Category Archives: Home & Small Business

Posts that are written specifically for the home computer user or small business.

USB generated infections on the rise.


IT security company Panda has announced that 25% of the new worms in 2010 were designed to be spread via USB device.

What does this mean?

A growing number of computer infections are taking place via USB devices such as thumb drives, external hard drives, mobile phones, portable music players, etc.  These infections take place silently when the device is plugged into the computer via the autorun process in Windows.  While computer worms are still mainly spread via email, this report indicates that a newer method for spreading malware is gaining significant momentum and once again gives us cause to remain vigilant when it comes to computer security.  Of course, before you can get infected by a USB device, that device first has to be infected somewhere else which means this is something that is much less likely to come from your phone or mp3 player (unless you loan it to someone) than it is from an external hard drive or thumb drive.

What should I do?

First, never trust a foreign device.  If you don’t know the origins of the device, consider it hostile.   USB thumb drives are extremely cheap these days.  So cheap that many are given away as schwag at trade shows and expos.  How easy would it be for a bad guy to accumulate a bunch of these, infect them, then ‘lose them’ outside of targeted businesses or homes?  When an unassuming employee comes along, they pick it up, plug it in, and suddenly there’s a corporate infection for the IT department to deal with.    If this is an as of yet unidentified piece of malware, a considerable amount of damage could be done by the time it is found out.  If you find a USB drive, throw it away or hand it in to your IT department.  If you absolutely must know what is on it, boot up from an Ubuntu Live CD and check it out.  That will keep you from getting the infection.  If you are in an environment that requires you to swap flash drives with people, downloading the free USB Vaccine from Panda is a good move.  This will disable the autorun feature for USB devices in Windows.  Just be warned, it will stop the autorn feature from working with external CD drives as well.  But, if you are in an environment that uses flash drives, it’s worth the inconvenience.   Of course, following these steps is essential as well. Above all, be vigilant.  If for instance, you loan the compact flash card from your camera to someone, it could come back with malware on it.  When you plug your camera back into your computer, you’ve got it.   Treat every USB device like it’s a flash drive.  Treat every flash drive that’s been out of your possession as suspect.

NFC on the way. The smartphone is becoming the new wallet.


Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

NFC World is reporting that Apple has picked up NFC (Near Field Communication)  expert Benjamin Vigier as their new mobile commerce product manager.

What’s that all about?

Near Field Communication is close range wireless technology that allows two devices to transfer data at close range (about 10cm), which basically means you tap them together to move information.  Apple’s hiring of Vigier along with a fistful of NFC patent applications would indicate that Apple is looking to add this technology to a future iPhone, perhaps even the next iPhone.  TechCrunch is reporting that Apple is already testing hardware from NFC hardware leader NXP.

What does that mean to me?

Short term, it should mean that you’ll be able to pay by tap and go with your phone at Apple partners through your iTunes account.   Of course, we’d imagine that the Apple Store would be first in line.  Go in, grab your new MacBook Pro, fire up the checkout application on your phone, tap your phone on a pad at the sales counter, and walk away.   The technology could be used anywhere from coffee shops and newspaper stands to big box retail to about anything you can buy with a credit card.  People could exchange business cards with a simple phone tap.

Longer term, imagine smart shopping carts that cross items off your list as you put them in the cart.  How about avoiding the lines and tapping your cart to checkout?  I would imagine it will take some convincing to get retailers to start ripping out their checkout counters, but that’s the kind of stuff that is possible with NFC.

Conclusion.

Apple won’t be the first to bring NFC to a mobile phone.  There are already a handful of phones that are equipped with the technology.  But, Apple will bring a ease of use to the equation and some big backing.  With 150 million iTunes accounts, the momentum should be there to get retailers on board.  Of course, you can expect Android and the rest of the phone world to step it up as well.

Personally, I’m not excited about paying by phone.  I don’t find paying by credit/debit card or cash to be an excruciating process.  NFC should be faster, but by how much?  If I have to pull up the app on my old 3G, it could actually be slower.  However, this is the future and I do see some other interesting uses for the technology.  If you embrace it, be sure to check out my post, Personal Insecurity and lock down your phone.

Return of Zeus. A New Wave of Malware that will Empty Your Bank Account.


Courtesy of Flickr

In a report by security company M86 Security, organized crime is using a new trojan variant called Zeus v3 to infect unsuspecting web surfer’s machines, then steal their online banking credentials.  Once the credentials are obtained, they are then used to drain your account.  This is a very sophisticated and organized attack.  It’s not something that the kid down the street who hasn’t come out of his basement in three years is capable of pulling off.  M86 has posted an in depth whitepaper on the matter which can be found here.   The report is both fascinating and disturbing.

