Anonymity on the net is a topic that is discussed more and more frequently. We all know that many services on the net can be used anonymously. Or can they? The Internet is a giant data processing machine, and data about us users is getting more and more important. Anonymity on the net is to an increasing degree becoming a hallucination. Your access is logged, your surfing is tracked by cookies and the big data companies are even gathering info about your non-digital life. People are to an increasing degree doing things online thinking they are anonymous, but in reality they leave traces behind. These traces can lead back to their real identities, and in worst case put them in serious trouble.
I’m not going into the big picture about anonymity and privacy here. I’m going to present a tool that can be used to obfuscate your true identity. The anonymity network TOR. This is a tool and network that provides fairly strong protection against anyone who try to find out where a connection over the Internet really came from.
Let’s first debunk two myths.
So what’s the problem we are trying to tackle here? Practically all services on the net log all access. This log contains the so called IP-address that you are using, no matter if you have entered your real name at the site or not. The IP-address is a numeric code that is unique for all devices that connect to the net. Your ISP assigns one to your computer (or router, or modem) automatically when you connect to the net and you don’t have to worry about that. When you surf “anonymously” on a site, the site owner will know this IP-address but not who it has been assigned to. That information remains in the ISP’s log and is typically revealed only to authorities when investigating crimes. (Depends on local laws.) So you can under normal circumstances be traced back to your ISP, but the trace stops there.
So you have a certain level of privacy when surfing from home. But what about your computer at work? Here the company is in the ISP’s position. All traffic you generate can easily be traced to the company, but not to your workstation. The company’s administrators may be able to trace further, but that depends on how the internal network is managed.
Here’s some examples of situations where the default protection may be insufficient:
TOR is a privacy network that routes your traffic through a chain of several randomly picked servers before it goes to the site you are accessing. The traffic is encrypted all the way from your computer to the last relay machine. The protocol is also designed so that the relaying machines never know more than they need to know. The first server knows who you are but not what you are doing or what site you are accessing. The last server can see your traffic in plaintext and knows where it is going, but do not know who you are. None of this is however logged by the TOR relays as their purpose is to ensure your privacy. Even if someone with malicious intent would get hold of one of these servers, they would not be able to reveal your secret.
The simplest way to use TOR is to download and install the browser bundle. It consists of two parts that work together seamlessly. “Vidalia” is the control center that sets up the chain of secure servers and handles communication. “TorBrowser” is a Firefox-based web browser that is preconfigured to communicate through TOR. It makes it easy to start using TOR, no nerdy settings needed. A separate browser is also really necessary to guard your privacy as your normal browser is full of cookies that can identify you.
Installing TOR is easy, but that alone does not guard your identity. If you want to be truly anonymous at some certain site, you need to follow some additional guidelines.
Disclaimer. I hope you never truly need this kind of protection. But if you are in doubt, play safe and cover your tracks. Also keep in mind that it is tricky to be truly anonymous on the net. That is especially true if you are wanted by the authorities. Do not rely solely on this article if you are in a situation where your personal safety depends on anonymity, like for high-end whistle-blowers or opposition activists in non-democratic countries. What’s said above is a good start in these situations too, but you should get a more comprehensive understanding of on-line anonymity before putting yourself at risk.
Check what your surfing looks like from the site owners’ perspective. This site reveals the info. If using several connections, like home and work, check all of them. If you install TOR, visit the site from the TorBrowser to see how the address has changed.
PS. Another way to see the need for anonymity. The law protects our property against thieves, but still we use locks. The law protects our privacy on-line (to some extent), but most people do not enforce that in any way. TOR is for privacy what a lock is for theft. Why not play safe and lock it?
