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The Truth About Scope And Compliance Risk


The hard-to-face reality is that billions of personal records are exposed each year. A commonly used, yet incomplete solution, is tokenization. Tokenizing sensitive data does not eliminate the need to achieve and certify PCI DSS compliance.

In order to completely descope from PCI, a business can partner with a data custodian (VGS) that handles 100% of data capture and vaulting – removing any compliance risk and completely avoiding data leaks.

Massive data leaks, at this point, are becoming a frequent occurrence – with headlines regularly popping up highlighting cybersecurity disasters that have impacted millions of consumers.

Earlier this summer, news of a cybersecurity disaster rattled North American consumers. The highly-publicized Capital One data breach of 2019 led to the sensitive data exposure of 100 million Americans and 6 million Canadians – including hundreds of thousands of social security numbers and bank account numbers.

Similarly, in July, we learned about the whopping $700 million settlement as a result of the Equifax data breach. Now, years later, the 147 million customers impacted by that disaster all get a piece of that pie.

It only seems like a matter of time until the next multi-million-dollar data breach settlement will be announced, and another consumer data-handling organization will have their feet publicly held to the fire.

From the improper configuration of web applications to the massive security risk involved in cloud storage generally, companies have wisely been seeking alternatives to storing their own sensitive user data and opening themselves up to data breach risk.

The rise of tokenization

In order to reduce data leakage risk as much as possible, many tech organizations have leveraged a method called tokenization. It’s a way to limit storing plain text sensitive data within a company’s own systems by using “tokens” to replace private user information like medical data or credit card numbers.

Unlike encryption, where a mathematical equation can “solve” the data replacement and reveal the original sensitive information, tokenization is not reversible. With no mathematical relationship to the original data point, tokenization is widely considered to be a safe way of transmitting and storing critical information.

However, tokenizing sensitive data does not eliminate the need to achieve and certify PCI DSS compliance – although it can reduce the number of system components to which PCI DSS compliance would apply.

With tokenization, sensitive data is mostly hidden. But, there are two points where tokenized data still remains within the scope of PCI DSS compliance: the data vault and the original point of capture.

 

Even when organizations store and use tokens instead of raw sensitive data, the original data is within PCI scope because they’re still within the cardholder data environment. In this environment, a business is still responsible for any leaked data.

 

But what if businesses could offload this data risk fully, and enjoy the benefits of tokenization while keeping all the original data completely off their own systems?

 

Descoping entirely

In order to completely descope from PCI DSS compliance, a business can partner with a data custodian that handles 100% of data capture and vaulting – removing any compliance risk and completely avoiding data leaks.

VGS is an innovative data custodian that takes on their clients’ compliance risk, securely storing all sensitive data and removing businesses from PCI scope in full.

By leveraging synthetic data ‘aliases,’ which are generated in real-time to protect all sensitive customer information, VGS empowers businesses to use customer data just as they did before – but never actually touch the sensitive data themselves.

Startups that work with VGS remove their compliance risk and avoid the potential risk associated with data breaches because there’s nothing to steal in the first place.

By partnering with a data custodian, organizations can completely descope their systems and win over new customers with the peace of mind that their sensitive personal data is in safe hands.

When businesses implement VGS solutions to handle their sensitive data, they instantly inherit VGS’s best-in-class security posture, which enables them to fast-track their certifications like PCI, SOC2 and others.

With data security as one less thing to worry about, organizations can focus their time and resources on growing their core businesses.

This article was originally published in Very Good Security.

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Security

Many companies hesitate to upgrade or change their Accounts Receivable System simply because they feel they can continue to achieve the same results using the same systems and processes as they did five years ago. If you are a smaller company just looking to send a few automated dunning letters and have your AR team identify which invoices are past due, there may be no reason to change. But if your company wants to improve free cash flow and cash conversion cycles, you must be sure your AR system is driving efficiencies in your processes – if you hope to grow without spending significant dollars on headcount.  

In today’s collections environment understanding your customer data is one of the most critical elements in your collections process. If you can’t identify customer payment trends or tendencies, it makes it nearly impossible to predict company cash flow. “Cash is King” which all Controllers and CFOs would agree that if you don’t have enough operating cash flow, you can’t grow your business and you can’t really measure the success of your company.  If your current AR system does not have this DATA readily available at the click of a button, you are behind the times and driving inefficiencies. Here are five examples of inefficiencies that should lead you to re-analyze your current AR system and decide whether it is time for an upgrade. 

1. More Than 1 Hour Required To Generate Reports 

If your AD HOC reports take you more than 1 hour to prepare for management. Today’s premier AR systems have the ability to sort existing customer data and provide essential reporting in a matter of seconds. I see too many managers spending multiple days to prepare an important report for upper management that could easily be prepared quickly and accurately with a better AR Tool. This is not an efficient use of a managers time, which is probably already stretched to the point of frustration. These types of specialized reports only take managers away from managing their teams, so it is important that these reports are readily available.

2. AR System Can’t Identify Non-Paying Customers 

If your AR system can not easily identify why your customers are not paying you, it is time to re-evaluate if your current system is the right one for you. This is critical information for the business to improve your internal processes, to reduce delays long term, and get your customers to pay you sooner and ultimately reduce your DSO. 

3. AR System Cannot Provide Estimated Payment Times 

If your AR system can not provide you quickly additional expected payments over a period of time (monthly/ quarterly). This is a common ask from Controllers and CFOs, especially at the end of the quarter or month to help predict cash flow and progress towards cash targets. If your system is not up to date, often what happens is managers then need to reach out individually to each collector to get updates on promise to pay dates and reasons for delays to provide any accurate information back to upper management. This project could take days to get this information, when again this information could be provided in a matter of seconds. Some collections systems can even use customers historical payment data and trends and predict payment dates based on how they have paid you in the past. This allows collections teams to be more efficient to help them prioritize and really focus on who they need to follow up with for payment and identifying high risk customers. 

4. Cannot Provide Strategic and One Time Dunning Campaigns

If your company only has the ability to run a dunning campaign based on the number of days past due, and does not allow you to target specific customers types including by region, invoice amount, new customers or high/low risk customers, it may be time to look for a new AR System. Automated Dunning Campaigns targeting specific customer types are critical to allow the collections team to focus on more complicated and time consuming customer issues, while still increasing your cash flow. Many companies need a one time dunning campaign to target a specific customer type. For example, you may want to run a campaign that targets customers who pay by check to help move them over to ACH for faster payments. If your system can’t provide that, you are behind the times in your collections processes and hurting your potential cash flow.

5. Cannot Identify High Risk Past Due Accounts Quickly 

If your current AR Tool does not allow your collections team to identify certain high risk past due accounts quickly, it may be time for a new AR Tool. Some collectors have a hard time identifying what they should focus on a daily, weekly, or even on a monthly basis. Most premier AR Tools allow management to help prioritize collection accounts for their collectors daily and assign specific tasks and work-lists to their collectors. This is critical in helping to drive desired performance from your collections teams to achieve your best results. 

Conclusion: Spend Less Time Reporting, More Time Generating Cash 

If your collections department is spending endless hours preparing manual reports, you are only hurting your company cash flow. I think all managers would agree that they would rather have their collectors focus on collections rather than endless manual reporting. By upgrading your AR systems, your cash flow improvement will be significant enough to allow you to plan for growth and save significant dollars on headcount.

This article was originally published on Tesorio.

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When evaluating the security of an application and data model ask the questions:

  • What is the sensitivity of the data?
  • What are the regulatory, compliance, or privacy requirements for the data?
  • What is the attack vector that a data owner is hoping to mitigate?
  • What is the overall security posture of the environment, is it a hostile environment or a relatively trusted one?

 

Data When threat modeling, consider the following common scenarios:

 

Data at rest (“DAR”)

In information technology means inactive data that is stored physically in any digital form (e.g. database/data warehouses, spreadsheets, archives, tapes, off-site backups, mobile devices etc.).

  • Transparent Data Encryption (often abbreviated to TDE) is a technology employed by Microsoft SQL, IBM DB2 and Oracle to encrypt the “table-space” files in a database. TDE offers encryption at the file level. It solves the problem of protecting data at rest by encrypting databases both on the hard drive as well as on backup media. It does not protect data in motion DIM nor data in use DIU.
  • Mount-point encryption: This is another form of TDE is available for database systems which do not natively support table-space encryption. Several vendors offer mount-point encryption for Linux/Unix/Microsoft Windows file system mount-points. When a vendor does not support TDE, this type of encryption effectively encrypts the database table-space and stores the encryption keys separate from the file system. So, if the physical or logical storage medium is detached from the compute resource, the database table-space remains encrypted.

 

Data in Motion (“DIM”)

Data in motion considers the security of data that is being copied from one medium to another. Data in motion typically considers data being transmitted over a network transport. Web Applications represent common data in motion scenarios.

  • Transport Layer Security (TLS or SSL): is commonly used to encrypt internet protocol based network transports. TLS works by encrypting the internet layer 7 “application layer” packets of a given network stream using symmetric encryption.
  • Secure Shell/Secure File Transport (SSH, SCP, SFTP): SSH is a protocol used to securely login and access remote computers. SFTP runs over the SSH protocol (leveraging SSH security and authentication functionality) but is used for secure transfer of files. The SSH protocol utilizes public key cryptography to authenticate access to remote systems.
  • Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network, and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network.

 

Data in Use (“DIU”)

Data in use happens whenever a computer application reads data from a storage medium into volatile memory.

  • Full memory encryption: Encryption to prevent data visibility in the event of theft, loss, or unauthorized access or theft. This is commonly used to protect Data in Motion and Data at Rest. Encryption is increasingly recognized as an optimal method for protecting Data in Use. There have been multiple approaches to encrypt data in use within memory. Microsoft’s Xbox has a capability to provide memory encryption. A company Private Corepresently has a commercial software product cage to provide attestation along with full memory encryption for x86 servers.
  • RAM Enclaves: enable an enclave of protected data to be secured with encryption in RAM. Enclave data is encrypted while in RAM but available as clear text inside the CPU and CPU cache, when written to disk, when traversing networks etc. Intel Corporation has introduced the concept of “enclaves” as part of its Software Guard Extensions in technical papers published in 2013.
  • 2013 papers: from Workshop on Hardware and Architectural Support for Security and Privacy 2013
  • Innovative Instructions and Software Model for Isolated Execution
  • Innovative Technology for CPU Based Attestation and Sealing

 

Where do traditional data protection techniques fall short?

 

TDE: Database and mount point encryption both fall short of fully protecting data across the data’s entire lifecycle. For instance: TDE was designed to defend against theft of physical or virtual storage media only. An authorized system administrator, or and unauthorized user or process can gain access to sensitive data either by running a legitimate query and , or by scraping RAM. TDE does not provide granular access control to data at rest once the data has been mounted.

TLS/SCP/STFP/VPN, etc: TCP/IP Transport layer encryption also falls short of protecting data across the entire data lifecycle. For example, TLS does not protect data at rest or in use. Quite often TLS is only enabled on Internet facing application load balancers. Often TLS calls to web applications are plaintext on the datacenter or cloud side of the application load-balancer.

DIU: Memory encryption, Data in use full memory encryption falls short of protecting data across the entire data lifecycle. DIU techniques are cutting edge and not generally available. Commodity compute architecture has just begun to support memory encryption. With DIU memory encryption, data is only encrypted while in memory. Data is in plaintext while in the CPU, Cache, written to disk, and traversing network transports.

 

Complimentary or Alternative Approach: Tokenization

We need an alternative approach that address all the exposure gaps 100% of the time. In information security, we really want a defense in depth strategy. That is, we want layers of controls so that if a single layer is fails or is compromised another layer can compensate for the failure.

Tokenization and format preserving encryption are unique in the fact they protect sensitive data throughout the data lifecycle/across a data-flow. Tokenization and FPE are portable and remain in force across mixed technology stacks. Tokenization and Format preserving encryption do not share the same exposures as traditional data protection techniques.

How does this work? Fields of sensitive data are cryptographically transformed at the system of origin, that is during intake. A cryptographic transform of a sensitive field is applied, producing a non-sensitive token representation of the original data.

Tokenization, when applied to data security, is the process of substituting a sensitive data element with a non-sensitive equivalent, referred to as a token, that has no extrinsic or exploitable meaning or value. The token is a reference (i.e. identifier) that maps back to the sensitive data through a tokenization system.

Format preserving encryption takes this a step further and allows the data element to maintain its original format and data type. For instance, a 16-digit credit card number can be protected and the result is another 16-digit value. The value here is to reduce the overall impact of code changes to applications and databases while reducing the time to market of implementing end to end data protection.

 

In Closing

 

Use of tokenization or format preserving encryption to replace live data in systems results in minimized exposure of sensitive data to those applications, stores, people and processes. Replacing sensitive data results in reduced risk of compromise or accidental exposure and unauthorized access to sensitive data.

Applications can operate using tokens instead of live data, with the exception of a small number of trusted applications explicitly permitted to detokenize when strictly necessary for an approved business purpose. Moreover: in several cases removal of sensitive data from an organization’s applications, databases, business processes will result in reduced compliance and audit scope, resulting in significantly less complex and shorter audits.

 

This article was originally published in Very Good Security.

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Business

Probably the least pleasant part of the accounts receivable professional’s job is running a customer through a collections process. It is time-consuming and can be stressful. Truth be told, you probably are swamped just with your regular duties, emailing requests for payments and making phone calls to answer payment questions for customers. 

Still, sending out personalized collections letters to the most delinquent accounts is a crucial part of getting paid. Creating every new collections letter and dunning campaign from scratch is not really necessary, however. You can work off of basic templates and personalize them as needed. To help you with this task, we’ve drafted some simple templates that are clean and easy to understand. Clarity and getting to the point quickly are critical; no one wants to read a lengthy collections letter. 

Feel free to copy these templates and make them your own by modifying the introduction section and the closing section to reflect your personal relationship with the accounts payable person or your contact at the delinquent company. 

Guide to Writing Collection Letter #1

In most cases, you want to send this letter out very shortly after the invoice is past due. You may have reminded the customer to pay on time, sent emails, left phone messages. Or you may have just assumed they would handle their payables on time. Because this is the first notice, keep the tone professional, but friendly. At this point, it’s more than likely that the payables contact went on vacation, your invoice is waiting in a queue, or some other minor and temporary delay has happened. With this letter, make it clear you are not assuming ill will or evasion but that you still need to have your invoice paid. Keep in mind, as well, that it is entirely possible the customer has not paid because there was a problem with the product or service that has not been resolved and the customer is unhappy. Above all, remember that paying an invoice is the last step in the customer journey and it should be if at all possible, a pleasant and positive process. These customers keep you in business. 