For those who don’t wish to commit the time to understand all of the fine details about how the attack works, I’ll lay out the short version here.  First, the bad guys infect legitimate ad servers.  These are machines that serve the advertisements to websites you regularly visit.  From there, the infected servers start pushing out the trojan to computers visiting LEGITIMATE websites.  The trojan is delivered via advertisements through the infected ad servers.  That’s really the beauty of delivery.  They deliver the payload to infect your computer through regular websites because the advertising on them comes from somewhere else.  The ad servers are infected the same way your home computer gets infected.  Somewhere along the line, a vulnerability wasn’t addressed.  This can happen for a number of reasons.  The operating system wasn’t patched, a firewall rule wasn’t enforced, etc.  Once the trojan is delivered to the home users computer, it simply waits until the unsuspecting user logs into their bank account via a web browser.  That’s when it sends the credentials to a command and control (C&C) server.  Later, after it analyzes the information (bank name, country, etc) the C&C server communicates back to the victim’s computer and has it initiate a bank transfer.  It will drain the victim’s account, siphoning it off and covering tracks along the way.  Then, to put the cherry on top, when the victim logs back into their bank, the traffic is diverted to the C&C server where a fake statement is generated, thereby fooling the user into thinking they have money in their account.

This is a brilliant and complicated scheme.  The money trail is like following a single noodle through a bowl of spaghetti.  Thus far, attacks have primarily been on UK bank accounts, but don’t let that make those of you outside of the UK feel good.  This could very easily be perpetrated elsewhere.  To compound the matter, this particular attack seems to be very good at getting past the major virus scanners.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, we can make it very hard to fall victim to this type of attack.  If you don’t bank online of course, you are immune.  If the benefits of online banking outweigh the risks, you can still protect yourself.  First, you should be following ALL of my advice in my recent post Lock Down!.  This alone will dramatically reduce your chances of infection by the trojan.  Another option is to switch to a Mac or use Linux.  While not immune, these operating systems are much more difficult to infect because of their Unix heritage and because they just aren’t as popular as Windows.  Windows is the low hanging fruit for virus writers.  Linux has become very easy to use and most versions of it are free.  I have my computer setup to give me a choice of booting to Linux or Windows.  That’s pretty easy to do.  Third, you could use a boot CD as I described in my post A Temporary Solution for your online banking activities.  While not as convenient, you won’t be at risk of infection.  This is the safest option next to just not banking online at all.

Lock Down! Security Basics for the Home PC User


Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve been keeping up to date with my posts, you’ve been noticing that I like to talk about keeping your data secure.  This post is a continuation of that.  Here, I’ll be outlining eight simple steps to keeping your data secure.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor does it venture into keeping your data safe online, which is an entirely different topic that  is expansive enough to warrant it’s own future post.  Instead, I am offering up a foundation on which to start.  So, let’s go.

