What’s up with WhatsApp privacy (Avast blog)

Last month, I wrote about the evolution of Instant Messaging interoperability. Since posting that article, the users of WhatsApp have fled. The company (which has been a subsidiary of Facebook for several years now) gave its users an ultimatum: accept new business data sharing terms or delete their accounts. For some of its billion global users, this was not received well, especially since some of your data would be shared across all of Facebook’s other operations and products. The change was indicated through a pop-up message that requires users to agree to the changes before February 8. The aftermath was swift: tens of millions of users signed up for either Signal or Telegram within hours of the news.

If you are interested in getting more of the details and my thoughts about whether to stay with WhatsApp or switch to Telegram or Signal, you should take a gander over on the Avast blog and read my post.

WhatsApp pushed off the change until May, which was probably wise. There was a lot of bad information about what private data is and isn’t collected by the app and how it is shared with the Facebook mothership. For example: while the change deals with how individuals interact with businesses, Facebook has and will continue to share a lot of your contact data amongst its many properties. What this whole debacle indicates though is how little most of us that use these IM apps every day really understand about how they work and what they share. My Avast blog tracks down the particular data elements in a handy hyperlinked reference chart.

The problem is that to be useful your IM app needs to know your social graph. But some apps — such as Signal — don’t have to know much more than your friends’ phone numbers. Others — such as Facebook Messenger — want to burrow themselves into your digital life. I found this out a few years ago when I got my data dump from Facebook, and that was when I deleted the standalone smartphone app. I still use Messenger from my web browser, which is a poor compromise I know.

Speaking of downloading data, I requested my data privacy report from WhatsApp and a few days later got access. There are a lot of details about specific items, such as my last known IP address, the type of phone I use, a profile picture, and various privacy settings, This report doesn’t include any copies of your IM message content, and was designed to meet the EU GDPR requirements. I would recommend you request and download your own report.

One of the sources that I found doing the research for my blog post was from Consumer Reports that walked me through the process to make WhatsApp more private. You can see the appropriate screen here. Before today, these items were set to “everyone” rather than “my contacts” — there is a third option that turns them off completely. This screen is someplace that I never visited before, despite using WhatsApp for years. It shows you that we have to be vigilant always about our privacy — especially when Facebook is running things — and that there are no simple, single answers.

Never before have we so many choices when it comes to communicating: IM, PSTN, IP telephony and web conferencing. We have shrunk the globe and made it easier to connect pretty much with anywhere and anyone. But the cost is dear: we have made our data accessible to tech companies to use and abuse as they wish.

Avast blog: Covid tracking apps update

After the Covid-19 outbreak, several groups got going on developing various smartphone tracking apps, as I wrote about last April. Since that post appeared, we have followed up with this news update on their flaws. Given the interest in using so-called “vaccine passports” to account for vaccinations, it is time to review where we have come with the tracking apps. In my latest blog for Avast, I review the progress on these apps, some of the privacy issues that remain, and what the bad guys have been doing to try to leverage Covid-themed cyber attacks.

Avast blog: It’s time to consider getting a Covid-19 vaccine passport for travel

As the number of people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 rises, it’s time to review the ways that people can prove they have been inoculated when they want to cross international borders. These so-called “vaccine passports” have been in development over the past year and are starting to go through various trials and beta tests. The passports would be used by travelers to supplement their actual national passport and other border-crossing documents as they clear customs and immigration barriers. The goal would be to have your vaccination documented in a way that it could be accepted and understood across different languages and national procedures.

In my blog for Avast, I talk about how these passports (such as the CommonPass open source one being developed above)  could prove to be a solution for travelers crossing borders, but they also come with their own set of challenges


Where is your phone central office?

I have written before about my love affair with telephone central offices. This past week, we all now know where Nashville’s CO is located, and we mourn for the people of that city. Nashville is a city that I have been to numerous times, for fun and for business. Little did I realize as I walked among the honky tonk bars and restaurants on Second Street that I was passing by its main CO, which offers a wide range of communication services.

Like the CO that was buried by the collapse of the World Trade Center back in 2001, there was a lot of water damage from the firefighters, and the Nashville repairs were hampered by having to work around the crime scene investigators. But still, within a few days AT&T was able to get various services back up and running, including 911 and airport communications, along with wired and cellular services. The company deployed a series of portable cell towers around the region. The lines that went through this CO connected not just Nashville but areas that were in adjoining states.

This is the conundrum of the CO: in the early days of telephony, they had to be located in densely populated areas, because stringing copper lines from each termination point cost money. To shorten the lines, they had to put them near the people and businesses that they were connecting. This means that you can’t easily protect them with physical barricades a la Fort Knox (or other government buildings). Plus, there are more than 20,000 COs in the US by some estimates. That is a lot of real estate to protect or potentially relocate.