This first collection letter must always contain the following basic information:

  • The amount due
  • The item or service purchased
  • Number of days a specific invoice is past due
  • A summary of all of the invoices on the account
  • Clear instructions on the next steps
  • Payment information – ideally an online payment link
  • A precise calendar due date upon which you are requesting payment
  • How to contact you directly with questions or to provide reasons for not paying and status updates

Collection Letter #1 Template

Dear [Insert Name],

[If you know the contact personally, insert a brief note like “Hope your vacation in Hawaii was wonderful!”]

Just a quick reminder that [Insert Company Name]’s account is past due. Our records show there is a balance of $[Insert Amount] that is currently [Insert the number of days past due] days past due. Attached is an account statement with all the relevant balance information. We have also emailed the account statement and invoice to you, for your convenience. If you have not received this email and the attachment, we have provided a summary of your account info below.

  • Invoice Number:
  • Invoice Date:
  • Amount Due Date:
  • Days Past Due:

Could you please tell me the status of your payment? Here is a [link] to our payments portal.  We request that you make payment by [Insert Date]. Alternatively, we can provide you with our bank information for an EFT or ACH. 

If you can’t pay electronically, please send us a paper check to the following address: 

[Insert Your Company Name]
ATTN: Accounting Dept.
[Insert Address]

If we have made an error on your account or you can’t pay at this time, please call me to discuss at [Insert Phone Number]. We are happy to correct any errors or arrange for a payment plan. 

We look forward to continuing to do business with you.

Sincerely,

[Insert Your Name]

[Insert Email Address]

[Insert Phone Number]

Guide to Writing Collection Letter #2

In the second collection letter, you will need to change tone to become more firm, under the assumption that your first letter was ignored. That said, you don’t want to alienate or anger the customer. At the same time, you want to make it clear that you expect to be paid shortly. Send this second letter 7 to 10 business days after the first collection letter.

The second collection letter should include much of the same information as the letter, with the addition of a brief mention of the potential consequences of continued non-payment:

  • The amount due
  • The item or service purchased
  • Number of days a specific invoice is past due
  • A summary of all of the invoices on the account
  • Clear instructions on the next steps
  • Payment information – ideally an online payment link
  • A precise calendar due date upon which you are requesting payment
  • How to contact you directly with questions or to provide reasons for not paying and status updates
  • Brief mention that failure to pay could have real consequences (credit rating, liens filed, service suspension and reinstatement charge). 

Collection Letter #2 Template

[Insert Name] – I wanted to check if you had received our first collection notice.

We have not yet received payment for [Insert Invoice Number]. We have not yet received your response to our letter sent on [Insert Date]. Unfortunately, [Insert Company Name]’s account is [Insert Days Past Due] days past due.  You owe a total of $[Insert Amount].

You are a valued customer. We would like to keep your business. Please tell us how we could help you make this payment. We would prefer to avoid actions that could damage your credit rating and impact your ability to do business with us and other companies. 

Please submit your payment of $[Insert Amount] by [Insert Calendar Date]. You can pay by credit card over the phone, pay online via our payment portal, or you can send a check in the self-addressed envelope I enclosed here. If you would prefer to pay via ACH or EFT, we are happy to provide our bank details.

If for any reason you cannot pay in full, please contact me immediately at [Insert Phone Number]. I would be very happy to discuss a payment schedule for you and [Insert Company Name].

I do hope we can continue in business together. Thanks for your prompt response and payment.

Sincerely,

[Insert Your Name]

[Insert Email Address]

[Insert Phone Number]

Guide to Writing Collection Letter #3

At this point, the chances of you getting a full payment are pretty slim. You have less to lose – most likely the customer has an idea of what potential consequences of non-payment might be. The tone should remain professional but less cordial to convey the severity of the situation. Definitely accompany this letter with a phone call to your contact. Make it very clear in this letter that the customer is likely to face serious consequences, including reporting the delinquency to credit bureaus and taking legal action. The third collection letter should include the following information:

  • The dates previous letters went out
  • The amount due
  • The item or service purchased
  • Number of days a specific invoice is past due
  • A summary of all of the invoices on the account
  • Clear instructions on the next steps
  • Payment information – ideally an online payment link
  • A precise calendar due date upon which you are requesting payment
  • How to contact you directly with questions or to provide reasons for not paying and status updates
  • Brief mention that failure to pay could have real consequences (credit rating, liens filed, service suspension and reinstatement charge). 

Collection Letter #3 Template

Dear [Insert Name],

This is the third letter we have sent to you and [Insert Company Name] is requesting payment in full for invoice [Insert Invoice Number] which was due on [Insert Due Date]. We sent the first letter on [Insert Date] and the second letter on [Insert Date].  We have also called and emailed you to request a payment. 

Your account is now [Insert Days Past Due] days past due and you owe a total of $[Insert Amount].

Unfortunately, unless we receive payment in full by [Insert Date] (or agree on a payment plan by this date), we will engage our attorney in the matter and report your delinquency to the credit bureaus. This would have severe consequences on the ability of your business to secure credit. 

To prevent these consequences, you can pay the full balance (or make a partial payment immediately) via our online payments portal (URL) or call me and provide your credit card information so we can process a payment. . 

Contact me immediately at [Insert Phone Number] so that we might settle this matter amicably and quickly.

Sincerely,

[Insert Your Name]

[Insert Email Address]

[Insert Phone Number]

Collection Letter #4: The Final Letter

At this point, you can honestly say you have tried your best and offered the customer multiple options to settle their invoice. This letter should not even ask for payment. Rather, it should just state that you have informed the credit bureaus and engaged your attorney or legal department to pursue legal remedies. While it is not mandatory that you notify delinquent customers of these actions, doing so might actually induce a payment. Once a company knows that legal action is imminent, then it sometimes can accelerate the settlement process. Should this final letter result in a phone call, remain cordial and even friendly; it is far better to be talking with the delinquent customer than to have them ignore all communication. You can keep this letter short. It is designed to serve as proof that a customer has been contacted multiple times and that you have made a good faith effort to give them a chance to pay their debts, in part or in full. 

This letter should contain the following details:

  • Number of days an invoice is past due
  • The amount due
  • The dates when the previous three letters were sent
  • A statement that you have referred this matter to the credit bureaus and engaged an attorney

Collection Letter #4 Template

Dear [Insert Name],

We have sent three collections notices to you and [Insert Company Name] is requesting immediate payment for invoice [Insert Invoice Number] for $[Insert Amount] which was due on [Insert Due Date]. We sent letters to you on [Insert Date], [Insert Date] and [Insert Date]. We have also emailed you payment requests and copies of your invoices on those same dates.

Due to your lack of response, we have reported this issue to the credit bureaus, initiated legal action against [Insert Company Name], and are in the process of engaging a collections agency to pursue the debt.

Should there be any change in your situation, please contact me immediately at [Insert Phone Number].

Sincerely,

[Insert Your Name]

[Insert Email Address]

[Insert Phone Number]
This article was originally posted on Tesorio.

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Running a business in the digital age is no easy feat. This is especially true nowadays, when consumer data security is at the forefront of the conversation.

Data breaches have hit even some of the biggest multinationals out there, enabling the exposure of sensitive user data and compromising the privacy and trust of their customers. When it’s payment card data that leaks on a large scale like this, the damage goes far beyond consumer confidence.

Table of Contents

Individual customers’ financial lives can be severely hurt when their sensitive data gets into the wrong hands.

That’s why it’s incredibly crucial to secure cardholder data, which is what PCI DSS aims to do.

Like many compliance programs, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is designed to ensure a more stable and secure vendor, which leads to a more reliable payment card industry overall. PCI DSS ensures that you, your fellow merchants, and all the stakeholders in the payment card industry are held to a rigorous industry standard for security.

But what about your business – do you need to be PCI DSS compliant?

If you store, process, or transmit cardholder data, the short answer is yes, but let’s go over a few things for you to understand exactly why this data security regulation is so vital and why it’s so important for your business.

What is PCI DSS?

All merchants and service providers that process payment card information must comply with PCI DSS, which is a set of controls and obligations that reduce the likelihood of cardholder data being compromised.

To put it simply: PCI DSS is a set of requirements that businesses who touch payment card data must follow as part of an industry-wide program against credit card fraud and loss.

The most recent DSS version from the Security Standards Council (SSC), which is a consortium of payment card brands like Visa and MasterCard, contains 12 requirements that merchants and service providers must implement.

A dozen boxes to tick doesn’t sound too difficult, right?

Not so fast: within these 12 requirements are hundreds of sub-requirements. Installing firewalls, encrypting cardholder data, performing patch management and maintaining traceable records are just a few of the requirements for PCI DSS compliance, many of which are complex and can require an entire cross-functional team to tackle.

Some of these requirements may be especially difficult for smaller organizations to meet, particularly without any expert help.

Who needs to comply with PCI DSS requirements?

So, how do you know if your business needs to worry about attaining and maintaining compliance?

PCI DSS applies to any organization, without regard to size, value, or number of transactions, if that organization collects, transmits, maintains, or transfers cardholder data. Anyone who transacts a major brand card such as American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa must comply with the PCI DSS requirements.

In other words, if payment card data touches your network at any point, you must comply.

For smaller organizations out there, the journey to reaching full PCI DSS compliance without any help may seem incredibly daunting – but failing to fulfill the requirements can and does lead to hefty consequences.

What happens when you don’t comply with PCI DSS?

Like GDPR and CCPA requirements, non-compliance is not an option for PCI DSS requirements. While it is technically not a law, like GDPR and CCPA both are, businesses agree to adhere to PCI requirements when they engage in any activity related to the payment card industry.

Failure to comply with PCI DSS could cost you dearly, particularly if you ever have a breach of payment card data. The penalties for non-compliance range from sizable monetary finesto getting your ability to process payment cards revoked – both of which can be detrimental for an early-stage company.

These can be just the tip of the iceberg compared to the total financial harm caused by non-compliance.

From there, businesses may have to pay to inform every individual impacted by the data breach, reissue cards, pay legal fees – the list goes on. The fines for non-compliance are just the start, and don’t even factor the brand damage a data leak causes and the loss of consumer trust that follows. Brand image is, in fact, one of the biggest vulnerabilities when it comes to data security.

According to research from the Ponemon Institute, 61% of Chief Marketing Officers believe that the largest cost of a security incident is the erosion of brand value.

Not only should you, as a business leader, want to maintain a secure cardholder data environment (CDE) for your customers, but you should also want to avoid the liability of not implementing these compliance requirements.

The question, therefore, should not be “is PCI compliance mandatory” (it is), but rather “why would you take the risk of not implementing it?”

Understanding that PCI DSS compliance is absolutely vital is the first step – but how would a business go about becoming compliant?

The DIY approach to PCI compliance

To build a PCI compliant network you will, at a minimum, need to follow the following steps.

Step one: Download and review the PCI DSS details from the Security Standards Council and study it. There are resources that will help you understand how to comply. Read through them and understand the challenges ahead.

Step two: Conduct a risk assessment to determine the robustness of the controls and how you will mitigate the risks. Not every control applies to every environment. Use your risks to find the gaps you need to fill. It can be helpful to work with an expert for this step. Budget-busting solutions often exceed the needs of most smaller businesses, but untrained personnel often struggle to identify which controls do not apply, or how to compensate for them.

Step three: Determine which of your current resources can be leveraged for one or more of the controls indicated by your risk assessment. Identify any gaps that will require new resources, including servers, routers, communication equipment, physical security, and full-time employees.

Step four: Create a project plan with budget and timeline/milestones. Be careful with how long you take to get compliant, as your risks don’t drop until you are compliant. For many smaller businesses, this process will take 3-6 months, usually requiring significant consultation from experts as well as costly technology, including firewall(s), access control systems, vulnerability scanning services or tools, and more.

Step five: Gather your resources and build or rebuild your network. It is likely you will need at least one full-time employee to manage your network for PCI DSS compliance.

Step six: Test and verify that your controls reduce the risks you identified as expected. Controls do not always work as intended, since technology changes rapidly, so the method you chose a few months ago may have been circumvented in the intervening time.

Step seven: Go live with your solution and hope it works as designed. It might not but you will tweak it until it does.

Step eight: Have your system audited by a Qualified Security Assessor listed on the PCI Security Council website. You won’t really know how well you have done until you are audited (that is unless you have a breach, in which case, you did poorly).

Step nine: Revise your controls or infrastructure based on the audit findings.

Once all nine steps are completed, constant vigilance, testing and reworking are required on a regular basis.

The human resources and funding required to complete all of the above is, unfortunately, out of reach for many younger companies.

For this reason, many small-and-medium-sized organizations opt to work with a trusted third-party data security partner to manage all their PCI compliance needs.

The easiest and fastest path to PCI compliance

Rather than have a cross-functional team undertake the arduous process of gaining PCI DSS compliance the DIY route, the fastest and simplest way to become compliant is to make sure payment card data never touches your business’ servers.

But how can you possibly transact payment cards and run an online business without ever touching cardholder data?

The solution is an innovative approach called data aliasing, during which sensitive user data – like cardholder information – is redacted in real time and replaced with a synthetic data alias so that none of the original data ever passes through your system.

Data aliasing is the foundation of Very Good Security’s Zero Data solutions, which enable businesses to collect, store and transmit any sensitive data they want without ever coming into possession of it.

This effectively removes most of your business systems from PCI DSS compliance scope, so your burden is drastically reduced – and your risk of data breaches plummets to almost zero.

Very Good Security offers nearly instant compliance for smaller merchants and service providers upon integration. For organizations that are PCI Level 1, either because of transaction volume or because their bank or partners require it, compliance can be achieved in as few as 21 days.

By taking the DIY path, the same result can take several months – after you’ve already poured a substantial amount of human and financial capital into securing your databases and processes.

Very Good Security is a completely scalable solution that grows with your business, and can take your PCI burden off your plate almost entirely.

Interested in descoping your company’s networks from PCI requirements and achieving compliance the simple way? Try a demo of VGS by clicking here.

This article was originally posted on Very Good Security.
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Nowadays, the Internet is all abuzz about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies. Although for me, it is way far behind the dot-com bubble phenomena in the latter part of the 90s and early 20s. But, then, it is still a tech bubble, a phantom in the business exchange world, if I may say. The attention and speculations the cryptocurrencies get show that the world of the cryptocurrency market only makes it more interesting.

Cryptocurrencies to Watch

The cryptocurrency system as a whole produces decentralized cryptocurrency. Such regularity defined when the time the system was created and which is publicly known. In centralized banking systems, governments or corporate boards control the supply of the currency. This is done by printing units of fiat money or demand additions to digital banking ledgers. In a decentralized cryptocurrency, governments or organizations cannot create new units. Nor provided support for other businesses, corporate entities or banks holding asset value measured in it. Want to know more about Blockchain and what it is all about, scroll to the bottom for an in-depth explanation of cryptocurrencies.