  1. Don’t use an administrator account for your day to day operations.  I think every computer that has ever been brought to me has been setup this way.  It’s really kind of the fault of the operating system vendors.  Typically, the first account you setup is an administrator.  People normally setup the first account and start using it.  This is a problem because the administrator has the rights to do anything on the machine.  So, if you have a piece of malware that wants to install itself on your  computer and you are an administrator, there is nothing blocking it from installing.  If you are running an account that is not an administrator, you’ll have to supply the administrator’s password to install software or make global systems changes.  While this is less convenient, it makes it harder for ugly software to install itself onto your system without your knowledge.  It is also harder to inadvertently make unwanted changes to your computer.   So, what do I do?  If you are already running on an account with administrator privileges, you simply create a new account with administrative privileges, then modify your account to become a standard user.  Once done, installing software will require the administrator account password.  To install software under Windows XP when using a non-administrator account under Windows, simply right click on the application and select ‘Run as’.  A window will then popup allowing you to select your administrator account.  There are some cases where you will need to actually switch to your administrator account and log in to perform a task, but those are pretty rare and are mostly needed when you are setting up your computer.
  2. Use passwords.  Without a password, anyone can sit down at your computer and do whatever they would like.  When creating a password, make it a good one.  Don’t use ‘bob’.  Use something more secure like ‘BobL1nk40″.  Notice the use of a ‘1’ instead of an ‘i’.  This type of password is very difficult to crack.  The combination of capital, lowercase, symbols, and numbers should be standard procedure for you as well as keeping your passwords at least 8 characters long.  If you experiment a little bit, you can come up with combinations that are pretty easy to type.  As with using a non-administrator account, this will make your life less convenient, but how inconvenient is it to do something like having to fix your credit report after having your identity stolen?  These steps can play a part in preventing something like that from happening.  Once running as a non-administrator and using secure passwords become a habit, the really do not do much to impede your life.  This step should also carry over into your online life.  Use solid passwords for everything you do online.
  3. Make sure you have an antivirus / antimalware (spyware, adware, etc) package and make sure it is up to date.   While this is fairly self explanatory, it needs to be a high priority.   For more information, a read of my earlier post, A Temporary Solution can provide some additional information.  In addition to having real time protection, make sure that you setup a scheduled scan at least once per week to catch anything that may have slipped through.
  4. Use a firewall.  Firewalls are basically like a wall between your computer and the Internet.  It won’t allow data to flow back and forth except on specified open ports.  A port is similar to a gate in the firewall.  You allow traffic to flow through specific gates in order to manage traffic in an orderly fashion.  There are standard ports for web traffic, email, etc.  Windows has a built in firewall starting with XP.  There are other software firewalls available such as ZoneAlarm.  If you are using a laptop or netbook, you absolutely will want to be using a software firewall on your machine if you ever take it off of your home network.
  5. Use a router.   Routers serve as an additional layer of protection between your computer and the Internet and act as a hardware firewall.  Plugging a computer straight into a modem is bad practice.  Routers are cheap these days and easy to setup.  If you share an Internet connection with more than one device, you already have a router.  Even if you only have one device, invest in a router.  Unless of course you are in that tiny percentage of homes with dial up.
  6. Keep third party applications up to date.  I just covered this ground in my post Update All the Way, so I’m not going to beat that dead horse other than to say that third party applications such as Flash, Java, and Adobe Reader are subject to vulnerabilities just like Windows, OSX, and Linux.  A third party update tool like PSI can help you keep those up to date.
  7. Keep the operating system up to date.  Whether you run Windows, OSX, Linux, or something else, your operating system should be regularly updating as security vulnerabilities and bugs are found.  Most people should set updates to automatic.  While the updates will break things on rare occasions, the risks associated with not having them updated is much greater.
  8. Online backups.  As with the previous item, I’ve already covered this in Back it Up, I’ll Take it!.  Backing up your data automatically and offsite is the best way to protect your data in the event of hardware failure, theft, or home damage.  There are a lot of options out there for online backups, and some are even free.  Your data is critical.  Don’t risk it.

Remember, these are just the foundational elements for protecting your data.  If you don’t have these in place, your other efforts lose a lot of their luster.  By implementing these basic concepts, you can go a long way toward keeping your data yours.

Personal Insecurity; the problem with smartphones


We spend a lot of time talking about avoiding viruses, phishing scams, and laptop security.  These things are all very important.   But, if you own a smartphone, chances are, you’ve got a much bigger security risk in your hands.  Consider how easy it is to lose your phone or have it stolen.  It’s compact and fits neatly into the palm of your hand, or a bad guy’s hand.  It’s easily set down and easily walked away from.  It’s easy to pull from a pocket or purse.  It’s easy to have knocked off of your belt in a crowded area.  In short, it’s easy to be separated from your mobile phone.

So, what’s so bad?  I call my carrier and they lock the phone right?  Well, kind of.  Part of that depends on how quickly you can get to your carrier and just because they can clamp down on somebody sending calls out, can they stop them from using WiFi?   Let’s say you give a thief just one hour.  What can they do?  Well, if you store your username and password in your web browser or apps and you haven’t locked your phone, they can do plenty.   People are doing real work on their mobile devices these days.   As an example, let’s suppose that I stored my credentials in all of my apps, then left my phone on the table at a restaurant.  I know, shame on me for even having it out at a place of dining!  What could you do with my phone?  Well, depending on the apps I have installed, you could take all of your friends to the movies on me, drop in on my brokerage account, drain my checking account and saving account, wreak havoc on all of my social networks, take over my satellite receiver, make changes to my mobile phone account, and worst of all you could run amok on this blog!  That’s some serious damage pretty fast!  All of those are just examples.  Depending on what apps you are running, the damage to you could be much worse.  We haven’t even talked about storing your username and password to your most frequented websites or that all of your contact’s information such as work and mobile numbers has just been given up!

