the network drive, then the NAS shows up as a drive in Windows Explorer and such making file transfer easier.

For simplicity, I set up the free Microsoft SyncToy to echo to the NAS some of the media folders like Photos. I like copies of those on my computer, so when I update them, Synctoy will match all the changes to the NAS.

Then you can have slide shows, music playlists, and more on your TV. It becomes today’s stereo. If you have surround speakers, it’s better even than an old Quad system. Any other devices on your network also have access to all the content now too.

And if you also want to access that media on your tablet, smartphone (Android or iPhone  apps in the Stores) or laptop on the road, Share Box to the rescue. No worries about storing your stuff on someone else’s servers. If you’re a small business person, you can backup your documents to the NAS, ensuring both a backup and that you always have access. No worries about remote access to your PC. (note the comments about backup types above if you want document access – don’t image those files)

I’ve been much happier with the OmniNAS than serving from my laptop. It’s been more reliable, frees up computer resources, and provides another layer of backup.
Have fun!

Look Up, Live

May 16, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Media, Online services, Psychology, Technology | Leave a comment

Look Up…   a rap on engaging with life, with people. Not so much with technology.

Heartbleed – what is it?

April 11, 2014 at 11:16 am | Posted in Economoney, Internet, Media, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | 7 Comments

When you log into a secure web site and get “https” and a lock symbol, what you transmit is secure, right? Maybe. About 2/3’s of the web uses OpenSSL and its recently been discovered it’s had a bug for about 2 years.

“Heartbleed has the potential to be one of the biggest, most widespread vulnerabilities in the history of the modern web.”

Security expert Bruce Schneier says “‘catastrophic’ is the right word. On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.

While there is a fix and it’s unlikely this was discovered and exploited in the past, the issue now is with sites that don’t have decent maintenance and don’t get updated. Now that the bug is known, some old site you used once long ago may now be insecure. If you have the habit of using the same password all over or using your social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) logins on other sites, you may have unwittingly shared your access all over. Including to sites that are now secure.

Changing your password on such old sites won’t help in the slightest, contrary to some of the advice floating around. It’s only a useful exercise if you know the site has updated. But you can on sites that are fixed. All the major ones apparently have but there are millions of servers out there.

And the trick is, even server admins may never know they’ve been hacked with this one.

This article explains: Heartbleed Nightmare

You can check a site you use here

This is a great reason not to use the same password on multiple sites and may be a great time to implement a password manager like LastPass, if you have not already.

Not only did Monday bring Heartbleed but there was a security update for WordPress on Tuesday and another for Jetpack on Wednesday. The second 2 are things bloggers should update now. The first you want to be sure your web host has. You really don’t want your ecommerce offerings to go nasty on you.

UPDATE – see comments for more links. It’s also become apparent it exists in many security devices.

Safe Browsing, still

February 19, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Security, Software | 1 Comment

Periodically, I’ve recommended some tools that help keep your browsing safe. Web sites are the most common way of getting infections now. Not to mention tracking your activities and identity. I thought it was time for an update as the threats and tools continue to evolve.

Of course, the most important tool is common sense. Don’t go into bad neighbourhoods. Look before you leap.

I personally use the Firefox browser because it’s the most customizable. It’s also an open-source platform that’s not invested in making money from the collection of user data. That collection in itself leads to both privacy and security issues. Some consider Chrome superior but I have concerns about using too many Google services as they do collect user info for marketing. LifeHacker discusses the browser issues here.

This article is thus focused on securing Firefox on a Windows PC. Some of these tools or equivalents are also available for Chrome and Internet Explorer. This is not a review of all security tools but rather recommended examples in several categories, with a few caveats. All are free, unless otherwise noted.

Your first line of defence is of course a good Anti-Virus service and Firewall. With Windows 7, the built-in firewall is fine. The hardware firewall in routers is also advantageous. As for anti-virus, you can check testing sites like AV-Test for your choice. Some free ones are as good as the paid ones for basic protection. I’ve been using paid ESET NOD32 AV to good effect for some time.

Firefox Add-ons:
AdBlock Plus
Blocks most annoying 3rd party ads that slow down web sites and track your presence.

The first thing many suggest you install – it blocks the troublesome scripts on web sites, similar to the above. Lifehacker suggests this is redundant with AdBlock. I’ve been using both but they have come to overlap more.

RequestPolicy is a more aggressive version of this. With it, I typically found a web site was text-only until I worked out where their styles and functionality were loaded from and adjusted the settings. This is a bit of a guessing game that makes it less effective in practice to me.