 

Best Cryptocurrencies to Invest In Right Now (a safe portfolio)

Below is my selection of best crypto coins to invest in right now, to create a safe cryptocurrency portfolio of Bitcoin and its Altcoins. This might not be the riskiest of choices with the most returns, but rest assured, if you have a little bit of these coins, you are going to be a wealthy man or woman in a few years from now. this is a long-term investment portfolio of crypto.

Bitcoin rate

1. Bitcoin (BTC)

Bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency has at present $76.828 + Billion in market capitalization with bitcoin value of $4,469+ each and still rising as of this writing. The price of this cryptocurrencies has multiplied nearly 8x in the last year as of this writing.

Ethereum mining

2. Ethereum (ETH)

Ethereum is arguably the second-most popular cryptocurrency with a market capitalization of around $36,000 + Billion as of this writing. The price of this cryptocurrency has exploded to more than 3000% in the last year. But in spite of the growth, it still remains at less than 1/10th of Bitcoin.

Ripple coin

3. Ripple (XRP)

Ripple is a payment protocol that allows instant transaction settlements and reduces transaction fees to cents. By using the power of blockchain, Ripple delivers one frictionless experience to send money globally. It is the quickest and very scalable digital asset, empowering real-time payments worldwide. Banks and payment providers can use Ripple XRP asset to further cut costs and access new markets. As of this writing, it has a market capitalization of around $7,821 + Billion.

Litecoin price

4. Litecoin (LTC)

Litecoin is a peer-to-peer Internet digital currency acting in a complementary way to Bitcoin. Litecoin price rises more than 2000% in the last year. LTC enables instant, close-to-zero cost payments to anybody in the world. Litecoin offers quicker transaction verification times and value-added storage efficiency than the leading math-based digital currency. As of this writing, it has a market capitalization of around $3.449 + Billion.

stellar logo cryptocurrencies

5. Stellar (XLM)

The Stellar network is an open-source, distributed, and community-owned network used to facilitate cross-asset transfers of value. They help facilitate cross-asset transfer of value at a fraction of a penny while aiming to be an open financial system that gives people of all income levels access to low-cost financial services. However, unlike Ripple, Stellar.org is non-profit and its platform itself is open source and decentralized.

binance coin bnb cryptocurrencies

6. Binance Coin (BNB)

Binance Coin (BNB) is the cryptocurrency of the Binance platform. The name “Binance” is a combination of binary and finance. As of 2019, many businesses accept BNB as a form of payment. It has grown significantly over the past 2 years and is definitely a must-have in a well-diverse portfolio.

IOTA coin price

7. IOTA (MIOTA)

IOTA is an open-source distributed ledger protocol that goes beyond blockchain through its core invention of their so-called “block-less Tangle”.  As of this writing, it has a market capitalization of around $2.465 + Billion. With no fees, IOTA enables companies to explore new business-2-business models by trading on an open market in real-time. Blockchains’ consensus is no-longer decoupled but instead an intrinsic part of the system, leading to the decentralized and self-regulating peer-to-peer network

Monero price

8. Monero (XMR)

Monero is a secure, private, and untraceable cryptocurrency. And as of this writing, it has a market capitalization of about $2,095 + Billion. Monero is more than just technology. It’s also what the technology stands for. It also gives the full block reward to the miners, who are the most critical members of the network who provide this security. Transactions are cryptographically secure using the latest and most resilient encryption tools available.

How to buy neo

9. Neo (NEO)

Formerly called Antshares, NEO is China’s first-ever open-source blockchain, claiming to be the Ethereum of China. It has a market capitalization of about $1.787+ Billion as of this writing. It is one of the top 10 cryptocurrencies in the market in terms of capitalization.

OmesiGo coin

10. OmesiGo (OMG)

OmesiGo is a Fiat & crypto-friendly, cross-chain compatible, and Ethereum-powered with a market capitalization of around $1,075 + Billion as of this writing. OmiseGO has the potential to be a global standard for exchange and payments. OmiseGO is the answer to a fundamental coordination problem amongst payment processors, gateways, and financial institutions.

Introduction to Cryptocurrencies

Transactions with cryptocurrencies are generally irreversible once a number of blocks are confirmed. Furthermore, one feature that is lacking in cryptocurrency as compared to a credit card is consumer protection against fraud, such as chargebacks. However, this is an issue of little importance since a third party multi signature-based escrow can be used effectively to mediate a transaction. This process is equivalent to enabling chargebacks. Actually, this attribute is an advantage, since it is also much easier than performing an irreversible transaction using a system with a native chargeback.

What are cryptocurrencies?

Have you been, in one way or the other encountered such words as cryptocurrency trading, cryptocurrency mining, or bitcoin value? The possibility is 95% YES! But, what really is a cryptocurrency?

A cryptocurrency is a digitally designed asset functioning as a mode of exchange utilizing a form of writing called cryptography. It is primarily used as a way of securing transactions in businesses and control the formation of other currency units. They are classified as a subcategory of digital currencies and similarly classified as a subset of alternative and virtual currencies.

The best example is Bitcoin. Bitcoin became the world’s first decentralized cryptocurrency and digital payment system in 2009. This system works without a principal repository or single administrator, hence decentralized. The system is peer-to-peer where the transactions can take place directly between users and without an intermediary. Since then, many cryptocurrencies have been mushrooming all around. These are often called altcoins, a fusion of Bitcoin alternative.

As of the end of 2019, thousands of cryptocurrencies exist. Most of these cryptocurrencies are analogous to and a derivative from the original fully decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. In cryptocurrency, safety, integrity, and balance of ledgers are maintained by a community of distrustful parties called “crypto miners.” These are members of the general public using computers to help validate and timestamp transactions. These transactions are then added to the ledger in accordance with a specific timestamping system.

How do Cryptocurrencies work?

To fully understand how cryptocurrency works, you will need to understand a few basic specifics concepts, that are:

Publicly distributed ledger: A public ledger stored all transactions at every cryptocurrency’s formation. This is where the identities of the coin’s owners encrypted. To ensure the legitimacy of record-keeping, the system also uses other cryptographic techniques. The ledger makes sure that the matching “digital wallets” could compute an accurate spendable balance. Ethereum wallet and Bitcoin wallet or blockchain wallet is the world’s most popular digital wallets.

Peer-to-peer transactions: Any transfer of funds between digital wallets is called “transactions”. A transaction gets to be submitted to the public distributed ledger and waits for confirmation. Once the transaction is consummated, wallets use a cryptographic signature as proof that the transaction comes from the wallet’s owner. The confirmation process takes a little time, usually ten minutes for Bitcoin.

Cryptocurrency mining: In simple terms, this is the process of confirming transactions and adding the same to a public ledger. In order to add a particular transaction to a ledger, “miners” must figure out a progressively-complicated computational problem. This computational problem is somewhat like a mathematical puzzle. The “miners” who solves the puzzle first add a “block” of transactions to the public ledger. This is the system in which the transactions, blocks, and the public distributed ledger work together. This system ensures that not a single person could just simply add or modify a block at will.

Blockchain technology applications

The Technology Behind Cryptocurrencies: Blockchain

Bitcoin and with its spin-offs use decentralization of control as against the centralized electronic money/banking systems. Here, all transactions are confirmed and substantiated by network nodes. And recorded in a public distributed ledger technology called blockchain.

Blockchain Explained

A group or individual identified as Satoshi Nakamoto developed the technical system from which decentralized cryptocurrencies are based. The first working version was open-source software. Akin to the internet in its infancy, blockchain technology is difficult to comprehend and predict. This is due to a lack of knowledge about how these cryptocurrencies work. But turn out to be omnipresent in the exchange of transactions of digital and physical goods, information, and online platforms. The term blockchain embodies an entirely whole new suite of technologies. Can, therefore, implemented in a lot of ways totally contingent on the objective.

A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, simply called blocks. It is connected and secured using a writing form called cryptography or cryptology. A block consists of a typical hash pointer as a link to a previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. On purpose, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data. Blockchain can record transactions between two parties efficiently and permanently. A blockchain can collectively manage a peer-to-peer network, strictly adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. A data in the one block cannot ex-post-facto modified.

Blockchain Technology Applications and Beyond

By design, blockchains are examples of a secure computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance.  Blockchains make a potentially apposite for events recording, medical recording, and other records management activities. Examples are identity management, documenting provenance, transaction processing, or food traceability.

Top cryptocurrencies

The objective is to apply the technology to other transactions such as keeping track of property ownership. This could revolutionize how businesses and governments operate and citizens carry out their lives. At present, Bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency system carries out around two hundred thousand transactions per day. But for wider adoption, the system needs to be able to cope with many millions.

Synopsis in Cryptocurrency Trading

Below a dip in the water on trading cryptocurrencies, and the basics you should understand.

Why trade Cryptocurrencies today?

  1. The field with cryptocurrencies is a fair playing level for retail traders such as us to profit.
  2. Cryptocurrencies are growing and still a growing market.
  3. This is a 24/7 market where, you, with the right strategies, can profit heavily from the regular volatility of the market.

Trading Cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrency trading is the Foreign Exchange (Forex) of cryptocurrencies. It means, traders are able to normally trade different bitcoin and altcoin for USD and BTC. Trading cryptocurrencies do not need mining hardware nor a bitcoin investment in HYIPs (High-Yield Investment Program) or cloud bitcoin mining, which always bears the risk in their integrity).

Why trade bitcoin or altcoin and not Forex? The reason is, it is easy to go into. In less than an hour, you can start trading bitcoin and earning money. And you should not forget that cryptocurrency trading is too easy to leave.

A huge advantage over Forex is the so-called “smaller spreads”. This is the difference between the asking price and the bid price of the market. For example: In the EUR/USD spread. The asking price and bid price are 1.0933 and 1.0931 respectively. The spread is only 0.0002. Percent-wise, it is just 18% (a spread of 0.0002/1.0933 = 0.018%). Now, for the spread in Bitcoin to USD. The asking price for one BTC to USD is $429 and a bid price is the US $428.999. It amounts to just US $0.001 or 0.0002% percent wise (0.001/429 = 0.0002%). This means that a smaller spread when you exchange, you will have made an almost zero loss while in Forex after your exchange, you are already at a loss of 0.018%, which is significant.

Margin Trading vs. Leverage Trading

Margin trading and leveraging are possible on some Forex and in addition on Cryptocurrency Exchanges. In Margin trading, peer-to-peer margin fund providers allowed you to use capital from. This means you can borrow buying/selling power, but needed to allocate funds (=margin). But not accessible until you return the lending capital. For example, you want to buy 2 BTC but you only have the US $429. And can done, possibly. But then again on a condition that you will have to pay some interest after you close your position.

Best cryptocurrency to invest 2018

Let’s say the BTC closes at the US $450. It will result to making $21 x 2 = $42 winnings. In this example, you only need to subtract a low interest of about 2%, and you have your final winnings. But that is of course if you have predicted the trade correctly. However, you could lose more, when you have a losing position. Or you may opt to use leverage trading on some Forex and Cryptocurrency Exchanges. In leverage trading, you can possibly trade an amount, which at present you do not have at your disposal. Normally, a cryptocurrency exchange offers a leverage ratio of 1:10. Meaning for each dollar in your possession you get $10 of buying power. To sum up, this means higher risk and possible higher profit.

Investing in Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency investing is different than investing in regular stock. Here’s why? When investing in a company, you are buying shares of that company and essentially own a percentage of that company. Of course, it totally depends on how big is your investments. When you invest in cryptocurrency, for example, Bitcoin or Ethereum, what you received is digital tokens that serve different purposes. Bitcoin can get you a partially anonymous decentralized cryptocurrency. In Ethereum, what you get is a bit of the ascendancy that runs smart contracts and decentralized apps.

However, there are many other cryptocurrencies (1,300+ as of the last count) and blockchain companies on the stock exchange where prospective investors can channel their money. Many bigger decentralized cryptocurrency exchanges such as GDAX, Bitfinex, Gemini, and Kraken usually proffer solid volume to trade cryptocurrencies via bank transfers or credit cards. Poloniex is another exchange offering more than 80 cryptocurrencies for trading, but the catch is you can just use Bitcoins or any other cryptocurrencies to support these trades. Coinbase is likewise a good choice that is emergent in popularity thanks to its ease-of-use and built-in wallet. However, the tradeoff here is relatively higher fees.

Below we list the 10+ best types of cryptocurrency to invest in now [Q4-2019] based on Market Capitalizations. We hope that this list will further inflame the enthusiasm and understanding of the people interested in cryptocurrency.

Last piece of advice

Many cryptocurrencies are mostly duplicates of existing cryptocurrencies circulating in the market with just very minor changes to it. Also, there are so many ways to forever lose cryptocurrency from local storage precisely to malware or data loss. This can happen due to the loss of the physical media which will effectively remove a lost cryptocurrency from the markets forever.

Banning these cryptocurrencies is not the answer or quick fix to ending money laundering and illicit trades, just as banning cash is not an answer to these same problems. Unanticipated events could undermine the bitcoin value as would a superior cryptocurrency could out-compete and replace a bitcoin. The potentialities for failure are infinite, but the one reason for its failure should not because policymakers did not understand its inner workings and possibilities.
This article was originally posted on Technolocheese.

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Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations highlighted just how much we have sacrificed to the gods of technology and convenience something we used to take for granted, and once considered a basic human right – our privacy.

It is not just the NSA. Governments the world over are racing to introduce legislation that allows to them to monitor and store every email, phone call and Instant Message, every web page visited, and every VoIP conversation made by every single one of their citizens.

The press has bandied about parallels with George Orwell’s dystopian world, ruled by an all-seeing Big Brother. They are depressingly accurate.

Encryption provides a highly effective way to protect your internet behavior, communications, and data. The main problem with using encryption is that its use flags you up to organizations such as the NSA for closer scrutiny. 

Details of the NSA’s data collection rules were revealed by the guardian in 2013. What it boils down to is that the NSA examines data from US citizens, then discards it if it’s found to be uninteresting. Encrypted data, on the other hand, is stored indefinitely until the NSA can decrypt it.

The NSA can keep all data relating to non-US citizens indefinitely, but practicality suggests that encrypted data gets special attention.

If a lot more people start to use encryption, then encrypted data will stand out less, and surveillance organizations’ job of invading everyone’s privacy will be much harder.

How Secure is Encryption?