So, what to do?  Well, first, take an inventory.  What apps have you installed?  What websites are in your history and your list of favorites?  What is your risk if your phone is lost or stolen?  If you are uncomfortable in the least at that thought, you have a couple of options.  First option is just to not save credentials.  Don’t allow any of your apps or the websites you visit to remember your login information.  That won’t make your friends any happier when some creep is calling them on their mobile phone because they got it from your phone, but that’s your call.  If you absolutely must store information, you’ll need to set a password for unlocking your phone.  This is going to be less convenient than not storing your credentials because you will have to enter that code to use your phone for anything, including simply making a phone call (who does that?).  There are multiple levels here.  Some phones will only let you enter a four digit numeric pin.  Better than nothing, but for the more paranoid (used in a good way here) some phones allow you to use numbers and letters.  Using a combination of numbers, uppercase letters, and lowercase letters makes the password harder to crack.  In addition, some phones allow you to hard lock the phone after a certain number of failed login attempts, which means the phone will no longer accept a password attempt and is therefore useless.  The iPhone has a setting that will erase the phone after 10 failed password attempts.  Both of these options mean you will want to backup your phone to your computer very regularly.  If your phone is locked or erased, chances are it’s going to end up in a dumpster somewhere and not back in your hands.  If you want full on paranoia, opt for a solid password using a combination of numbers and letters, lock down or erase after a number of failed attempts, and don’t store your credentials in apps or the web browser.  That is certainly not going to be the most convenient phone to use, but if you do lose it, you’ll be able to breath a little easier.   You will have to find the level of balance that is most comfortable for you.  Just don’t make it easy for the bad people.   You could just drop the data plan altogether and not worry about it, but that would be just icky!  And of course getting a smartphone without a data plan is becoming increasingly difficult.

Apple’s Next Dominated Market


We’ve got a sneak peek into the next market that Apple is planning on redefining.  The industry giants are now on alert.  I’m sure the top level execs at CatEye, Vetta, VDO, and Mavic are scrambling to upgrade their offerings as we speak.

CatEye?  Vetta?  VDO?  Yes.   Chances are you’ve never heard of those companies, but they are major players in their industry.  They make computers, just not the kind that normally come to mind when you think about computers.  They make bicycle computers.  And this has what to do with Apple?  According to this patent filing, Apple is at least looking at entering the bicycle computer market and they are bringing some new ideas to the table.

So, what does a bicycle computer do?  The bicycle computer mounts to your handlebars and displays information.  The simplest computers give you information such as how fast you are going, how far you’ve gone, and what your average speed has been.  More sophisticated units do things like keeping track of your heart rate, telling you which gear you are in, displaying your altitude, displaying the temperature, and some even allow you to download your ride data to your computer.  All of these are great, but I’ve never really seen one computer that really pulls all of the functions I’d like to see into one unit at an affordable price.

Enter Apple.  Looking at the patent filing, we see a lot of features that will rely heavily on a GPS.  Features like wind speed, path completed, expected future path (?????)  and a bevy of location based features will use this.  Along with those, we get a decent list of somewhat standard features including speed, distance, time, altitude, elevation, incline, decline, heart rate, power, derailleur setting (what gear you are in), cadence, heart rate, power, and pace (average speed).   This feature list is quite exciting.  Wind speed is something I’ve longed for, but hey Cupertino – what about the equally important (to cyclists) wind direction?   Cadence is interesting.   Shimano offers this in their higher end components now.  It’s not measured however, it’s calculated.  You have to enter your gear sizes when you set up your computer, it then calculates the gear combination based upon how fast you are going and how fast you are pedaling.  I would have to assume that Apple would follow a similar approach.  Power and heart rate are another story however.  To get power information, you have to install either a crankset or a rear hub equipped with a strain gauge.  The computer then interprets the data from the strain gauge and calculates how many watts of power you are producing.   The same applies to heart rate data, which is read from a special sensor, usually worn around the chest.  The good news is there is a standard for communications.  The ANT+ protocol is supported by a number of power and heart rate meters.  All of this data would come close to the grail of cycling information assuming the data can be downloaded by a real computer for analysis.  It appears that the data would be displayed via the iPhone or iPod Touch mounted to the handlebars via a custom cradle.  That makes a good bit of sense, unless you crash.  Since your handlebars frequently take a good portion of the impact in a crash, putting your only means of communication so close to the impact zone seems a bit scary, especially if you are hurt or your bike becomes unrideable in the crash.   But, for the most part, these features excite me as a cyclist.

