Computer security for the lazy

I’ve been writing a guide to all things computer security and privacy. Given the news recently, I might as well promote it. I’m not an expert and the guide hasn’t been reviewed by anyone else to make sure I’m not giving you bad advice, but it’s at least worth a read to start understanding some of the issues.

Here’s the full guide, just the intro is pasted below. Please give me criticism and contributions on the github page.

Computer security for the lazy

This is a draft still being written, so you might want to wait until it’s completed and reviewed by a third party to make sure I’m not giving any bad advice. It’s a guide for the lazy. If you are living under an opressive government (like Syria or Iran), or if you are a whistleblower, activist, or a journalist wanting to protect your sources, you can’t afford to be slack.

For the rest of us lazy bastards, here’s the shit you need to worry about (in order of importance):

  • losing your files
  • losing your accounts
  • losing your privacy

Losing your files

All your photos of family and friends. All your financial records. All your university homework. All that porn you’ve been stashing. The biggest computer security threat you’ll ever have to worry about is losing them. Every hard drive is a ticking time bomb, just waiting to fail. You could accidentally leave your laptop in the back of a taxi and never see it again. Recently there has been a spate of attacks where criminals will gain remote access to your computer, encrypt everything on it, and then demand ransom payment to decrypt it. However it happens the results are the same – you’ve lost your shit.

Thankfully preventing these problems is easy; I’ll show you how to back your shit up.

Losing your accounts

Your email. Your internet banking. Your Facebook, Twitter and World of Warcraft character. These are all “accounts” and you can lose them. If you choose a shitty password someone can just guess or “brute force” it. If you’re tricked into installing malicious software it can log every keystroke you press, recording your passwords. If you are directed to a spoofed version of a trusted website and you try to log in, you’ve just given the bad guys your password. If you use the same password everywhere you’re truly fucked.

Unfortunately there isn’t a single easy solution to these threats. Having a well calibrated “bullshit” detector is essential. Using a password manager and keeping your computer up to date with security patches will also help. Don’t get hacked, keep reading and I’ll show you how.

Losing your privacy

Take any private photos of you and your partner? Do you write a pseudonymous blog like “Belle de Jour” or at the other end of the sexual activity spectrum, “Nice Jewish Girl”? Don’t want someone going through the soppy love poems emailed to your partner? Want to complain about work to a friend over chat / IM without getting fired?

Remember that laptop you left in the back of a taxi? Someone could go through all the files on it. Browsing on an insecure wifi network could give you away to anyone within range. Depending on which country you live in, your ISP could be obliged to log your browsing history, where criminals will undoubtedly hack in and get access to it at some point.

The threat to privacy is a bit more esoteric than losing your files or accounts, because it isn’t obvious when it happens. When you lose your hard drive, you know about it. When someone steals money out of your bank account, you know about it. When Facebook gathers information about the websites you visit and sells it to other companies, you’re left in the dark.

To stop this, I’m going to teach you how to keep that shit private.

Metadata retention

Without the content of a message, you’re privacy can’t be breached, can it? What the hell is metadata anyway? Thankfully the Attorney General has posted a clarifying letter which makes it quite clear they will be pursuing the EU model (which has already been declared unconstitutional in Germany, Romania and the Czech Republic).

The metadata applies to:

landline, mobile telephony, internet access, internet email and internet telephony.

And the metadata contains:

  • the source of a communication
  • the destination of a communication
  • the date, time and duration of a communication
  • the type of a communication
  • the users’ communication equipment or what purports to be their equipment
  • the location of mobile communication equipment

Let’s break this down. Millions of Australians have smart phones which are constantly using the internet to check for new email, download updates, synchronize calenders etc. Every time this happens, their location (presumably which mobile phone towers they are connected to) will be monitored and stored.

If this model is followed, the minute to minute movements of millions of Australians for two years will be monitored and stored. If that isn’t a gross invasion of privacy, I don’t know what is.

Edit: Rodney posted the video below which tells the story better than I ever could.

Gone in 60 seconds – How to bypass data retention in under a minute

If the proposed expansion of national security powers and internet surveillance comes to pass, many people will want to bypass it to protect their right to privacy. Here’s one way to do it.

  1. Go to privateinternetaccess.com
  2. Pay $40 for a yearly account
  3. Download and install their software
  4. Log in to your account and connect

That it, you’re done in less than a minute. All your internet traffic will be encrypted and routed through their servers, bypassing any data retention by the Australian government.

Of course this raises the question, if it can be bypassed so easily, for $40 a year, how could the system possibly hope to catch determined criminals? I challenge the scheme’s supporters to provide an answer.