COs are also relatively easy to find, even though many of them are located in nondescript building in major urban areas. My own CO sits like Nashville’s across from a similar collection of restaurants and commercial businesses. There are websites lovingly constructed by other fans of telecom, such as this one or this one that show photos of the actual buildings (although you will have to work a bit to find their street addresses). In my blog post from 2018, I posted pictures of several COs that I have been to, including one on Long Island where I brought my high school networking class on a field trip back in 2001.

Whether or not the bomber was intentionally targeting AT&T’s CO or not, one thing is pretty clear to me: these COs are the weak points in any terror campaign. I don’t have any real solutions to offer up here, just an aching spot in my heart for the men and women that have built them and keep them running.

N.B. This is the last day of a horrible year, a year punctuated with my own personal health story that had nothing to do with Covid. I want to send out a note of thanks to all of you that took the time to send me your support, and hope that you found your own support team to help you along as well. Here is my wish that 2021 will be better for all of us, and that we can support and care for each other to make it so.

Who benefits most from Facebook: the right or the left?

What I will take away from 2020 — apart from the worldwide pandemic and my own health issues that had nothing to do with it — is how Facebook solidified its position and the primary incubator for hate groups. And despite repeated attempts to try to prove otherwise, it continues to fan the flames of hate from both sides of the political spectrum. Instead of helping free speech, it is poisoning the world with its memes and encouraging like-minded people to join in its toxic spew.
This piece by Adrienne LaFrance in the Atlantic goes further, saying that Facebook has become the embodiment of the “doomsday machine,” first made popular during the Cold War and the central plot device of Dr. Strangelove, a movie we should rewatch in this new context. “Facebook does not exist to seek truth and report it, or to improve civic health, or to hold the powerful to account,” she says. “It has the power to flip a switch and change what billions of people see online. No single machine should be able to control so many people.”
Does Facebook cater more towards the left or right of the political spectrum? Earlier this month, we were treated (if you’ll forgive me) to both Zuck and Jack Dorsey being grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Here is the coverage by the NY Times.) Half of the questions asked by the Republican Senators were about censoring conservative voices and what political parties were supported by their staffs. “Facebook and Twitter have maintained that political affiliation has no bearing on how they enforce their content moderation rules,” said the Times. I would agree: they support hate from both sides of the political spectrum.
If you examine Kevin Roose’s Top 10 list of Facebook posts on Twitter, you can see if you go back to before the election that these lists were dominated almost completely by right-wing groups. More recently it has been more evenly split right/left, but still there are days where only a couple of the top 10 are from moderate or lefty outlets. This article from October documents how Facebook routinely sets rules for content moderation, then breaks them in favor of posting right-wing viewpoints. This has resulted in an outsized reach and engagement, which eclipse more centrist or left-leaning POVs.
Going back to the summer of 2019 when there was that White House right-wing blogger summit, we saw a marked spike in their support as documented by the Washington Post.
But this issue is getting to be old news. Just this past week, Facebook put up this web page, accompanied with full-page newspaper ads claiming that they are on the side of small businesses. They are going after Apple’s attempt to eliminate tracking cookies and make your mobile activities more private. Apple has proposed a pop-up warning when it detects a cross-site cookie, with this mockup. One analysis of the conflict says this illustrates Apple and Facebook’s different approaches to privacy and whether endusers or advertisers will foot the ultimate bill. Regardless, the irony and shameless factor from both companies is too much.
I usually come to this point in my posts where I offer some suggestions. Sadly, while our Congress continues to ask the wrong questions, there are no easy ways out of this. And even though we have destroyed many of our nuclear warheads, with the billions of us fueling social media’s every moment, there are far too many silos that are distributed across the planet, ready to launch their hateful rhetoric at the push of a button.

Securing your IRS online account

It is hard to believe that it has taken the US IRS all this time to figure out a better authentication mechanism for taxpayers. But starting next month, all taxpayers can apply for an identity protection personal identification number (IP PIN) to block identity thieves from falsely claiming any tax refunds. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this problem, the IRS says several billions of dollars of phony refunds have been prevented through its half-hearted efforts to date. This includes phony refunds that are issued to taxpayers who never filed returns.

The IP PIN process used to be for high-risk taxpayers: those who have been victims of refund fraud attempts in the past. Starting next month, we can all join this party (hopefully not the victims group). They explain all of this here, which they call “secure access.”

To participate, you will need a “real” cellular phone number (vs. an IP service like Google Hangouts) and your email address. You will also need a credit card or some other financial instrument (not a debit card) to prove your identity. If you are concerned about giving your phone number to the IRS, you can substitute your postal address and they will send the confirmations that way.