Specifically targets tracking done by social networking services on other sites, like the omnipresent Facebook “Like” buttons that can track your browsing even without clicking.

Better Privacy
This deletes “Super” or Flash cookies – a more invasive and persistent type of cookie. I’ve not found the deletion affects performance of any sites. But I was surprised how many some sites use.

None of these would be necessary if web sites played more politely with visitors.

Safe Sites marker:
WOT (Web of Trust)
This is a crowd-driven add-on that will flag your search results to warn you off of troublesome sites. (versions for most everyone)

Safe Preview
This tool does not show up in search results unless you ask but can give an overview from 5 services, including WOT, before you click. (Norton now stingily blocks 3rd-party tools like this) I use it as a 2nd opinion if the WOT result is unexpected either way. I used to recommend LinkExtend similarly but it’s not been updated in some time.

A Virus Total tool to give a site or download link a deeper check with a right-click. How’s it fare with multiple anti-virus sources? A cautionary step before inviting something onto your computer from unknown sources.
(VT has other versions for Chrome and IE)

Search Management:
Google No-Tracking
Shuts off nested links in Google search results to avoid click-tracking. Google will still track you but it reduces some of this and it makes copying web addresses, doing checks with the above tools and so forth much easier. It also makes Google faster. is a search alternative that doesn’t track but uses Google. DuckDuckGo is also suggested but I’ve not found the results as useful. Both eliminate the “filter bubble” of targeted search results where your IP and history determine what you see, rather than what the larger world is discussing.

Support tools:
For secure passwords – much more secure storage that will fill-in login details and remember strong passwords for you. Way better than browser tools. I’ve recommended this before. RoboForm is also well-recommended but not free.

TIP – Avoid the temptation to use your social site logins on other sites. It makes you much easier to hack and track. That’s becoming all too common and is not in your best interest. Use distinct logins for every site and let something like LastPass help you keep track of them.

backs up your Add-ons, themes, and settings in Firefox automatically.

If you want to see how a site is tracking you, try Lightbeam.

Some of the other add-ons I’ve tried I found too aggressive. Lifehacker recommends Disconnect, for example. While it may reduce tracking, it also greatly reduces the functionality and display of web sites. Again it becomes a guessing game to know what needs OK. They have made you more anonymous but do it by breaking site features.

And if you’re also logged into a sister site, you’ve lost the advantage. Even worse if you’ve logged in using a social media sites credentials.

Browsing through a VPN, sandbox, or alias site would be more effective if privacy is a priority. Just keep in mind that the web is not about privacy but sharing. That’s why it’s called a world wide web. Anything you share often stays shared, beyond anything you may have imagined. A long-gone web site I built 16 years ago still has a copy on-line at the Wayback Machine, for example.

Bad Add-ons:
On the flip side, you may find this HowToGeek article useful – some browser add-ons are or have become spyware, reporting all of your browsing history and inserting ads on pages you visit. The article includes a follow-up list of troublesome ones to avoid or remove.

I considered moving away from popular webmail services to avoid some of the tracking but soon realized that many contacts use them, so the messages get tracked anyway. Email has not yet had this kind of functionality added. Another gold mine for advertisers.

Safe computing!

Backup That Counts

January 25, 2014 at 12:26 am | Posted in Backup, Computers, Internet, Online services, Security, Software | 6 Comments

Many tell me they’re not worried if their computer dies – they’ll just buy another. But gradually as our lives go more digital, we start collecting digital things that are more difficult to lose. The password for the service you paid for. The holiday photos. Your oh-so-carefully prepared resume. Important contact information. The list gets larger and larger.

With that growing body of digital history, the need for decent backup grows. For most people, you want it to be automatic. Set it and forget it. Manual gets forgotten.

At the same time, you want a backup that works. If it’s not reliable or there are barriers to getting access to your key files during a failure, it’s not working. A backup is only useful if it can be easily restored. I’ve seen studies that show even expensive business backup solutions failed in practice the majority of the time.

Software and Data, Local and Remote
There are 2 types of stuff to back up and 2 types of places to put that backup.

The first type of stuff to backup is your operating system (OS) and programs. The key reason to do this is to get you up and running again as quickly as possible. Having to reinstall the OS, all your software, and all the updates can literally take days of your life.

The best solution for software is an Imaging tool. The ones built into modern operating systems (like Windows 7+) are fine. Or buying the well-known Acronis TrueImage. This can be set up to be automatic. Weekly is probably enough unless you experiment with software a lot.