Photo by zigazou76 @ Flickr
Ordinary people here in Finland have been confronted with yet another cybersecurity acronym lately, DoS. And this does not mean that retro-minded people are converting back to the pre-Windows operating system MS-DOS that we used in the eighties. Today DoS stands for Denial of Service. This case started on New Year’s Eve when customers of the OP-Pohjola bank experienced problems withdrawing cash from ATMs and accessing the on-line bank. The problems have now continued with varying severity for almost a week. What happens behind the scene is that someone is controlling a large number of computers. All these computers are instructed to bombard the target system with network traffic. This creates an overload situation that prevents ordinary customers from accessing the system. It’s like a massive cyber traffic jam. The involved computers are probably ordinary home computes infected with malware. Modern malware is versatile and can be used for varying purposes, like stealing your credit card number or participating in DoS-attacks like this. But what does this mean for me, the ordinary computer user? First, you are not at risk even if a system you use is the victim of a DoS-attack. The attack cannot harm your computer even if you try to access the system during the attack. Your data in the target system is usually safe too. The attack prevents people from accessing the system but the attackers don’t get access to data in the system. So inability to use the system is really the only harm for you. Well, that’s almost true. What if your computer is infected and participates in the attack? That would use your computer resources and slow down your Internet connection, not to speak about all the other dangers of having malware on your system. Keeping the device clean is a combination of common sense when surfing and opening attachments, and having a decent protection program installed. So you can participate in fighting DoS-attacks by caring for your own cyber security. But why? Who’s behind attacks like this and what’s the motive? Kids having fun and criminals extorting companies for money are probably the most common motives right now. Sometimes DoS-victims also accuse their competitors for the attack. But cases like this does always raise interesting questions about how vulnerable our cyber society is. There has been a lot of talk about cyber war. Cyber espionage is already reality, but cyber war is still sci-fi. This kind of DoS-attack does however give us a glimpse of what future cyber war might look like. We haven’t really seen any nations trying to knock out another county’s networks. But when it happens, it will probably look like this in greater scale. Computer-based services will be unavailable and even radio, TV, electricity and other critical services could be affected. So a short attack on a single bank is more like an annoyance for the customers. But a prolonged attack would already create sever problems, both for the target company and its customers. Not to talk about nation-wide attacks. Cyber war might be sci-fi today, but it is a future threat that need to be taken seriously. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Andreas Kaltenbrunner.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word! Safe surfing, Micke PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address. Image by Yumi Kimura
Many techie terms in the headlines lately. Supercookies, supertrackers, HTTP headers and X-UIDH. If you just skim the news you will learn that this is some kind of new threat against our privacy. But what is it really? Let’s dig a bit deeper. We will discover that this is an issue of surprisingly big importance. Cookies are already familiar to most of us. These are small pieces of information that a web server can ask our browser to store. They are very useful for identifying users and managing sessions. They are designed with security and privacy in mind, and users can control how these cookies are used. In short, they are essential, they can be a privacy problem but we have tools to manage that threat. What’s said above is good for us ordinary folks, but not so good for advertisers. Users get more and more privacy-aware and execute their ability to opt out from too excessive tracking. The mobile device revolution has also changed the game. More and more of our Internet access is done through apps instead of the browser. This is like using a separate “browser” for all the services we use, and this makes it a lot harder to get an overall picture of our surfing habits. And that’s exactly what advertisers want, advertising is like a lottery with bad odds unless they know who’s watching the ad. A new generation of supercookies (* were developed to fight this trend. It is a piece of information that is inserted in your web traffic by your broadband provider. Its purpose is to identify the user from whom the traffic comes. And to generate revenue for the broadband provider by selling information about who you really are to the advertisers. These supercookies are typically used on mobile broadband connections where the subscription is personal, meaning that all traffic on it comes from a single person. So why are supercookies bad? They are inserted in the traffic without your consent and you have no way to opt out. They are not visible at all on your device so there is no way to control them by using browser settings or special tools. They are designed to support advertisers and generate revenue for the mobile broadband provider. Your need for privacy has not been a design goal. They are not domain-specific like ordinary cookies. They are broadcasted to any site you communicate with. They were designed to remain secret. They are hidden in an obscure part of the header information that very few web administrators need to touch. There are two ways to pay for Internet services, with money or by letting someone profile you for marketing purposes. This system combines both. You are utilized for marketing profit by someone you pay money to. But what can and should I do as an ordinary user? Despite the name, this kind of supercookies are technically totally different from ordinary cookies. The privacy challenges related with ordinary cookies are still there and need to be managed. Supercookies have not replaced them. Whatever you do to manage ordinary cookies, keep doing it. Supercookies are only used by some mobile broadband providers. Verizon and AT&T have been most in the headlines, but at least AT&T seems to be ramping down as a result of the bad press. Some other operators are affected as well. If you use a device with a mobile broadband connection, you can test if your provider inserts them. Go to this page while connected over the device’s own data connection, not WiFi. Check what comes after “Broadcast UID:”. This field should be empty. If not, then your broadband provider uses supercookies. Changing provider is one way to get rid of them. Another way is to use a VPN-service. This will encapsulate all your traffic in an encrypted connection, which is impossible to tamper with. We happen to have a great offering for you, F-secure Freedome. Needless to say, using Freedome on your mobile device is a good idea even if you are not affected by these supercookies. Check the site for more details. Last but not least. Even if you’re unaffected, as most of you probably are, this is a great reminder of how important net neutrality is. It means that any carrier that deliver your network traffic should do that only, and not manipulate it for their own profit. This kind of tampering is one evil trick, throttling to extort money from other businesses is another. We take neutrality and equal handling for granted on many other common resources in our society. The road network, the postal service, delivery of electricity, etc. Internet is already a backbone in society and will grow even more important in the future. Maintaining neutrality and fair rules in this network is of paramount importance for our future society. Safe surfing, Micke PS. The bad press has already made AT&T drop the supercookies, which is great. All others involved mobile broadband providers may have done the same by the time you are reading this. But this is still an excellent example of why net neutrality is important and need to be guaranteed by legislation. (* This article uses the simplified term supercookie for the X-UIDH -based tracker values used by Verizon, AT&T and others in November 2014. Supercookie may in other contexts refer to other types of cookie-like objects. The common factor is that a supercookie is more persistent and harder to get rid of than an ordinary cookie. Image by Jer Thorp