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Month: December 2017

Safer Social Media

Safer Social Media

click through for more privacy tips, via Gizmodo

We live in the age of social media, that’s for sure.  Facebook claims over 2 billion people as its users.  Twitter is how we first get breaking news, how we know it’s time to turn on CNN or MSNBC to see what happened when the earth moved in Iran, how the Executive Branch of the US government distracts the press and the people from its horrifying agenda.

To keep up with sorta friends from high school, third cousins, and D-list celebs, we give Internet companies startling amounts of information about ourselves and our activities.  Not using social media at all is an option, but not one many of us take.  I use Twitter 99.5% in read-only mode.  I use Facebook and LinkedIn not at all.  I use Google+ more actively.  Some of you reading this just went either, “uh, what’s Google+?” or, “I didn’t know anyone still used that!”

The reason I don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn comes down to the privacy nightmare that these social network products are.  As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying, you’re not a customer.  You’re the product.”  Consider that whatever benefit you get from the use of these sites, you pay for it with information about your life, your family, your friends.  Everything you post is analyzed in detail that would shock you.

So the least you can do is not to overdo the sharing.  Lock down what you place online so that only the audience you intend can enjoy it.  It means, in general, going into the Privacy and Security settings, and taking a lot of options that are not the default.  Because the products you’re using are guiding you to share and share and share some more.  The more you share, the more their shares appreciate.

Here is a roundup of fairly current articles that will guide you how to max out the privacy possible in all the major social media products

Like everything in information security, this is a trade-off.  How much you want to protect your privacy vs. how much you want to take advantage of the instant connections and the interest groups you can find in the virtual worlds of social media.  Not everyone will choose my complete abstention from “major” networks, and I don’t expect them to.

But one final word: To whatever extent you can live with it, please try not to use these products on your phones.  Yes, I know, the spur-of-the-moment selfie or that Hey, Internet! Look At My Food! moment when you’re out and about can be irresistible.  But every single social media corporation does much, much more than you visualize with the information you give it by letting it operate on your phone.  You location — at all times.  Your contacts.  Whatever your phone’s camera can see or its mic can hear.  Anytime.  Please, think about it.

Told Ya

Told Ya

Maybe this is churlish, but I told ya. And told ya, and told ya.  I struggle to empathize with this person. Not because she’s suffered a massive loss… who hasn’t?  Not because she’s now got to rely on the kindness of strangers… who hasn’t?

But I cannot wrap my head around this mindset about a computer, that allows one to make it such a powerful horcrux of oneself and still not take the very sensible approach Tom Riddle took of making several, redundant copies.

I think that some people, as they notice their computer becoming more and more central to holding the essence of who they are and what they do, imbue it with a magical inviolability.  Surely something so powerful can never fail or go astray, they seem to think.

With decent backups, the potentially life-altering injury illustrated in this tweet would instead be a day or two of delays and annoyance while the restores were running.

So yes, it may be churlish to see Lisa’s deep distress as an object lesson for others.  If it is, then call me a churl.  But do your goddam backups!  I’ll take that trade.


Safer Email

Safer Email

Today let’s think about how to be safer using the oldest internet application still in common use: email. Email predates the Web by about twenty years. So when young people accuse it of being “for old folks” (meaning, people like me) I have to admit they may have a point. But email is still far and away the best mode of communication for business correspondence, and for the exchange of personal messages longer than 160 characters.

And long before the web, but shortly after the creation of email itself, spam was born. In addition to being annoying, spam can create some information safety issues. So there are two main things I want you to remember when seeing spam in your inbox: use the spam you get to better train your filter, and never click on any links nor open any file attachments.

All modern webmail clients have built-in spam filtering. Personally, I use Gmail to read my mail, even mail from other domains (such as The benefit of using an established webmail system as your mail reader is that the provider’s spam filters have been exposed to billions and billions of emails, and so they are very well-tuned for a low rate of both false positives (when the filter puts a valid email in the spam folder) and false negatives (when it delivers actual spam to your inbox). The less of either, the happier you are with the result.

You train spam filters by identifying both false positives and false negatives for it. For example, in Gmail, there is a “Report Spam” menu option or button in every non-spam folder and a “Not Spam” button in the spam folder. You should make use of these whenever possible. That means occasionally visiting the spam folder to look for those false positives. The more you do this, the less it will be necessary – because the filters adjust their criteria better to the kind of email you get and even to your subjective tastes about what is and is not spam.

One notable subset of spam you always want to be excluded from are the scams. Disney vacations, prizes in lotteries (that you don’t remember entering), gift cards and many more unbelievable windfalls show up in your mailbox by the hundreds each month. As you no doubt know, these are nothing but scams to get your personal information or attempt to extract redemption fees to claim these imaginary prizes. Mark them all as spam.

And of course, there really is no dead Nigerian prince whose family lawyer wants to pay you 20% of $1.6 billion to help them expatriate the money. The only thing that you will get for responding to these is an escalating series of demands for fees to cover the assorted (made-up) mechanics of moving the (imaginary) money and finally (never) paying you. Sending these emails is a crime, and you can report it to the FBI at

Phinally, phishing. Phishing is the sending of emails carefully crafted to look like they come from a legitimate organization, such as a bank, a government agency like Social Security or the IRS, or an employer. The typical phishing email will have a message designed to create some sense of urgency, and links crafted to resemble the links to the legitimate website being spoofed. For example, the email may alert you to a credit card fraud attempt, and the links embedded go to (for example). The problem here is, Chase Bank’s website is really at When you go to, which was created by the scammers, you will indeed find the familiar login screen and so on. When you log in through this screen, you will land on the familiar opening screen of However, because you logged in through the scammers’ fake page, they’ve snagged a copy of your ID and password in the process. It is easy to do that and then pass your valid credentials along to the real site, so your experience is the same as usual. The fake login page looks very real because the scammers can easily go to the public pages of the real and grab copies of all the graphics, fonts, content, style sheets and even a fair amount of the programming code needed to make certain pages look and work the way the real ones do. The result is a presentation that even professionals will have a hard time distinguishing from the real thing. It sounds like a lot of work but it pays very well. One single phishing attack in April netted $495K from a Michigan investment firm. And any given phishing email can go to millions of users at a time.

The lesson here is, never click on links in emails, unless the senders are personally known to you, or for things like password resets that you know you initiated within the past few minutes. Certainly, for financial and government services, you should navigate to their websites by way of known links you have previously saved as bookmarks or stored in secure password-manager records. If you use a search engine to make initial contact with an agency or company, make sure that you skip past the sponsored links and click only on the most relevant non-sponsored one. Phishing emails, like all scams, should be reported to the FBI at

Whether it’s spam or phishing when an email arrives that “wants” you to click on its links, leave it wanting. Especially, never click on “unsubscribe” links in spam email. Doing that simply confirms for the spammers not only is your email address valid, but you actually read their email. They will reward this by showering you with much love. And spam. Well, mostly spam.