Following revelations about the scale of the NSA’s deliberate assault on global encryption standards, confidence in encryption has taken a big dent. So let’s examine the current state of play…

Encryption Key Length

Encryption Key 01Key length is the crudest way of determining how long a cipher will take to break. It is the raw number of ones and zeros used in a cipher. The crudest form of attack on a cipher is known as a brute force attack (or exhaustive key search). This involves trying every possible combination to find the correct one.

If anyone is capable of breaking modern encryption ciphers it is the NSA, but to do so is a considerable challenge. For a brute force attack:

128-bit key

A 128-bit key cipher has 3.4 x10(38) possible keys. Going through each of them would take thousands of operations or more to break.

In 2016 the most powerful supercomputer in the world was the NUDT Tianhe-2 in Guangzhou, China. Almost 3 times as fast as the Fujitsu K, at 33.86 petaflops, it would “only” take it around a third of a billion years to crack a 128-bit AES key. 

That’s still a long time and is the figure for breaking just one key!

256-bit key

A 256-bit key would require 2(128) times more computational power to break than a 128-bit one.

The number of years required to brute force a 256-bit cipher is 3.31 x 10(56) – which is about 20000….0000 (total 46 zeros) times the age of Universe (13.5 billion or 1.35 x 10(10) years)!

The NUDT Tianhe-2 supercomputer in Guangzhou, China

128-bit Encryption

Until the Edward Snowden revelations, people assumed that 128-bit encryption was in practice uncrackable through brute force. They believed it would be so for around another 100 years (taking Moore’s Law into account).

In theory, this still holds true. However, the scale of resources that the NSA seems willing to throw at cracking encryption has shaken many experts’ faith in these predictions. Consequently, system administrators the world over are scrambling to upgrade cipher key lengths.

If and when quantum computing becomes available, all bets will be off. Quantum computers will be exponentially more powerful than any existing computer and will make all current encryption ciphers and suites redundant overnight.

In theory, the development of quantum encryption will counter this problem. However, access to quantum computers will initially be the preserve of the most powerful and wealthy governments and corporations only. It is not in the interests of such organizations to democratize encryption.

For the time being, however, strong encryption is your friend.

 

Note that the US government uses 256-bit encryption to protect ‘sensitive’ data and 128-bit for ‘routine’ encryption needs. However, the cipher it uses is AES. As I discuss below, this is not without problems.

Ciphers

Encryption key length refers to the amount of raw numbers involved. Ciphers are the mathematics used to perform the encryption. It is weaknesses in these algorithms, rather than in the key length, that often leads to encryption breaking.

By far the most common ciphers that you will likely encounter are those OpenVPN uses: Blowfish and AES. In addition to this, RSA is used to encrypt and decrypt a cipher’s keys. SHA-1 or SHA-2 are used as hash functions to authenticate the data.

The most secure VPNs use an AES cipher. Its adoption by the US government has increased its perceived reliability, and consequently its popularity. However, there is reason to believe this trust may be misplaced.

NIST

The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed and/or certified AES, RSA, SHA-1, and SHA-2. NIST works closely with the NSA in the development of its ciphers.

Given the NSA’s systematic efforts to weaken or build backdoors into international encryption standards, there is every reason to question the integrity of NIST algorithms.

NIST has been quick to deny any wrongdoing (“NIST would not deliberately weaken a cryptographic standard”). It has also has invited public participation in a number of upcoming proposed encryption-related standards in a move designed to bolster public confidence.

The New York Times, however, has accused the NSA of introducing undetectable backdoors, or subverting the public development process to weaken the algorithms, thus circumventing NIST-approved encryption standards.

News that a NIST-certified cryptographic standard – the Dual Elliptic Curve algorithm (Dual_EC_DRGB) had been deliberately weakened not just once, but twice, by the NSA destroyed pretty much any existing trust.

Encryption

That there might be a deliberate backdoor in Dual_EC_DRGB had already been noticed before. In 2006 researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands noted that an attack against it was easy enough to launch on ‘an ordinary PC.’ Microsoft engineers also flagged up a suspected backdoor in the algorithm.

Despite these concerns, Microsoft, Cisco, Symantec, and RSA all include the algorithm in their products’ cryptographic libraries. This is in large part because compliance with NIST standards is a prerequisite to obtaining US government contracts.

NIST-certified cryptographic standards are pretty much ubiquitous worldwide throughout all areas of industry and business that rely on privacy (including the VPN industry). This is all rather chilling.

Perhaps because so much relies on these standards, cryptography experts have been unwilling to face up to the problem.

Perfect Forward Secrecy

Perfect Forward Secrecy 01
One of the revelations in the information provided by Edward Snowden is that “another program, code-named Cheesy Name, was aimed at singling out SSL/TLS encryption keys, known as ‘certificates,’ that might be vulnerable to being cracked by GCHQ supercomputers.”

That these certificates can be “singled out” strongly suggests that 1024-bit RSA encryption (commonly used to protect the certificate keys) is weaker than previously thought. The NSA and GCHQ could, therefore, decrypt it much more quickly than expected.

In addition to this, the SHA-1 algorithm widely used to authenticate SSL/TLS connections is fundamentally broken. In both cases, the industry is scrambling fix the weaknesses as fast as it can. It is doing this by moving onto RSA-2048+, Diffie-Hellman, or Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) key exchanges and SHA-2+ hash authentication.

What these issues (and the 2014 Heartbleed Bug fiasco) clearly highlight is the importance of using perfect forward secrecy (PFS) for all SSL/TLS connections.

This is a system whereby a new and unique (with no additional keys derived from it) private encryption key is generated for each session. For this reason, it is also known as an ephemeral key exchange.

Using PFS, if one SSL key is compromised, this does not matter very much because new keys are generated for each connection. They are also often refreshed during connections. To meaningfully access communications these new keys would also need to be compromised. This makes the task so arduous as to be effectively impossible.

Unfortunately, it is common practice (because it’s easy) for companies to use just one private encryption key. If this key is compromised, then the attacker can access all communications encrypted with it.

OpenVPN and PFS

The most widely used VPN protocol is OpenVPN. It is considered very secure. One of the reasons for this is because it allows the use of ephemeral keys.

Sadly this is not implemented by many VPN providers. Without perfect forward secrecy, OpenVPN connections are not considered secure.

It is also worth mentioning here that the HMAC SHA-1 hashes routinely used to authenticate OpenVPN connections are not a weakness. This is because HMAC SHA-1 is much less vulnerable to collision attacks than standard SHA-1 hashes.

The Takeaway – So, is Encryption Secure?

To underestimate the NSA’s ambition or ability to compromise all encryption is a mistake. However, encryption remains the best defense we have against it (and others like it).

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, strong ciphers such as AES (despite misgivings about its NIST certification) and OpenVPN (with perfect forward secrecy) remain secure.

As Bruce Schneier, encryption specialist, at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and privacy advocate famously stated,

Trust the math. Encryption is your friend. Use it well, and do your best to ensure that nothing can compromise it. That’s how you can remain secure even in the face of the NSA.”

Remember, too that the NSA is not the only potential adversary. However, most criminals and even governments have nowhere near the NSA’s ability to circumvent encryption.

The Importance of End-to-end Encryption

End-to-end (e2e) encryption means that you encrypt data on your own device. Only you hold the encryption keys (unless you share them). Without these keys, an adversary will find it extremely difficult to decrypt your data.

Encryption

Many services and products do not use e2e encryption. Instead, they encrypt your data and hold the keys for you. This can be very convenient, as it allows for easy recovery of lost passwords, syncing across devices, and so forth. It does mean, however, that these third parties could be compelled to hand over your encryption keys.

A case in point is Microsoft. It encrypts all emails and files held in OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), but it also holds the encryption keys. In 2013 it used these to unlock the emails and files of its 250 million worldwide users for inspection by the NSA.

Strongly avoid services that encrypt your data on their servers, rather than you encrypting your own data on your own machine.

HTTPS

Although strong encryption has recently become trendy, websites have been using strong end-to-end encryption for the last 20 years. After all, if websites were not secure, then online shopping or banking wouldn’t be possible.

The encryption protocol used for this is HTTPS, which stands for HTTP Secure (or HTTP over SSL/TLS). It is used for websites that need to secure users’ communications and is the backbone of internet security.

When you visit a non-secure HTTP website, data is transferred unencrypted. This means anyone watching can see everything you do while visiting that site. This includes your transaction details when making payments. It is even possible to alter the data transferred between you and the webserver.

With HTTPS, a cryptographic key exchange occurs when you first connect to the website. All subsequent actions on the website are encrypted, and thus hidden from prying eyes. Anyone watching can see that you have visited a certain website, but cannot see which individual pages you read, or any data transferred.

For example, the ProPrivacy.com website is secured using HTTPS. Unless you are using a VPN while reading this web page, your ISP can see that you have visited www.ProPrivacy.com, but cannot see that you are reading this particular article. HTTPS uses end-to-end encryption.

Secured website Firefox

It is easy to tell if you visit a website secured by HTTPS – just look for a locked padlock icon to the left of the main URL/search bar.

There are issues relating to HTTPS, but in general, it is secure. If it wasn’t, none of the billions of financial transactions and transfers of personal data that happen every day on the internet would be possible. The internet itself (and possibly the world economy!) would collapse overnight.

Metadata

An important limitation to encryption is that it does not necessarily protect users from the collection of metadata.

Even if the contents of emails, voice conversations, or web browsing sessions cannot be easily monitored, knowing when, where, from whom, to whom, and how regularly such communication takes place can tell an adversary a great deal. This is a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

For example, even if you use a securely encrypted messaging service such as WhatsApp, Facebook will still be able to tell who you are messaging, how often you message, how long you usually chat for, and more.

Although the NSA does target individual communications, its primary concern is the collection of metadata. As NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker has openly acknowledged,

“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.

Technologies such as VPNs and Tor can make the collection of metadata very difficult. For example, an ISP cannot collect metadata relating to the browsing history of customers who use a VPN to hide their online activities.

Note, though, that many VPN providers themselves log some metadata. This should be a consideration when choosing a service to protect your privacy.

Please also note that mobile apps typically bypass any VPN that is running on your device and connect directly to their publishers’ servers. Using a VPN, for example, will not prevent WhatsApp sending metadata to Facebook.

Identify Your Threat Model

When considering how to protect your privacy and stay secure on the internet, carefully consider who or what worries you most. Defending yourself against everything is almost impossible. And any attempt to do so will likely seriously degrade the usability (and your enjoyment) of the internet.

Identifying to yourself that being caught downloading an illicit copy of Game of Thrones is a bigger worry than being targeted by a crack NSA TAO team for personalized surveillance is a good start. It will leave you less stressed, with a more useable internet and with more effective defenses against the threats that really matter to you.

Of course, if your name is Edward Snowden, then TAO teams will be part of your threat model…

Use FOSS Software

Ultimate Privacy Guide Illustration 03 01The terrifying scale of the NSA’s attack on public cryptography, and its deliberate weakening of common international encryption standards has demonstrated that no proprietary software can be trusted. Even software specifically designed with security in mind.

The NSA has co-opted or coerced hundreds of technology companies into building backdoors into their programs, or otherwise weakening security in order to allow it access. US and UK companies are particularly suspect, although the reports make it clear that companies across the world have acceded to NSA demands.

The problem with proprietary software is that the NSA can fairly easily approach and convince the sole developers and owners to play ball. In addition to this, their source code is kept secret. This makes it easy to add to or modify the code in dodgy ways without anyone noticing.

Open source code

The best answer to this problem is to use free open-source software (FOSS). Often jointly developed by disparate and otherwise unconnected individuals, the source code is available to everyone to examine and peer-review. This minimizes the chances that someone has tampered with it.

Ideally, this code should also be compatible with other implementations, in order to minimize the possibility of a backdoor being built in.

It is, of course, possible that NSA agents have infiltrated open-source development groups and introduced malicious code without anyone’s knowledge. In addition, the sheer amount of code that many projects involve means that it is often impossible to fully peer-review all of it.

Despite these potential pitfalls, FOSS remains the most reliable and tamper-proof software available. If you truly care about privacy you should try to use it exclusively (up to and including using FOSS operating systems such as Linux).

Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Privacy

With the proviso that nothing is perfect, and if “they” really want to get you “they” probably can, there are steps you can take to improve your privacy.

Pay for Stuff Anonymously

One step to improving your privacy is to pay for things anonymously. When it comes to physical goods delivered to an actual address, this isn’t going to happen. Online services are a different kettle of fish, however.

It is increasingly common to find services that accept payment through Bitcoin and the like. A few, such as VPN service Mullvad, will even accept cash sent anonymously by post.Ultimate Privacy Guide Illustration 04 01

Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a decentralized and open-source virtual currency that operates using peer-to-peer technology (much as BitTorrent and Skype do). The concept is particularly revolutionary and exciting because it does not require a middleman to work (for example a state-controlled bank).

Whether Bitcoins represent a good investment opportunity remains hotly debated and is not within the remit of this guide. It is also completely outside of my area of expertise!

how tor works

It can also make a handy anti-censorship tool. However, many governments go to great lengths to counter this by blocking access to the network (with varied success).

*Using Tor and VPN together

It is possible to use Tor and VPN together to provide meaningful security benefits.

Tor Vs. VPN

Tor is a vital tool for internet users who require the maximum possible anonymity. VPNs, however, are a much more practical privacy tool for day-to-day internet use.

Other Ways To Stay Private Online

VPN and Tor are the most popular ways to maintain anonymity and evade censorship online, but there are other options. Proxy servers, in particular, are quite popular. In my opinion, however, they are inferior to using a VPN.

Other services which may be of interest include JonDonym, Lahana, I2P and Psiphon. You can combine many such services with Tor and/or VPN for greater security.

 

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Secure Your Web Browsing

Secure Your Web Browsing 01It’s not just the NSA who are out to get you: advertisers are too! They use some very sneaky tactics to follow you around the web and build a profile of you in order to sell you stuff. Or to sell this information to others who want to sell you stuff.

Most people who care are aware of HTTP cookies and how to clear them. Most browsers also have a Private Browsing mode that blocks cookies and prevents the browser from saving your internet history.

It is a good idea always to surf using Private Browsing. But this alone is not enough to stop organizations from tracking you across the internet. Your browser leaves many other traces as it goes.

Clear Cached DNS Entries

To speed up internet access, your browser caches the IP address it receives from your default DNS server (see the section on changing your DNS server later).

DNS Cache

In Windows, you can see cached DNS information by typing “ipconfig /displaydns” at the command prompt (cmd.exe).