The second type of backup is for all your stuff – all the files you create or receive and store in the digital world. If your needs are simple, the above imaging software may be fine. Just image it all together. If you do this, set the backup for ‘daily incremental’. This will catch all the changes made each day.

The downside of imaging your data is access to that backup. If your system goes down or is stolen, you have no quick access to your stuff inside the backup until you have a similar environment and software installed. Go to your old Vista computer, for example, and you’ll have to jump through hoops to get at your Win7 backup.

A better solution is simple file copy or zipping. Those copies of all your created files can then be accessed at any time by any OS – even a floppy. Cobain Gravity has been my recent free choice for that. Plug in your backup drive to another computer and get to work.

For your most critical files where you want to save current versions more often than daily, I recommend File Hamster. When that file or folder is added to File Hamster, ever time you hit save, it makes an additional copy to the location of your choice. (a different drive) This has saved my bacon a couple of times when a file got corrupted. And this is much more likely to happen on files you use all the time.

The program is not presented as free but if you don’t purchase it after the trail period, it reverts to Basic mode. It’s more than worth paying for though. I wrote 2 articles about it here.

Location, location, location
The first type of backup location should be local, due again to the simple question of immediate access. In your office or nearby on the network. An external hard drive or network attached storage (NAS) are best and not expensive. Different types of backup above can be saved to different folders on the same external drive. Figure on double to triple what you have now for the size of the external drive.

Backing up to an optical disc is useful for long term archives, but is too manual for automated backup. Thumb drives have longevity issues and are again too manual.

Unfortunately, a local backup will not save your files in the event of a fire, major theft or other such disaster. For that you need a secondary off-site backup. But it should be secondary. Automated remote backup still has too many possible points of failure to be your primary solution.

Storing an OS image in the cloud is problematic as it is large and thus takes massive time and bandwidth to upload. Not to mention the cost of the on-line storage. And then if you have a failure, you cannot restore the OS from the cloud. You need an OS to get to the OS.

The simple off-site solution for the OS is making a periodic image to portable media and storing that safely off-site. Then you can still restore if your local backup solution fails. It’s a bit manual, but ensures it’s easy & workable.

The focus of your automated secondary backup is for your critical files. On-line file-sharing and backup services have been growing in leaps and bounds. I even researched setting up one myself. But they also have issues. Make sure the service is suited to the task. Some sites delete your files automatically after a certain period of time. They’re not designed for backups.

Copying your critical data over the wide open Internet is akin to sharing – not a fine idea. Some suppliers may add encryption, but make sure it’s also encrypted in transit or you’re exposing your content where it’s most vulnerable. Complicating your choices are the cost and that some use quite proprietary techniques. This can again create access issues in the even of system failure.

In a recent article by Fred Langa, he introduces an alternative solution. You use the online storage of your choice. And you use a local pre-encryption tool that automatically encrypts, then uploads to that on-line service whenever you copy files to it. He used Boxcryptor. (requires .Net4)

You set up Boxcryptor and point it to your on-line storage. Then you set up a secondary backup routine in your backup software to copy to your designated Boxcryptor folder on an automated schedule. Backup to Boxcryptor to On-line storage. Voila – automated and secure on-line backup. The basics are free for personal use.

From a convenience and recovery standpoint, those encrypted files are then available from all platforms anywhere – Android , Mac, & PC.

Be sure the size of your backup routine is less than the size of the on-line space you have. BoxCryptor does allow you to connect multiple services. Also make sure you’re backing up to the virtual drive, not the BoxCryptor.bc folder, or the files won’t be encrypted. Same with decrypting them – get them from the virtual folder or they won’t be decrypted – they’ll just be gibberish. PCWorld talks about using BoxCryptor here.

Fred’s article talks about using it with Skydrive. Boxcryptor supports a wide range of on-line providers, including Dropbox, Google Drive, Box and many more.

Just make sure you use LastPass or some other tool to securely store that unrecoverable Boxcryptor password. In a place that can be accessed any time. Otherwise, you’ve added a key point of failure.

I also reviewed several other encryption options. Some of the on-line storage companies are offering software to do much the same with their own tools but reviews said they were slow. Several tools only work with the big 3 or even only with Dropbox.

And then there’s ownCloud. A little more geeky, but it lets you create your own on-line storage in whatever web server space you have available (assuming your web host is OK with that). It can also manage other sites, mount webDav supporting services like Box, DropBox, GoogleDocs (which it will also open) and supports FTP. It will also give you a cross-platform tool for accessing files, calendar, contacts, bookmarks, galleries and so forth.

Blend that with Boxcryptor and you have your own custom solution.
Happy computing,

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