Now, on to the things that do not excite me.  It would seem that the people at Apple do not ride their bicycles the same way I ride my bicycle.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem close.  While I ride with my head down and the gas on, it would seem that Apple people are much more social.  It would even seem that they are trying to bring a Facebook like experience to the bicycle.   Much of the patent document is spent explaining how the data from one bike can be seen on another and made available to a group.  I don’t know how they plan on organizing that, but I don’t really want to be spending a lot of time navigating other people’s data while I’m busy trying to dodge things like broken glass and dump trucks.  What’s even worse is the call for text, voice, or video from one or more devices.  So, we are in an all out blitz to tell people to put their phones down and stop texting while driving, but Apple thought this would be a fantastic feature for the bike?  Really?  That’s just scary.  Considering that FaceTime requires a wifi connection, how do they plan on pulling video off?  What about battery life?  Currently, I use the MapMyRide app to track my ride via my iPhone.  It uses the GPS and it rapidly drains the battery even with the display off.  How does Apple plan to bring all of these features together and keep your display powered for even an hour ride, let alone a nice 50 miler on a Saturday morning?  External battery pack?  Another thought that I am loathe to consider?  iTunes.  Assuming that the brains of the entire operation is an iPhone/iPod Touch, all of the ride data would have to come through iTunes.  Having to manage all of my rides via iTunes makes me wonder if the whole thing would really be worth it.  I’m begging you right now Apple, if you bring this product to life, give me a different app to manage my bike rides.  Don’t make me go through the pig we call iTunes!  The document lists some other fluffy features like locating the nearest bike path or finding other riders.  Chances are, I’m either already on the nearest bike path, or I already know where it is.  You see, some of us actually research where we are headed before we go there.  Locating other riders has a component of neat to it, but I have to go back to the navigation issue.  Do I want to be working through a bunch of screens while I am screaming down a road?  Probably not.

The big question assuming this all comes to production is price.  I can get the bulk of the features I like in the Garmin 705.  With the required add ons, it’s going to set me back around $650 from Garmin.   That’s a load of cash and I’m sure quite a bit of it has to be wrapped up in the display.  Since what Apple is proposing here would seem to be handled with some custom sensors, custom mounts, and software it should be able to be considerably lower in price than Garmin assuming you bring your own display unit (iPhone/iPod Touch) with you.  So, what does Apple need to do to make this something I want?  Make it affordable.  Otherwise, I might as well buy the Garmin.

I’ll continue to pour through the very long patent filing.  In the mean time, there are a couple of drawings on CrunchGear you can look over.  What do you suppose they would name this thing?

Update All The Way; The Importance of Updating Third Pary Applications


Courtesty Luigi Diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So, your Windows updates are all current. Your virus scanner is current.  Good to go right?  Wrong.  Windows update and your virus scanner only updates Microsoft products and your virus scanner respectively.  What about Adobe Reader, Flash, Java, Firefox, Chromium, and other third party applications?  Are they up to date?  How do you know?  Why do you care?

Let’s start with why you need to care.  You need to care because the third party applications that we use are subject to security vulnerabilities just like the operating systems are.  Software vendors are constantly looking for bugs and releasing patches to eliminate the vulnerabilities they do find.  The bad guys are always on the look out for third party vulnerabilities as well.  They will use them to try and take control of your system for ugly purposes.  Security firm Secunia is reporting that third party vulnerabilities are now seen as the biggest risk to computer security.  Think of Windows updates as locking the front door and virus scanner updates as locking the back door.  Third party updates would then be the equivalent of locking the windows in your home.   The bad guys will take any means they can find to break in.  Getting in through a window is just as good as getting in through a door.  Once you’re in, you’re in.  If you don’t have an IT department or if you are the IT department, it’s your job to lock things down.

How do you know if your applications are up to date?  These days, most of them come with an update utility.  So, you could go to every single third party application and run the update utility to make sure you have the most current version.  If they don’t have an update utility built in, you’ll have to go to the company website and see if you have the most current version.  As you can see, you don’t have to have very many applications installed for this process to become excruciating.  Fortunately, there is a much better solution.  Secunia’s Personal Security Inspector (PSI) is a small tool that scans your computer for third party applications, then compares the versions on your computer to a database listing the most current versions.  A report is generated, listing anything that is out of date.  In Easy Mode, you simply press a button and your web browser is pointed to the vendor’s download page where you can get the updated version.  PSI is a simple, easy to use piece of software that should be a vital part of your security arsenal.  When scanning my own Windows XP machine, I found that I was embarrassingly out of date on a number of apps.   I recommend you get your copy today.  Best news of all?  It’s free for personal use.