  • To clear the DNS cache in Windows, open the command prompt window and type: ipconfig /flushdns [enter]
  • Clear the cache in OSX 10.4 and under by opening Terminal and typing: lookupd -flushcache [enter]
  • To clear the cache in OSX 10.5 and above, open Terminal and type: dscacheutil -flushcache [enter]

Clear Flash Cookies

A particularly insidious development is the widespread use of Flash cookies. Disabling cookies in your browser does not always block them, although modern browsers do.

These can track you in a similar manner to regular cookies. They can be located and manually deleted from the following directories:

  • Windows: C:Users[username]AppDataLocal\MacromediaFlash Player #SharedObjects
  • macOS: [User directory] /Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/#SharedObjects
    and [User directory] /Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/macromedia.com/support/flashplayer/sys/

A better tactic, however, is to use the CCleaner utility (available for Windows and macOS). This cleans out pesky Flash cookies. It also cleans out a host other rubbish that slows your computer down and leaves traces of your activity behind. To do this, you need to properly configure CCleaner.

Thanks to a growing awareness of Flash cookies, including so-called “zombie cookies” (bits of persistent Flash code which respawn regular cookies when they are modified or deleted), and the fact that most modern browsers include Flash cookies as part of their regular cookie control features, the use of Flash cookies is declining. They still represent a serious threat, however.

Other Web Tracking Technologies

Internet companies are making far too much money to take this user backlash against tracking lying down. They are therefore deploying a number of increasingly devious and sophisticated tracking methods.

Browser Fingerprinting

The way in which your browser is configured (especially the browser plugins used), together with details of your Operating System, allows you to be uniquely identified (and tracked) with a worryingly high degree of accuracy.

A particularly insidious (and ironic) aspect of this is that the more measures you take to avoid tracking (for example by using the plugins listed below), the more unique your browser fingerprint becomes.

The best defense against browser fingerprinting is to use as common and plain vanilla an OS and browser as possible. Unfortunately, this leaves you open to other forms of attack. It also reduces the day-to-day functionality of your computer to such an extent that most of us will find the idea impractical.

Browser fingerprinting

The more browser plugins you use, the more unique your browser is. Drat!

Using the Tor browser with Tor disabled is a partial solution to this problem. This will help make your fingerprint look identical to all other Tor users, while still benefiting from the additional hardening built into the Tor browser.

In addition to browser fingerprinting, other forms of fingerprinting are becoming more common. The most prominent of these is canvas fingerprinting, although audio and battery fingerprinting are also possible.

HTML5 Web Storage

Built into HTML5 (the much-vaunted replacement to Flash) is web storage, also known as DOM (Document Object Model) storage. Creepier and much more powerful than cookies, web storage is an analogous way of storing data in a browser.

It is much more persistent, however, and has a much greater storage capacity. It also cannot normally be monitored, read, or selectively removed from your web browser.

All browsers enable web storage by default, but you can turn it off in Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Firefox users can also configure the BetterPrivacy add-on to remove web storage automatically on a regular basis. Chrome users can use the Click&Clean extension.

Remember that using these add-ons will increase your browser fingerprint uniqueness.

ETags

Part of HTTP, the protocol for the World Wide Web, ETags are markers used by your browser to track resource changes at specific URLs. By comparing changes in these markers with a database, websites can build up a fingerprint, which can be used to track you.

ETags can also be used to respawn (zombie-style) HTTP and HTML5 cookies. And once set on one site, they can be used by associate companies to track you as well.

This kind of cache tracking is virtually undetectable, so reliable prevention is very hard. Clearing your cache between each website you visit should work, as should turning off your cache altogether.

These methods are arduous, however, and will negatively impact your browsing experience. The Firefox add-on Secret Agent prevents tracking by ETags, but, again, will likely increase your browser fingerprint (or because of the way it works, maybe not).

History Stealing

Now we start to get really scary. History stealing (also known as history snooping) exploits the web’s design. It allows a website you visit to discover your past browsing history.

The bad news is that this information can be combined with social network profiling to identify you. It is also almost impossible to prevent.

The only good news here is that social network fingerprinting, while scarily effective, is not reliable. If you mask your IP address with a good VPN (or Tor) then you will be a long way towards disassociating your real identity from your tracked web-behavior.

Browser Extensions for privacy

Pioneered by Firefox, all modern browsers now support a host of extensions. Many of these aim to improve your privacy while surfing the internet. Here is a list of my favorites that I don’t think anyone should surf without:

uBlock Origin (Firefox)

A lightweight FOSS ad-blocker that does double duty as an anti-tracking add-on. Chrome and Internet Explorer/Edge users can instead use Ghostery. Many users find this commercial software’s funding model to be somewhat shady, however.

Privacy Badger (Firefox, Chrome)

Developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), this is a great FOSS anti-tracking add-on that does double-duty as an ad-blocker. It is widely recommended to run Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin together for maximum protection.

privacy badger

HTTPS Everywhere (Firefox, Chrome, Opera)

Another essential tool from EFF. HTTPS Everywhere tries to ensure that you always connect to a website using a secure HTTPS connection if one is available.

Self-Destructing Cookies (Firefox)

Automatically deletes cookies when you close the browser tab that set them. This provides a high level of protection from tracking via cookies without “breaking” websites. It also provides protection against Flash/zombie cookies and ETags, and cleans DOM storage.

NoScript (Firefox)

This is an extremely powerful tool that gives you unparalleled control over which scripts you run on your browser. However, many websites will not play game with NoScript, and it requires a fair bit of technical knowledge to configure and tweak it to work the way that you want it to.

It is easy to add exceptions to a whitelist, but even this requires some understanding of the risks that might be involved. Not for the casual user then, but for web-savvy power-users, NoScript is difficult to beat. ScriptSafe for Chrome performs a similar job.

The last one is particularly worth paying attention to. It is worth keeping NoScript installed even if you “Allow Scripts Globally,” as this still protects against nasty things such as cross-site scripting and clickjacking.

uMatrix (Firefox, Chrome, Opera)

Developed by the team behind uBlock Origin, uMatrix is something of a half-way house between that add-on and NoScript. It provides a great deal of customizable protection, but requires a fair bit of work and know-how to set up correctly.

u matrix screen shot

Note that if you use either NoScript or uMatrix then it is not necessary to also use uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger.

In addition to these extensions, most modern browsers (including mobile ones) include a Do Not Track option. This instructs websites to disable tracking and cross-site tracking when you visit them.

It is definitely worth turning this option on. However, implementation is purely voluntary on behalf of website owners, so no guarantee of privacy.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the great privacy-related browser extensions out there.

I also have an article on how you make Firefox even more secure by changing settings in about:config.

As noted above, you should be aware that using any browser plugin increases the uniqueness of your browser. This makes you more susceptible to being tracked by browser fingerprinting.

Block “Reported Attack Sites” and “Web Forgeries” in Firefox

These setting can be very useful for protecting you against malicious attacks, but impact your privacy by sharing your web traffic in order to work. If the tracking issues outweigh the benefits for you, then you might want to disable them.

firefox

Mobile Browser Security

The above extension list concentrates on desktop browsers. It is just as important to protect our browsers on smartphones and tablets.

Unfortunately, most mobile browsers have a great deal of catching-up to do in this regard. Many Firefox extensions, however, will work on the mobile version of the browser. These include:

  • uBlock Origin
  • HTTPS Everywhere
  • Self-Destructing Cookies

To install these add-ons in Firefox for Android or Firefox for iOS, visit Options ->Tools -> Add-ons -> Browse all Firefox Add-ons, and search from them.

Thankfully Private Browsing, Do Not Track, and advanced cookie management are becoming increasingly common on all mobile browsers.

Use a Search Engine that Doesn’t Track You

Most search engines, including Google (in fact particularly Google), store information about you. This includes:

  • Your IP address.
  • Date and time of the query.
  • Query search terms.
  • Cookie ID – this cookie is deposited in your browser’s cookie folder, and uniquely identifies your computer. With it, a search engine provider can trace a search request back to your computer.

Google transparency report September 2016

The search engine usually transmits this information to the requested web page. It also transmits it to the owners of third-party advertising banners on that page. As you surf the internet, advertisers build up a (potentially embarrassing and highly inaccurate) profile of you.

This is then used to target adverts tailored to your theoretical needs.

In addition to this, governments and courts around the world regularly request search data from Google and other major search engines. This is usually duly handed over. For more details, see the Google Transparency Report on the number of User Data Requests received, and the number (at least partially) acceded to.

There are some search engines, however, that does not collect users’ data. These include:

DuckDuckGo

One of the best-known private search engines, DuckDuckGo pledges not to track its users. Each search event is anonymous. While in theory, an infiltrator could track them, there is no profile attached for them to access.

duckduckgo

DuckDuckGo says that it would comply with ordered legal requests, but as it doesn’t track users, “there is nothing useful to give them.” I have found DuckDuckGo to be very good, and through the use of “bangs”, it can also be made to search most other popular search engines anonymously too.

Unfortunately, many users do not find DDG’s search results to be as good as those returned by Google. The fact that it is a US-based company also concerns some.

StartPage

Another popular Google alternative is StartPage. It is based in the Netherlands and returns Google search engine results. StartPage anonymizes these Google searches and promises not to store or share any personal information or use any identifying cookies.

Ixquick

By the same people who run StartPage, Ixquick returns results from a number of other search engines, but not Google. These searches are as private as those made through StartPage.

YaCy

The above search engines rely on trusting the search engine providers to maintain your anonymity. If this really worries you, then you might like to consider YaCy. It is a decentralized, distributed search engine, built using P2P technology.

This is a fantastic idea, and one that I really hope takes off. For now, however, it is more of an exciting curiosity than a fully-fledged and useful Google alternative.

The Filter Bubble

An added benefit of using a search engine that does not track you is that it avoids the “filter bubble” effect. Most search engines use your past search terms (and things you “Like” on social networks) to profile you. They can then return results they think will interest you.

This can result in you only receiving search returns that agree with your point of view. This locks you into a “filter bubble.” You do not get to see alternative viewpoints and opinions because they are downgraded in your search results.

This denies you access to the rich texture and multiplicity of human input. It is also very dangerous, as it can confirm prejudices and prevent you from seeing the “bigger picture.”

Delete Your Google History

You can view the information Google collects about you by signing in to your Google account and visiting My Activity. From here you can also Delete by topic or product. Since you are reading this privacy Guide, you will probably want to Delete -> All time.

Of course, we only have Google’s word that they really delete this data. But it certainly can’t hurt to do this!

In order to prevent Google continuing to collect new information about you, visit Activity Controls. From here you can tell Google to stop collecting information on your use of various Google services.

Delete Google history

These measures won’t stop someone who is deliberately spying on you from harvesting your information (such as the NSA). But it will help stop Google from profiling you.

Even if you plan on changing to one of the “no tracking” services listed above, most of us have built up a substantial Google History already, which anyone reading this article will likely want to be deleted.

Of course, deleting and disabling your Google history will mean that many Google services which rely on this information to deliver their highly personalized magic will either cease to function, or not function as well. So say goodbye to Google Now!

Secure Your Email

Most email services provide a secure HTTPS connection. Google has even led the way in fixing the main weakness in SSL implementation. They are therefore secure email services. However, this is no good if the email service simply hands over your information to an adversary, as Google and Microsoft did with the NSA!

The answer lies in end-to-end email encryption. This is where the sender encrypts the email, and only the intended recipient can decrypt it. The biggest problem with using an encrypted email system is that you cannot impose it unilaterally. Your contacts – both recipients and senders – also need to play ball for the whole thing to work.

Trying to convince your granny to use PGP encryption will likely just lead to bafflement. Meanwhile trying to convince your customers to use it might make many of them very suspicious of you!

PGP

Most people regard Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) as the most secure and private way to send and receive emails. Unfortunately, PGP is not easy to use. At all.

This has resulted in a very low number of people willing to use PGP (basically just a few crypto-geeks).

With PGP, only the body of a message is encrypted, but the header, recipient, send time, and so forth, is not. This metadata can still be very valuable to an adversary, even if it can’t read the actual message.

encrypt and decrypt

Despite its limitations, PGP remains the only way to send email very securely.

GNU Privacy Guard

PGP was once open-source and free, but is now the property of Symantec. The Free Software Foundation has taken up the open source OpenPGP banner, however, and with major funding from the German government has released GNU Privacy Guard (also known as GnuPG or just GPG).

GnuPG is a free and open source alternative to PGP. It follows the OpenPGP standard and is fully compatible with PGP. It is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. When referring to PGP, most people these days (including myself) mean GnuPG.

generate gnupg

Generating a PGP key pair in Gpgwin

Although the basic program uses a simple command-line interface, more sophisticated versions are available for Windows (Gpg4win) and Mac (GPGTools). Alternately, EnigMail adds GnuPG functionality to the Thunderbird and SeaMonkey stand-alone email clients.

PGP on Mobile Devices

Android users should be pleased to know that an Alpha release GnuPG: Command-Line from the Guardian Project is available.

K-9 Mail is a well-regarded email client for Android with PGP support built in. It can be combined with Android Privacy Guard to provide a more user-friendly PGP experience. iOS users can give iPGMail a try.

Use PGP with Your Existing Webmail Service

PGP is a real pain to use. Such a big pain, in fact, that few people bother. Mailvelope is a browser extension for Firefox and Chrome that allows end-to-end PGP encryption within your browser.

It works with popular browser-based webmail services such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! and GMX. It makes using PGP about as painless as it gets. However, it is not as secure as using PGP with a dedicated email client.

Use a Dedicated Encrypted Webmail Service

Encrypted webmail services with a privacy focus have proliferated over the last two years or so. The most notable of these are ProtonMail and Tutanota. These are much easier to use than PGP and, unlike PGP, hide emails’ metadata. Both services now also allow non-users to securely reply to encrypted emails sent to them by users.

encrypted-protected-explanation

Protonmail is much more secure than most webmail services.

Unfortunately, to work, both ProtonMail and Tutanota implement encryption within the browser using JavaScript. This is fundamentally insecure.

The bottom line with such services is they are as easy to use as Gmail, while being much more private and secure. They will also not scan your emails to sell you stuff. However, never regard them as being anywhere near as secure as using PGP with a stand-alone email program.

Other Email Privacy Precautions

I discuss encrypting files and folders elsewhere. However, it is worth noting here that if you just wish to protect files, you can encrypt these before sending them by regular email.

It is also possible to encrypt stored emails by encrypting the email storage folder using a program such as VeraCrypt (discussed later). This page explains where Thunderbird stores email on different platforms (for example).

At the end of the day, emails are an outdated communications system. And when it comes to privacy and security, email is fundamentally broken. End-to-end encrypted VoIP and instant messaging are much more secure ways to communicate online.