The IP PIN is a six-digit code that changes annually. That is annoying — why not use Google-like authenticator smart phone app —  and to make matters more confusing, this differs from the five-digit PIN that is used during the e-filing process for your return. (When I first typed in e-filing, I didn’t use a hyphen and one of the suggestions was effing. That isn’t too far from reality. But I digress.)

Even though the IP PIN effort isn’t happening until next month, you can sign up for your IRS electronic account now.  (CORRECTION: The IRS took down the service until January, see the link in my comment.)

This will be a prerequisite for the universal IP PIN process. You’ll notice that particular link isn’t mentioned in the earlier link that explains what secure access is: Dontcha just love our gummint? Anyway, I spent about 20 minutes getting my digital ducks in order for myself and about the same time for my wife’s account. My first credit card for some reason wasn’t accepted, and the site was initially down the time I tried to sign up my wife. I was going to use my Amex card but the IRS doesn’t take that either. Eventually, both of us passed muster and created our accounts It was nice to see that we didn’t owe the IRS any money from past filings.

If this has awakened a desire to be more proactive about protecting your digital identity, Brian Krebs has a bunch of other suggestions that he calls “planting your digital flag.” They are all good ones, although if you are paranoid about your privacy you might want to think about the security tradeoffs you are making.

Book review: Tom Clancy’s Net Force Attack Protocol

This is the latest in a series of books written by others, in this case by Jerome Preisler. I had high hopes for this book, which is part of a series  about a new cybersecurity-enhanced Seal Team type of military commandos. This shows how good an author Clancy is, and how Preisler is just a pale imitation. Like the “Rocky” movie sequels, the book picks up where previous books end, so you really can’t realize your full value if you read it as a standalone volume. And it just ends at some random plot point, without really resolving many of the characters’ situations. Like Clancy, it is filled with jargon, weaponry, mil-speak, and plenty of explosions and gun play. Unlike Clancy, none of this really makes much sense or is essential to moving the plot along, or even mildly interesting. As someone who works in cybersecurity, I thought its treatment of the IT issues were just juvenile and superficial and didn’t draw me into the narrative or characters. Plus, the actual advanced cybersec defenders are less dependent on those macho things that shoot bullets and more on using their brains and computer skills.  If you are hungry for more Clancy, pick up one of his old classics like “Red October.” Or if you want to read a series that has much better character and plot development how an actual cybersec team works, check out this series.  In either case, you should give this Protocol a pass.

Buy the book from Amazon here.

Network Solutions blog: an IT professional’s guide to virtual events

You’re in your comfort zone. Maybe you’re solving problems related to IT security, network management or cloud computing. Perhaps you’re helping someone reset their password or get set up on a VPN. Whatever the task is, you feel good about it. You understand your specialty, and you like to stay focused on doing what you do best. Then, one day, someone in your organization messages you and asks you to help run a virtual conference.

Time stops. Your hand freezes on the mouse. The text cursor blinks in the reply field, counting down the seconds until you have to respond. A virtual conference? How do you even start to prepare for something like that?

It might be outside of your wheelhouse, but the truth is that IT professionals like you have a critical role to play in facilitating and troubleshooting virtual conferences. Your team needs your help to ensure the event goes smoothly. You’ll need to choose the right conferencing solution, find event management software that fits your needs and learn how to work with a production team. Then, when the big day comes, you’ll have to perform live troubleshooting to make sure it stays on track.

Download my latest eBook from Network Solutions here to learn more about best practices in supporting virtual events.

There was no hacking of our elections. Period.

I have struggled trying to write something about the underlying IT of our recent elections without making this overtly partisan or political. So here goes: there was no hacking of our ballots. We had probably the most secure election in our nation’s history. No foreign power changed any ballots. Numerous recounts verified the results. Biden won, fair and square.

Yes, the precise tabulation of votes was off by a few votes here and there. But not enough to change the overall result or who will become our next president. The states that were called for each candidate – including an early prediction by Fox News that Biden won Arizona on election night — remained unchanged.

Sunday night on 60 Minutes Chris Krebs was interviewed about his role in securing our election. Krebs ran the Cybsersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency for DHS for several years and built up a powerhouse support team for local elections officials. If you haven’t yet watched the segment, please take the time to do so, or at least read the transcript of his interview. He makes it very clear what happened, and more importantly, what didn’t happen. The claims by our president are just pure fantasy.