Secure Your Voice Conversations

Ultimate Privacy Guide Illustration 06 01Regular phone calls (landline or mobile) are never secure, and you cannot make them so. It’s not the just the NSA and GCHQ; governments everywhere (where they have not already done so) are keen on recording all citizens’ phone calls.

Unlike emails and internet use, which can be obfuscated (as this article tries to show), phone conversations are always wide open.

Even if you buy anonymous and disposable “burner phones” (behavior which marks you out as either worryingly paranoid or engaged in highly criminal activity), a lot of information can be gathered through the collection of metadata.

Burner phones are also totally pointless unless the people you’re calling are equally paranoid and also using burner phones.

VoIP with End-to-end Encryption

If you want to keep your voice conversations completely private, then you need to use VoIP with end-to-end encryption (except, of course, when talking in person).

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps allow you to talk over the internet. They often also allow you to make video calls and send Instant Messages.VoIP services allowing cheap or free calls anywhere in the world and have thus become extremely popular. Skype, in particular, has become a household name.

Unfortunately, Skype is now owned by Microsoft. It has perfectly demonstrated the problem with most such services (which is a very similar problem to that with email). VoIP connections to and from a middleman may be secure, but if the middleman just hands over your conversations to the NSA or some other government organization, this security is next to meaningless.

So, as with email, what is needed is end-to-end encryption where an encrypted tunnel is created directly between the participants in a conversation. And no-one else.

Good Skype Alternatives

Signal (Android, iOS) – in addition to being probably the most secure Instant Messaging (IM) app currently available (see below), Signal allows you to make secure VoIP calls.

As with messaging, Signal leverages your regular address book. If a contact also uses Signal then you can start an encrypted VoIP conversation with them. If a contact does not use Signal then you can either invite them to use the app, or talk with them using your regular insecure cellular phone connection.

The encryption Signal uses for VoIP calls is not as strong as the encryption it uses for text messaging. This is probably due to the fact that encrypting and decrypting data uses processing power, so stronger encryption would negatively impact the quality of calls.

For most purposes, this level of encryption should be more than sufficient. But if very high levels of privacy are required then you should probably stick to text messaging instead.

Jitsi (Windows, macOS, Linux, Android) – this free and open-source software offers all the functionality of Skype. Except everything is encrypted using ZRTP. This includes voice calls, videoconferencing, file transfer, and messaging.

The first time you connect to someone it can take a minute or two to set up the encrypted connection (designated by a padlock). But the encryption is subsequently transparent. As a straight Skype replacement for the desktop, Jitsi is difficult to beat.

Secure Your Text Messages

This section has a great deal of cross-over with the previous one on VoIP. Many VoIP services, including both Signal and Jitsi, also have chat/IM functionality built in.

Signal (Android, iOS) – developed by crypto-legend Moxie Marlinspike, Signal is widely regarded as the most secure text messaging app available. It is not without issues, but Signal is about as good as it currently gets when it comes to having a secure and private conversation (except whispering to someone in person, of course!).

Signal 1

Signal replaces your phone’s default text messaging app, and uses your phone’s regular contact list. If a contact also uses Signal then any messages sent to or received from them are securely end-to-end encrypted.

If a contact does not use Signal then you can invite them to use the app, or just send an unencrypted text message via regular SMS. The beauty of this system is that Signal is almost transparent in use, which should make it easier to convince friends, family and colleagues to use the app!

Jitsi (Windows, macOS, Linux, Android (experimental)) – is a great desktop messenger app, and is very secure. It is almost certainly not quite as secure as Signal, however.

A Note on WhatsApp

The very popular WhatsApp app now uses the same end-to-end encryption developed for Signal. Unlike Signal, however, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) retains metadata and has other weaknesses not present in the Signal app.

Despite these issues, most of your contacts likely use WhatsApp and are unlikely to be convinced to switch to Signal. Given this all-too-common situation, WhatsApp provides vastly improved security and privacy that your contacts might actually use.

Unfortunately, this argument has been badly undermined by a recent announcement that WhatsApp will start sharing users’ address books with parent company Facebook by default. This can be disabled, but the vast majority of users will not bother to do so.

Ditch the Cell Phone!

While we are on the subject of phones, I should also mention that when you carry your phone, your every movement can be tracked. And it’s not just by things such as GPS and Google Now/Siri.

Phone towers can easily track even the most modest cell phone. In addition to this, use of Stingray IMSI-catchers has proliferated among police forces the world over.

These devices mimic cell phone towers. They can not only uniquely identify and track individual cell phones, but can intercept phone calls, SMS messages, and unencrypted internet content.

Using an end-to-end encrypted messaging app such as Signal will prevent such interception. However, if you don’t want to be uniquely identified by your phone and tracked, the only real solution is to leave your phone at home.

Secure Your Cloud Storage

As internet speeds increase, server-level storage becomes cheaper, and the different devices we use to access the internet more plentiful, it is becoming increasingly clear that cloud storage is the future.

The problem, of course, is ensuring that files stored in the “the cloud” remain secure and private. And here the big players have proven themselves woefully inadequate. Google, Dropbox, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft have all worked in cahoots with the NSA. They also in their terms and conditions reserve the right to investigate your files and hand them over to the authorities if they receive a court order.

To ensure that your files are secure in the cloud, there are a number of approaches you can take.

Manually Encrypt Your Files Before Uploading Them to the Cloud

The simplest and most secure method is to manually encrypt your files using a program such as VeraCrypt or EncFS. This has the advantage that you can carry on using your favorite cloud storage service, no matter how inherently insecure it is, as you hold all the encryption keys to your files.

As discussed later, mobile apps that can handle VeraCrypt or EncFS files exist, allowing for synchronization across devices and platforms. Features such as file versioning will not work with individual files as the encrypted container hides them, but it is possible to recover past versions of the container.

If you are in the market for a good Dropbox alternative, you may like to check out ProPrivacy’s sister website BestBackups. It features news and reviews of the best and the rest when it comes to cloud storage services.

Use an Automatically Encrypted Cloud Service

These services automatically encrypt files before uploading them to the cloud. Avoid any service that encrypts files server-side, as these are vulnerable to being decrypted by the service provider.

Any changes to files or folders sync with locally decrypted versions before being secured and sent to the cloud.

All services listed below have iOS and Android apps, so you can easily sync across your computers and mobile devices. This convenience comes at a small security price, as the services briefly store your password on their servers to authenticate you and direct you to your files.

  • TeamDrive – this German cloud backup and file synchronization service is primarily aimed at businesses. It also offers free and low-cost personal accounts. TeamDrive uses proprietary software, but has been certified by the Independent Regional Centre for Data Protection of Schleswig-Holstein.
  • Tresorit– is based in Switzerland, so users benefit from that country’s strong data protection laws. It provides client-side encryption, although a kink is that users’ data is stored on Microsoft Windows Azure servers. Given widespread distrust of all things US, this is an odd choice. But as client-side encryption ensures the cryptographic keys are kept with the user at all times, it shouldn’t be a problem.
  • SpiderOak– available for all major platforms, SpiderOak offers a “zero knowledge,” secure, automatically encrypted cloud service. It uses a combination of 2048 bit RSA and 256 bit AES to encrypt your files.

Note that all of these cloud services are closed source. This means that we just have to trust them to do what they claim to do (although TeamDrive has been independently audited).

Use Syncthing for Cloudless Syncing

Syncthing is a secure decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) file synchronization program that can sync files between devices on a local network or over the internet.

Acting more or less as a Dropbox replacement, Syncthing synchronizes files and folders across devices, but does so without storing them in ‘the cloud.’ In many ways, it is therefore similar to BitTorrent Sync, except that it is completely free and open-source (FOSS).

Syncthing 1 PC start

Syncthing allows you to securely backup data without the need to trust a third-party cloud provider. Data is backed up to a computer or server that you directly control, and is at no point stored by a third party.

This is referred to in techie circles as a “BYO (cloud) model,” where you provide the hardware, instead of a third-party commercial vendor. The encryption used is also fully end-to-end, as you encrypt it on your device, and only you can decrypt it. Nobody else holds the encryption keys.

A limitation of the system is that, as it is not a true cloud service, it cannot be used as an extra drive by portable devices with limited storage. On the plus side, however, you are using your own storage, and so are not tied to cloud providers’ data limits (or charges).

Encrypt Your Local Files, Folders, and Drives

While the focus of this document is on internet security and privacy, an important aspect of securing your digital life is to ensure that locally stored files cannot be accessed by unwanted parties.

Of course, it is not just about local storage. You can also encrypt files before emailing them or uploading them to cloud storage.

VeraCrypt

Windows, Mac macOS, Linux. Mobile support for VeraCrypt containers is available via third-party apps.

VeraCrypt is an open-source full-disk encryption program. With VeraCrypt you can:

  • Create a virtual encrypted disk (volume) which you can mount and use just like a real disk (and which can be made into a Hidden Volume).
  • Encrypt an entire partition or storage device (for example a hard drive or USB stick).
  • Create a partition or storage drive containing an entire operating system (which can be hidden).

VeraCrypt full disk encryption

All encryption is performed on-the-fly in real-time, making VeraCrypt transparent in operation. The ability to create hidden volumes and hidden operating systems provides plausible deniabilityas it should be impossible to prove they exist (as long as all the correct precautions are taken).

AES Crypt

Windows, macOS, Linux (Crypt4All Lite for Android is compatible).

This nifty little cross-platform app is very handy for encrypting individual files. Although only individual files can be encrypted, this limitation can be overcome somewhat by creating zip files out of folders, and then encrypting the zip file with AES Crypt.

Full Disk Encryption on Mobile Devices

All new iPhones and iPads now ship with full disk encryption. Some Android devices do as well. If not, you can manually turn it on. Please see How to Encrypt your Android Phone for more details.

Use Antivirus/Anti-malware and Firewall Software

Firewall 01

Antivirus software

Note: ProPrivacy has a sister site dedicated to anti-virus software – BestAntivirus.com. If you would like to choose an antivirus package to fit your needs, please take the time to check it out! Now, back to the guide…

It almost goes without saying, but as this is an “ultimate guide”, I’ll say it anyway:

Always use anti-virus software, and make sure that it is up-to-date!

Not only can viruses really screw up your system, but they can let hackers enter it. This gives them access to all your (unencrypted) files and emails, webcam, passwords stored in Firefox (if no master password is set), and much more. Keyloggers are particularly dangerous as they can be used to access bank details and track pretty much everything you do on your computer.

It is also worth remembering that not just criminal hackers use viruses! The Syrian government, for example, launched a virus campaign known as Blackshade aimed at ferreting out and spying on political dissidents.

Most people are aware they should be using anti-virus software on their desktop computers, but many neglect their mobile devices. While there are fewer viruses targeting mobile devices at present, smartphones and tablets are sophisticated and powerful computers. As such, they are vulnerable to attack by viruses and need to be protected.

Mac users are famously bad for not installing ant-virus software, citing the “fact” that macOS’s Unix architecture makes virus attacks difficult (this is hotly contested by the way), the fact that most hackers concentrate on Windows because most computers use Windows (true), and the anecdotal evidence of many Mac users who have gone for years without using anti-virus software yet never experienced any problems.

This an illusion, however. Macs are not immune to viruses, and anyone serious about their security should always use good anti-virus software.

Free Vs. Paid-for Antivirus Software

The generally agreed consensus is that free antivirus software is as good at preventing viruses as paid-for alternatives. But paid-for software provides better support and more comprehensive “suites” of software. These are designed to protect your computer from a range of threats, for example by combining antivirus, anti-phishing, anti-malware and firewall functions.

Similar levels of protection are available for free but require the use of various different programs. Also, most free software is for personal use only, and businesses are usually required to pay for a license. A bigger concern, however, is how publishers can afford to offer free anti-virus products. AVG, for example, can sell users’ search and browser history data to advertisers in order to “make money” from its free antivirus software.

Although I recommend free products below (as most major anti-virus products have a free version), it may therefore be a very good idea to upgrade to a premium version of the software.

Good Anti-virus Software Options

Windows – the most popular free antivirus programs for Windows are Avast! Free Antivirus and AVG AntiVirus Free Edition (which I recommend avoiding for the reason above). Plenty of others are also available. Personally, I use the built-in Windows Defender for real-time protection, plus run a weekly manual scan using Malwarebytes Free. A paid-for version of Malwarebytes is also available that will do this automatically, plus provide real-time protection.

macOS– Avast! Free Antivirus for Mac is well regarded, although other decent free options are available. In fact, free software is better regarded than paid-for options, so I just recommend using one of them!

Android – again, there are a number of options, both free and paid for. I use Malwarebytes because it is nice and lightweight. Avast! is more fully-featured, however, and includes a firewall.

iOS – Apple is still in denial about the fact that iOS is as vulnerable as any other platform to virus attacks. Indeed, in a move that is as alarming as it is bizarre, it seems that Apple has purged the Store of antivirus apps! I, certainly, have been unable to find any iOS antivirus apps. A VPN will help somewhat as a VPN for iPhone will encrypt your data and protect you from hackers and surveillance.

Linux – the usual suspects: Avast! and Kaspersky are available for Linux. These work very well.

Firewalls

A personal firewall monitors network traffic to and from your computer. It can be configured to allow and disallow traffic based on a set of rules. In use, they can be a bit of pain, but they do help ensure that nothing is accessing your computer and that no program on your computer is accessing the internet when it shouldn’t be.

Both Windows and Mac ship with built-in firewalls. These are, however, only one-way firewalls. They filter incoming traffic, but not outgoing traffic. This makes them much more user-friendly than true two-way firewalls but much less effective, as you cannot monitor or control what programs (including viruses) already installed on your computer are doing.

The biggest problem with using a two-way firewall is determining which programs are ‘ok’ to access the internet and which are potentially malicious. Perfectly legitimate Windows processes can, for instance, appear pretty obscure. Once set up, however, they become fairly transparent in use.

Some Good Two-way Firewall Programs

Windows – Comodo Firewall Free and ZoneAlarm Free Firewall are free and good. Another approach is to use TinyWall. This very lightweight free program is not a firewall per se. It instead adds the ability to monitor outgoing connections to the built-in Windows Firewall.

Glasswire is also not a true Firewall because it does not allow you to create rules or filters, or block specific IP connections. What it does do is present network information in a beautiful and clear manner. This makes it easy to understand what is going on, and therefore easier to make informed decisions about how to deal with it.

macOS – Little Snitch adds the ability to monitor outgoing connections to the built-in macOS firewall. It is great, but is a little pricey at $25.

Android – as noted above, the free Avast! for Android app includes a firewall.

iOS – the only iOS firewall I know of is Firewall iP. It requires a jailbroken device to run.

Linux – there are many Linux firewall programs and dedicated firewall distros available. iptables is bundled with just about every Linux distro. It is an extremely flexible firewall utility for anyone who cares to master it.

Those a little less fearless might prefer a more user-friendly Linux firewall such as Smoothwall Express or pfSense.

Miscellaneous Security Hints, Tips, and Tricks

Use Linux Rather Than a Commercial OS

As I noted near the beginning of this guide, no commercial software can be trusted not to have a back-door built into it by the NSA.

A more secure alternative to Windows (especially Windows 10!) or macOS is Linux. This is a free and open-source operating system. Note, though, that some builds incorporate components which are not open source.

It is far less likely that Linux has been compromised by the NSA. Of course, that’s not to say that the NSA hasn’t tried. It is a much more stable and generally secure OS than its commercial rivals.

Tails Linux OS

TAILS is a secure Linux distro favored by Edward Snowden. The default browser is IceWeasel, a Firefox spinoff for Debian that has been given the full Tor Browser Bundle treatment.

Despite great strides made in the right direction, Linux, unfortunately, remains less user-friendly than either Windows or macOS. Less computer-literate users may, therefore, struggle with it.

If you are serious about privacy, however, Linux is the way forward. One of the best things about it is that you can run the entire OS from a Live CD, without the need to install it. This makes it easy to try out different Linux distros. It also adds an extra layer of security when you access the internet.

This is because the OS exists completely separately from your regular OS. The temporary OS could be compromised, but as it exists only in RAM and disappears when you boot back into your normal OS, this is not a major problem.

Example Linux Distributions

There are hundreds of Linux distros out there. These range from full desktop replacements to niche distributions.

  • Ubuntu – is a very popular Linux distro due to the fact that it is one of the easiest to use. There is a great deal of assistance available for it from an enthusiastic Ubuntu community. It, therefore, makes a good starting point for those interested in using a much more secure operating system.
  • Mint – is another popular Linux distro aimed at novice users. It is much more Windows-like than Ubuntu, so Windows refugees are often more comfortable using it than Ubuntu. Mint is built on top of Ubuntu, so most Ubuntu-specific tips and programs also work in Mint. This includes VPN clients.
  • Debian – Mint is based on Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is based on Debian. This highly flexible and customizable Linux OS is popular with more experienced users.
  • Tails – is famously is the OS of choice for Edward Snowden. It is very secure, and routes all internet connections through the Tor network. It is, however, a highly specialized privacy tool. As such, it makes a poor general purpose desktop replacement to Windows or macOS.

Ubuntu, Mint and Debian all make great, user-friendly desktop replacements to Windows and macOS. Ubuntu and Mint are widely recommended as good starting points for Linux newbies.

Use a Virtual Machine (VM)

An additional level of security can be achieved by only accessing the internet (or only accessing it for certain tasks) using a ‘virtual machine.’ These are software programs that emulate a hard drive onto which an operating system such as Windows or Linux is installed. Note that VM-ing macOS is tricky.

This effectively emulates a computer through software, which runs on top of your normal OS.

The beauty of this approach is that all files are self-contained within the virtual machine. The “host” computer cannot be infected by viruses caught inside the VM. This is why such a set-up is popular among hardcore P2P downloaders.

The virtual machine can also be entirely encrypted. It can even be “hidden,” using programs such as VeraCrypt (see above).

Virtual machines emulate hardware. They run another whole OS on top of your “standard” OS. Using one therefore requires substantial overheads in terms of processing power and memory use. That said, Linux distros tend to be quite lightweight. This means that many modern computers can handle these overheads with minimal impact on perceived performance.

Popular VM software includes the free VirtualBox and VMWare Player, and the premium ($273.90) enterprise-level VMware Workstation. As noted above, VeraCrypt lets you encrypt an entire OS, or even hide its existence.

Give Whonix a Try

Whonix works inside a VirtualBox virtual machine. This ensures that DNS leaks are not possible, and that “not even malware with root privileges can find out the user’s real IP.”

Whonix

It consists of two parts, the first of which acts as a Tor gateway (known as Whonix Gateway). The second (known as a Whonix Workstation), is on a completely isolated network. This routes all its connections through the Tor gateway.

This isolation of the workstation away from the internet connection (and all isolated from the host OS inside a VM), makes Whonix highly secure.

A Note on Windows 10

More than any other version of Microsoft’s OS, Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare. Even with all its data collection options disabled, Windows 10 continues to send a great deal of telemetry data back to Microsoft.

This situation has become even worse because of the recent Anniversary Update (vers. 1607) removed the option to disable Cortana. This is a service that collects a great deal of information about you in order to provide a highly personalized computing experience. Much like Google Now, it is very useful, but achieves this usefulness by invading your privacy significantly.

The best advice in terms of privacy is to avoid using Windows altogether. macOS is little better. Use Linux instead. You can always set up your system to dual-boot into either Linux or Windows and only use Windows when absolutely necessary. For example, when playing games, many of which only work in Windows.

If you really must use Windows, then a number of third party apps exist to help tighten up security and privacy much more than playing with Windows settings ever can. These typically get under the hood of Windows, adjusting registry settings and introducing firewall rules to prevent telemetry being sent to Microsoft.

They can be very effective. However, you are giving these programs direct access to the deepest workings of your OS. So let’s just hope that their developers are honest! Use of such apps is very much at your own risk.

I use W10 Privacy. It works well but is not open-source.

Password-protect Your BIOS

Password Protect 01Full-disk encryption using VeraCrypt is a great way to physically secure your drives. But for this to be properly effective it is essential to set strong passwords in BIOS for both starting up and modifying the BIOS settings. It is also a good idea to prevent boot-up from any device other than your hard drive.

Disable Flash

It has long been widely known that the Flash Player is an incredibly insecure piece of software (see also Flash Cookies). Many major players in the internet industry have made strong efforts to eradicate its use.

Apple products, for example, no longer support Flash (by default). In addition, YouTube videos are now served up using HTML5 rather than Flash.

The best policy is to disable Flash in your browser.

In Firefox, at the very least set Flash to “Ask to Activate,” so you have a choice about whether to load the Flash content.

If you really must view Flash content then I suggest doing so in a separate browser that you do not use for anything else.

Change DNS Servers and Secure Your DNS with DNSCrypt

We are used to typing domain names that are easy to understand and remember into our web browsers. But these domain names are not the “true” addresses of websites. The “true” address, as understood by a computer, is a set of numbers known as an IP address.

To translate domain names to IP addresses, for example, ProPrivacy.com to its IP address of 104.20.11.58, the Domain Name System (DNS) is used.

By default, this translation process is performed on your ISP’s DNS servers. This ensures your ISP has a record of all websites you visit.

turkey dns

Graffiti in Istanbul encouraging the use of Google Public DNS as an anti-censorship tactic during the government’s 2014 crackdown on Twitter and YouTube.

Fortunately, there are a number of free and secure public DNS servers, including OpenDNS and Comodo Secure DNS. I prefer the non-profit, decentralized, open, uncensored and democratic OpenNIC.

I recommend changing your system settings to use one of these instead of your ISP’s servers.

DNSCrypt

What SSL is to HTTP traffic (turning it into encrypted HTTPS traffic), DNSCrypt is to DNS traffic.

DNS was not built with security in mind, and it is vulnerable to a number of attacks. The most important of these is a “man-in-the-middle” attack known as DNS spoofing (or DNS cache poisoning). This is where the attacker intercepts and redirects a DNS request. This could, for example, be used to redirect a legitimate request for a banking service to a spoof website designed to collect victims’ account details and passwords.

The open-source DNSCrypt protocol solves this problem by encrypting your DNS requests. It also authenticates communications between your device and the DNS server.

DNSCrypt is available for most platforms (mobile devices must be rooted/jailbroken), but does require support from your chosen DNS server. This includes many OpenNIC options.

DNS and VPNs

This DNS translation process is usually performed by your ISP. When using a VPN, however, all DNS requests should be sent through your encrypted VPN tunnel. They are then handled by your VPN provider instead.

Using the right scripts, a website can determine which server resolved a DNS request directed to it. This will not allow it to pinpoint your exact real IP address but will allow it to determine your ISP (unless you have changed DNS servers, as outlined above).

This will foil attempts to geo-spoof your location, and allows police and the like to obtain your details from your ISP. ISPs keep records of these things, while good VPN providers do not keep logs.

Most VPN providers run their own dedicated DNS servers in order to perform this DNS translation task themselves. If using a good VPN, therefore, you do not need to change your DNS server or use DNSCrypt, as the DNS requests are encrypted by the VPN.

Unfortunately, DNS requests do not always get sent through the VPN tunnel as they are supposed to. This is known as a DNS leak.

stop ip leaks

Note that many VPN providers offer “DNS leak protection” as a feature of their custom software. These apps use firewall rules to route all internet traffic through the VPN tunnel, including DNS requests. They are usually very effective.

Use Secure Passwords

We have all been told this often enough to make us want to pull our hair out! Use long complex passwords, using combinations of standard letters, capitals, and numbers. And use a different such password for each service… Argh!

Given that many of us find remembering our own name in the morning a challenge, this kind of advice can be next to useless.

Fortunately, help is at hand!

Low Tech Solutions

Here are some ideas that will vastly improve the security of your passwords, and take almost no effort whatsoever to implement:

  • Insert a random space into your password – this simple measure greatly reduces the chance of anyone cracking your password. Not only does it introduce another mathematical variable into the equation, but most would-be crackers assume that passwords consist of one continuous word. They, therefore, concentrate their efforts in that direction.
  • Use a phrase as your password– even better, this method lets you add lots of spaces and use many words in an easy-to-remember manner. Instead of having “pancakes” as your password, you could have ‘I usually like 12 pancakes for breakfast’ instead.
  • Use Diceware – this is a method for creating strong passphrases. Individual words in the passphraseare generated randomly by rolling dice. This introduces a high degree of entropy into the result. Diceware passphrases are therefore well-regarded by cryptographers. The EFF has recently introduced a new expanded Diceware wordlist aimed at further improving Diceware passphrase results.
  • Use more than four numbers in your PIN– where possible, use more than four numbers for your PINs. As with adding an extra space to words, this makes the code mathematically much harder to break. Most crackers work on the assumption that only four numbers are used.

High Tech Solutions

Where mortals fear to tread, software developers jump in with both feet! There are a plethora of password management programs available. My pick of the bunch are:

KeePass (multi-platform) – this popular free and open-source (FOSS) password manager will generate complex passwords for you and store them behind strong encryption. A plethora of plugins allows for all sorts of customization and increased capability.

KeePass

With plugins, you can use the Twofish cipher instead of the default AES, for example, while PassIFox and chromeIPass provide full browser integration. KeePass itself is Windows only, but KeepassX is an open-source clone for macOS and Linux, as are iKeePass for iOS and Keepass2Android for Android.

Sticky Password (Windows, macOS, Android, iOS) – is a great desktop password solution that impressed me with its ability to sync over Wi-Fi and support for so many browsers.

Its security measures also appear to be very tight. Given these solid foundations, the fact that Sticky Password works brilliantly on mobile devices (especially for Firefox mobile users) may be a compelling reason to choose this over its FOSS rival.

Social Networking

Social NetworkingSocial networking. Where you are encouraged to share every random thought that comes into your head, photos of what you had for dinner, and blow-by-blow accounts of your relationship meltdown.

It is the antithesis of concepts such as privacy and security.

Facebook is “worse” than Twitter in terms of privacy, as it sells every detail of your life to profiling-hungry advertisers. It also hands your private data over to the NSA. But all social networks are inherently about sharing information.

Meanwhile, all commercial networks make a profit from harvesting your personal details, likes, dislike, places you visit, things you talk about, people you hang out with (and what they like, dislike, etc.), and then selling them.

By far the best way to maintain your privacy on social networks is to avoid them altogether. Delete all your existing accounts!

This can be tricky. It is unlikely, for example, that you will be able to remove all traces of your presence on Facebook. Even worse is that these social networks are increasingly where we chat, share photos and otherwise interact with our friends.

They are a primary reason for using the internet and play a central role in our social lives. In short, we aren’t willing to give them up.

Below, then, are some ideas for trying to keep a modicum of privacy when social networking.

Self-censorship

If there are things you don’t want (or that shouldn’t be) made public, don’t post details about them on Facebook! Once posted, it is very difficult to retract anything you have said. Especially if it has been re-posted (or re-tweeted).

Keep private conversations private

It is all too common for people to discuss intimate details of a planned dinner date, or conversely, to have personal rows, using public channels. Make use of Message (Facebook) and DM (Twitter) instead.

This won’t hide your conversations from advertisers, the law, or the NSA, but it will keep potentially embarrassing interactions away from friends and loved ones. They probably really don’t want to hear certain things, anyway!

Use aliases

There is little to stop you from using a false name. In fact, given employers almost routinely check their staff’s (and potential staff’s) Facebook pages, using at least two aliases is almost a must. Opt for a sensible one with your real name, which is designed to make you look good to employers, and another where friends can post wildly drunken pictures of you.

Remember that it is not just names that you can lie about. You can also happily fib about your date of birth, interests, gender, where you live, or anything else that will put advertisers and other trackers off the scent.

On a more serious note, bloggers living under repressive regimes should always use aliases (together with IP cloaking measures such as a VPN) when publishing posts that may threaten their life or liberty.

Keep checking your privacy settings

Facebook is notorious for continually changing the way its privacy settings work. It also makes its privacy policies as opaque as possible. It is worth regularly checking the privacy settings on all social networks to make sure they are as tight as possible.

Ensure that posts and photos are only shared with Friends, for example, not Friends of Friends or “Public.” In Facebook, ensure that “Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline” (under Privacy Settings -> Timeline and Tagging) is set to “On”. This can help limit the damage “friends” are able do to your profile.

Avoid All Five Eyes-based Services

The Five Eyes (FVEY) spying alliance includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Edward Snowden has described it as a “supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the known laws of its own countries.”

Intelligence is freely shared between security organizations of member countries, a practice that is used to evade legal restrictions on spying on their own citizens. It is, therefore, a very good idea to avoid all dealings with FVEY-based companies.

Presidio-modelo

Indeed, there is a strong argument that you should avoid dealing with any company based in a country belonging to the wider Fourteen Eyes alliance.

The US and NSA Spying

The scope of the NSA’s PRISM spying program is staggering. Edward Snowden’s revelations have demonstrated it has the power to co-opt any US-based company. This includes monitoring information relating to non-US citizens and pretty much anybody else in the world. It also includes monitoring all internet traffic that passes through the US’s internet backbone.

Other countries’ governments seem desperate to increase their own control over their citizens’ data. Nothing, however, matches the scale, sophistication, or reach of PRISM. This includes China’s attempts at internet surveillance.