Krebs reiterates the points made in this November 12th letter signed by various government election officials who have been supporting the underlying security efforts: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Krebs wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Krebs and his team put together a special website called “rumor control” that is still online. It contains FAQ about rumors and misinformation about our electoral process. We should have similar pages across all government agencies, especially in these times where facts are hard to come by. The Rand Corporation calls this truth decay and how we can’t agree on the facts anymore.

Ironically, many of these rumors were started by our president and his advisors.

Krebs was very accessible on election day, hosting a series of teleconferences with reporters every few hours. It was an odd series of briefings. I kept waiting for the ball to drop but as the day wore on, it was clear that our vote was clean. “It is just another Tuesday on the Internet,” Krebs said at one point. It was clear that he had done his job well, and we should have praised him. Instead, he was fired by a tweet a couple of weeks later.

In the process of writing about elections security for Avast’s blog, I have met and interviewed some of the computer scientists who wrote their own letter. They firmly state that claims about rigged elections “either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.” This includes allegations about the operations of one of the tech voting machine vendors: there was no wholesale transfer of votes.

Another irony: it is the abundance of paper ballot backups – and the 100M people that voted early and by mail — that made these claims false. Look at the Georgia manual recount. Yes, Georgia has had some tech problems in the past year, documented by this investigation in the Atlanta newspaper. But they ultimately pulled it together for November. Again, their final tally differs by a few votes here and there. There were some counting errors, but those were done by humans, not computers. And more importantly, they were discovered and corrected. The final tally for both candidates increased slightly. But Biden’s victory margin was tens of thousands of votes and remained intact after the recount. What is more impressive is the number of counties where the counts remained exactly the same.

Our elections – and our democracy – worked. Krebs said last night that it is “a travesty what is happening now with all these death threats to election officials. They are defending democracy. They are doing their jobs.” Here is more from another interview where he talks about these threats to a WaPost reporter.

Coping with Covid contention

With the election and the holidays approaching, you may be experiencing some conflicts with family and friends when the conversation turns to Covid. It has been a hard year for all of us, whether we are under extreme lockdown or just trying to get our kids through the school day. This post will hopefully provide some pointers on how to cope. If only things were as easy as that infamous Monty Python sketch. 

When I was seeing my own conflicts over the pandemic, I first thought to bring in a professional mediator. I’ve known June Jacobson for close to 20 years. We first met under very difficult circumstances: I was getting divorced and my (now) ex-wife and I had decided to try her rather than both hire our own lawyers. Our sessions with her didn’t work out, but June and I remained in occasional contact.

June continues to work almost exclusively with mediation for divorcing couples and has had several families who have come to her explicitly about resolving their Covid issues. Certainly Covid has changed the nature of her consultations. “Everything is happening online,” she told me in a recent call. “While it is true that people don’t have to travel, they may not have a home environment that can be private enough, especially if they have kids or other family members living with them. Spouses who are still living together sometimes have to share the same computer screen, which can require close physical proximity that may not feel comfortable or safe.”

This lack of compartmentalization has accelerated some issues with divorcing couples and these times are trying ones for couples that are nearing the end of their marriages. “More people want to get divorced now that they have been incarcerated with their spouse all this time.”  Still, the basics of mediation haven’t changed. “Usually, when a couple first comes in to see me, they need a shared agenda and a common plan. I use some tools from therapy to help with listening to each person’s point of view, and try to facilitate communication and contribute to mutual understanding.” She has a wide spectrum of training, including social work and legal degrees. “What makes mediation successful is that there are usually overriding values that enable a couple to come to the table to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. We try to focus on the future, not get stuck in the past with trying to agree on a narrative of the history of their relationship. My job is to be non-judgmental about this historical context, to understand and respect their realities, and sometimes to hold alternative versions of reality from each partner in mind.”

Part of the Covid contention is that people start out from wildly differing fact bases. Then stir in a few conspiracy theories and what you have is truly a failure to communicate. Covid has certainly made things harder for families that have to run their businesses and schools and day care all out of a house that is maybe severely space-constrained and ill-designed for these multiple purposes.

While I was talking to June, I read this NYT article by Charlie Warzel about coping with difficult family discussions. Warzel has several tips on how to interact with your family members with Covid contention:

  • Give people an understanding of their information environment
  • Create a bit of common ground and lay the foundation to explore how unproven conspiracy theories differ from reality
  • Fact-checking is valuable but don’t count on it to change someone’s beliefs
  • Don’t debate these issues on Facebook
  • Don’t be a scold — be gentle, compassionate and patient
  • Know when to walk away and try another day.

These gambits sound good in theory, but in the real world it is hard to implement them in practice. But I want to end this post on a lighter note, so I will leave you with one last link, to a clip from Lewis Black’s latest comedy routine, where he touches on this contention. The clip is NSFW but very funny. Almost as funny as the Pythons’ bit.