Suggesting that every US-based company may be complicit in handing every user’s personal information over to a secretive and largely unaccountable spying organization might sound the stuff of paranoid science-fiction fantasy. As recent events have proved, however, this is terrifyingly close to the truth…

Note also that due to provisions in both the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), US companies must hand over users’ data. This applies even if that user is a non-US citizen, and the data has never been stored in the US.

The UK and GCHQ Spying

The UK’s GCHQ is in bed with the NSA. It also carries out some particularly heinous and ambitious spying projects of its own. According to Edward Snowden, “they [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”

This already bad situation is about to worsen. The impending Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) “formalizes” this covert spying into law. It also expands the UK government’s surveillance capabilities to a terrifying degree with very little in the way of meaningful oversight.

I therefore strongly recommend avoiding all companies and services based in the UK.

Conclusion

Is Privacy Worth it?

This question is worth considering. Almost all the measures outlined above mark you out for special attention by the likes of the NSA. They also add extra layers of complexity and effort to everyday tasks.

Indeed, much of the cool functionality of new web-based services relies on knowing a lot about you! Google Now is an excellent case in point. An “intelligent personal assistant,” this software’s ability to anticipate what information you require is uncanny.

It can, for example, remind you that you need to leave the office to catch the bus “now” if you want to get home at your usual time. It will also provide navigation to the nearest bus stop, and alternative timetables should you miss the bus.

Some of the most exciting and interesting developments in human-computer interaction rely on a full-scale invasion of privacy. To box yourself in with encryption and other privacy protection methods is to reject the possibilities afforded by these new technologies.

I mainly pose the question ‘is privacy worth it’ as food for thought. Privacy comes with a cost. It is worth thinking about what compromises you are willing to make, and how far you will go, to protect it.

The importance of privacy

In my view, privacy is vitally important. Everyone has a right not to have almost every aspect of their lives recorded, examined and then judged or exploited (depending on who is doing the recording). However maintaining privacy is not easy, and can never be completely guaranteed in the modern world.

Stop spying on us!

What most of us probably want is the ability to share what we want with our friends and with services that improve our lives, without worrying about this information being shared, dissected and used to profile us.

If more people make efforts to improve their privacy, it will make government agencies’ and advertisers’ jobs more difficult. Perhaps even to the point that it could force a change of approach.

Final Words

It may take a bit of effort, but it is entirely possible, and not too cumbersome, to take steps that greatly improve your privacy while online. Many experts differ on what is key to protect your online privacy in 2019, so it’s important to remember that nothing is foolproof. However, that is no reason to make things easy for those who would invade aspects of your life that should rightfully be yours and yours alone.

Privacy is a precious but endangered commodity. By implementing at least some of the ideas I have covered in this guide, you not only help to protect your own privacy but also make a valuable contribution to conserving it for everyone.
This article was originally posted on ProPrivacy.

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Blockchain, Blockchain technology, Cryptocurrency

Grade school might tell you anything is possible. Complete and total decentralization, however, is not– at least sustainably. 

The premise that decentralization is impossible hinges on the fact that decentralization “experiments” such as Bitcoin have approached towards degrees of centralization.

For example, Bitcoin’s Proof-of-Work (PoW) mechanism relies on many different nodes to “mine,” or verify and facilitate transactions. These miners are rewarded a portion of transaction fees and a shot at winning the Bitcoin block reward, which is currently 12.5 bitcoins or about $115,000– a not insignificant prize dished out about 144 times per day

This has incentivized the creation of “mining pools,” or a collection of nodes that work together and divide the prize among the operators. Mining pools have taken what would otherwise be a decentralized utopia and coalesced a degree of centralization. The current state of Bitcoin mining is far from a single entity controlling the network with a  51% lion’s share, but it still highlights the downfalls of decentralization. 

There are cryptocurrencies that utilize different consensus mechanisms such as Proof-of-Stake and Delegated-Proof-of-Stake, and they manage to address some of Bitcoin’s drawbacks (such as high energy costs to mine), but they still leave the glaring decentralization issue. 

A particularly noteworthy concept is that Bitcoin, a network with no single individual party dictating its future, has gravitated towards centralization on its own. Centralized entities may receive some flak in the cryptocurrency and blockchain community, but they are at least able to enforce and control certain elements, a task nearly impossible for a theoretical, fully decentralized entity

Do we really need full decentralization?

The core tenet of decentralization, at least among the common blockchain ethos, is that decentralization insulates the network from tyranny and corruption, a duo that has plagued human governance and economics since the dawn of organized civilization. 

The same concepts that power Adam Smith’s “free market” philosophy that underpins modern economics encourage decentralization as long as every party is properly incentivized (mining rewards) and has access to somewhat similar resources (electricity, reasonable utility costs, etc) as the next. 

The glory of today’s blockchains isn’t so much derived from the idea of a utopian decentralization, but more so as a rebellion against the status quo of centralized banks dictating the economy, individuals being tethered to the success of their government, and the ability for large tech corporations and banks to shut down financial accounts at will. 

There are several degrees of “decentralization”, and even though not “perfect,” even smaller decentralization improvements can be disruptive to the existing “centralized” status quo. 

The goal is to figure out which areas will be impacted first; and which are the top use cases given the infrastructure’s properties (security, decentralization, scalability). 

For example, think of the idea of a decentralized “Uber,” a popular thought experiment in the blockchain entrepreneurial community. When someone needs a car to pick them up, what would they prefer: a nearly immediate connection to a driver courtesy of an efficient centralized server, or waiting for minutes and potentially hours for the transaction to be verified and processed? 

Final Thoughts

Although the push towards absolute decentralization is unfeasible, and in reality, decentralization benefits vary across use cases. Simply put, we don’t need decentralization for everything– centralization tends to work just fine for most things, and it shouldn’t be viewed as an enemy of what the blockchain movement seeks to accomplish. 

Ultimately, blockchain is simply just another technology to be leveraged to solve certain problems. 

Once upon a time, centralization was the solution to the disorganized chaos of the unpredictable. Our ancestors who lived in groups tended to live longer and better lives than individuals not in groups. 

These groups evolved into tribes that utilizes some form of centralization (leadership, hierarchy, enforced order) that protected its members and utilized resources more efficiently. Eventually, tribes expanded and, however indirectly, ended up becoming countries that function using the same centralized mechanics. 

Decentralization uses the evolution of the Internet and technological infrastructure to create systems that don’t require a centralized entity’s direct oversight. However, decentralized entities can only function within the scope of a centralized society.

Today’s projects are able to enjoy both the benefits of existing within the confines of a centralized society and the possibilities enabled by blockchain and the Internet. While full decentralization might be impossible, there’s no reason to fuss. 
This article was originally posted on Albaron Ventures.

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Security

Essentially, a middle man. When dealing with computers the concept is largely the same. A web proxy is simply a bit of software that will relay a HTTP request for you.

What is a Proxy

Google defines a proxy as

the authority to represent someone else

HTTP Proxies are an essential component when using the internet day to day – load balancers, routers, content accelerators, content protection systems, these are all simple examples of web proxies and they all act as intermediaries to send your HTTP requests where they need to go, anonymize requests, handle routing of traffic, speed up the net, and many other uses.

When it comes down to it, most web proxies fall into two camps:

  1. Reverse Proxies – A reverse proxy is usually an internal-facing proxy used as a front-end to control and protect access to servers on a private network. A reverse proxy commonly also performs tasks such as load-balancing, authentication, decryption or caching.
  2. Forward Proxies – A forward proxy is an Internet-facing proxy used to retrieve from a wide range of sources.

Let’s look at these two types in more detail

What is a Reverse Proxy

You’re probably using a reverse proxy in order to view this content. When you make a request to the server that serves this blog post it will pass through a load balancer. This load balancer is a type of reverse proxy. Reverse proxies will sit in front of one of more servers and distribute requests to these servers. Common examples of these would be Nginx’s proxy_pass module, HAProxy, Squid, and AWS’ ELB.

Reverse proxy receives a request from a client on the Internet and retrieves the requested resources from one of more servers that sit behind it. To the client there is no knowledge required of the servers (often called upstream servers) that serve the original content and they can be changed as required without any outside knowledge. The reverse proxy handles that information.

As part of this handling of the request the reverse proxy will often provide additional value such as terminating SSL, performing authentication and/or authorization, accelerating (caching or compressing) content or rewriting the request and/or response.

The word “reverse” in the name reverse proxy has no special meaning, it’s just used as the inverse of forward proxy which actually has a meaning as you’ll read shortly.

What is a Forward Proxy

Forward proxies are commonly used to control traffic leaving networks. When you send a request via the proxy it will “forward” your request on to the requested website, hence the name “Forward Proxy”.

A common job of a forward proxy is to both control access to the internet by inspecting certain attributes as the request passes through it. If you’re on a corporate network and they prohibit you from going to a social network such as facebook.com, this will often be the job of a forward proxy. The forward proxy is able to inspect the host of the request and, since on a corporate network traffic is often mandated to flow through the proxy, it will deny any requests that use the prohibited host.

A similar implementation to the above will scan outbound content of the payload as it passes through the proxy. This can be used for a variety of data protection applications e.g., for data loss prevention; or scan content for malicious software.

Another common use-case for a forward proxy is to anonymize where the request originally came from.

Forward proxy sits in between requests from the user to the internet. As such, when the forward proxy sends a request to a host the host computer will see the IP address of the forward proxy, not of the user. This is commonly used to perform IP anonymization and is a major feature of VPNs.

Layer 7 versus layer 3

Most of the time ‘proxy’ refers to a layer-7 application on the OSI reference model. However, another way of proxying is through layer-3 and is known as Network Address Translation (NAT). The difference between these two proxy technologies is the layer in which they operate, and the procedure to configuring the proxy clients and proxy servers.

Layer-7 proxies are more suitable if you’re inspecting the content of the payload to perform routing or otherwise manipulating the payload.

 

This article was originally posted on Very Good Security.

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Bitcoin, Blockchain, Blockchain technology, Encryption

As Bitcoin and other digital assets continue to grow in adoption and popularity, a common topic for discussion is whether the U.S. government, or any government for that matter, can exert control of its use. 
There are two core issues that lay the foundation of the Bitcoin regulation debate:

The digital assets pose a macro-economic risk. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can act as surrogates for an international currency, which throws global economics a curveball. For example, countries such as Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran have all explored using digital currency to circumvent United States sanctions, which puts the US government at risk of losing its global authority. 

International politics and economics are a very delicate issue, and often sanctions are used in place of military boots on the ground, arguably making the world a safer place. 

The micro risks enabled by cryptocurrency weigh heavily in aggregate. One of the most attractive features of Bitcoin and other digital assets is that one can send anywhere

between a few pennies-worth to billions of dollars of Bitcoin anywhere in the world at any time for a negligible fee (currently around $0.04 to $0.20 depending on the urgency.) 

However, in the hands of malicious parties, this could be very dangerous. The illicit activities inherently supported by a global decentralized currency run the gamut: terrorist funding, selling and buying illegal drugs, ordering assassinations, dodging taxes, laundering money, and so on. 

Can Bitcoin Even Be Regulated?

Before diving deeper, it’s worth asking whether Bitcoin can be regulated in the first place. 

The cryptocurrency was built with the primary purpose of being decentralized and distributed– two very important qualities that could make or break Bitcoin’s regulation. 

By being decentralized, Bitcoin doesn’t have a single controlling entity. The control of Bitcoin is shared among several independent entities all over the world, making it nearly impossible for a single entity to wrangle full control over the network and manipulate it as they please. 

By being distributed, Bitcoin exists at many different locations at the same time. This makes it very difficult for a single regulatory power to enforce its will across borders. This means that a government or other third party can’t technically raid an office and shut anything down.

That being said, there are several chokepoints that could severely hinder Bitcoin’s adoption and use.

1. Targeting centralized entities: exchanges and wallets 

A logical first move is to regulate the fiat onramps (exchanges) , which the United States government has finally been getting around to. In cryptocurrency’s nascent years, cryptocurrency exchanges didn’t require much input or approval from regulatory authorities to run. However, the government started stepping in when cryptocurrency starting hitting the mainstream. 

The SEC, FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), and CFTChave all played a role in pushing Know Your Customer (KYC) protocols and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies across all exchanges operating within U.S borders.  

Cryptocurrency exchanges have no options but to adhere to whatever the U.S. government wants. The vast majority of cryptocurrency users rely on some cryptocurrency exchange to utilize their cryptocurrency, so they will automatically bend to exchange-imposed regulation. 

 

Regulators might not be able to shut down the underlying technology that powers Bitcoin, but they can completely wreck the user experience for the great majority of cryptocurrency users, which serves as enough of an impediment to diminish the use of cryptocurrency for most. 

 

2.Targeting users.

 

The government can also target individual cryptocurrency users. Contrary to popular opinion, Bitcoin (and even some privacy coins) aren’t anonymous. An argument can be made that Bitcoin is even easier to track than fiat because of its public, transparent ledger. 

Combined with every cryptocurrency exchange’s willingness to work with U.S. authorities, a federal task force could easily track money sent and received from certain addresses and pinpoint the actual individual with it. Companies such as Elliptic and Chainalysis have already created solid partnerships with law enforcement in many countries to track down illicit cryptocurrency uses and reveals the identities behind the transactions. 

Beyond that, we dive into the dark web and more professional illicit cryptocurrency usage. Although trickier, the government likely has enough cyber firepower to snipe out the majority of cryptocurrency-related cybercrime. In fact, coin mixers (cryptoMixer.io), coin swap services (ShapeShift) and P2P bitcoin transactions (localbitcoins.com) have been investigated for several years now and most of them have had to add KYC and adhere to strict AML laws.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it’s going to take a lot to enforce any sort of significant global regulation on Bitcoin, with the most important factor being a centralization and consensus of opinion. The majority of the U.S. regulatory alphabet agencies fall into the same camp of “protect the good guys, stop the bad guys”, but there isn’t really a single individual piece of guidance to follow. Currently, cryptocurrencies are regulated in the US by several institutions: CFTC, SEC, IRS, making it difficult to create overarching regulatory guidelines.  

In short, yes– Bitcoin can be regulated. In fact, its regulation has already started with the fiat onramps and adherence to strict KYC & AML laws. While in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Egypt and Morocco Bitcoin ownership is illegal, in the US, it would take some bending of the moral fabric of the Constitution in order for cryptocurrency ownership rights to be infringed.

However, it cannot be shut down. There are still ways to buy, sell, and trade Bitcoin P2P, without a centralized exchange. It would take an enormous effort by any government to completely uproot something as decentralized as Bitcoin, but that future seems more dystopian than tangible.  You can read the full article on albaronventures.com

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