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What is two-factor authentication and why should I care?

806152_48409889The password is a really old way to protect computer systems, yet many systems we use rely solely on them when authenticating users. A simple password might have been a good idea when we used only a handful of systems, but times are changing. Today we need accounts for all the social media we are on, the mail accounts, accounts for on-line shops, the bank, the workplace, you name it… Frankly speaking, I have no idea how many on-line accounts I have. And I can make one confession. I use the same password on some of them, even if the important ones naturally have strong unique passwords.

And here we are at the core problem with passwords. They should be complex enough to withstand brute force and dictionary attacks (that is when hackers systematically try a large number of passwords in hope of finding the right one) and they should be different on all systems you use (to limit the damage if one account is compromised). Many complex passwords and limited brain capacity, that doesn’t work. There are systems to create and remember many complex passwords, but many people aren’t motivated enough to use them. That’s one reason why two-factor authentication is spreading fast.

Another reason to raise the security is that hackers may target a particular system. They may break into it to steal passwords or use phishing techniques to trick you into revealing your password to them. Or plant a keylogger in your system. They may get the password, but still fail to get access to your account if you use two-factor authentication.

But what is two-factor authentication? Let’s start with some theory. An authentication mechanism can use several factors like what you know (a password you remember), what you have (a smartcard or a mechanical key) or what you are (biometrics, retina or fingerprint scans for example). A two-factor or multi-factor authentication system uses at least two of these factors. The best known example is an ATM-card that you have combined with a PIN-code that you know.

The most common way to utilize this for an on-line service is to rely on your mobile phone. You start by entering your user ID and password normally. After that the system sends a unique one-time code to your phone. You type the code and get access to the system. Your phone is the “what you have” -item as the message is directed to that particular device and can’t be read by others. This requires two things; that you have registered your phone number with the service and that you have turned on two-factor authentication. Some services do promote this option actively and ask if you want to use it.

So should I turn it on? Yes, if the service is important to you. You gain a lot of security for a quite small extra effort. You may have noticed several news reports lately about hacked Twitter-accounts. One of the incidents did even impact the stock market. Twitter happens to be one of the major on-line services that doesn’t support two-factor authentication yet. Many of these incidents could have been avoided if they had support for it. Needless to say, if you tweet for a global news agency you really need more security than just a password. But most ordinary people have services that also are important enough to justify this extra security.

Nothing is perfect so what are the downsides with two-factor authentication? The extra effort to type the code after login is of course obvious. But many systems mitigate this by remembering your device and only requiring the code when using a new device. You also must have your phone with you when you log in, which you probably have anyway. Except if you have lost it, which could prevent you from accessing your accounts. Some configuration settings in your browser may also prevent two-factor authentication from working or force you to authenticate every time you log in, even on the same device. Apps that access your account may require some extra attention. They need an extra application specific password that you can create under security settings in the account’s web interface. And last but not least. The service provider must know your phone number, which normally is linked directly to your true identity. This is usually OK, but becomes a problem if you want to be truly anonymous on the site, or have other reasons to not trust them with your number.

And remember that two-factor authentication improves security a lot, but there is no such thing as perfect security. The skimming attacks against ATMs is a classic example. The malware Perkele targets Android devices and works together with desktop malware to defeat on-line banks. Perkele proves that on-line services’ two-factor authentication can be attacked, but this is not a major threat yet.

So the verdict is that two-factor authentication is good. Turn it on if you can. Here’s some examples of where to look for these settings:

Facebook: Security settings / Login approvals.
Google: Accounts / Security / 2-step verification.
MS Hotmail/Live: Micosoft Account / Security info / Two-step verification.
WordPress: Settings / Security / Two Step Authentication.
Twitter: Not supported yet. :(

Safe surfing,
Micke

UPDATE: Twitter got their act together just hours after posting this article. Now they also provide two-factor authentication. Great! :)

UPDATE2: Seems like Twitter was in a rush to get two-factor authentication out. The implementation is still far from perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction. I’m sure they will get things right, let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.

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Online Surfing in Different Countries

POLL: What country do you want to use for your online surfing?

Online surfing has been around for a while now, and it keeps getting better as technology continues to improve. Websites are better, responsive to different devices, more interactive, and feature a more diverse range of content. All in all, online surfing has managed to stay cool for a very long time. In fact, during a recent interview, Mikko Hypponen specified online surfing as the thing that he’d miss the most if the Internet were to suddenly disappear. The Internet may not suddenly disappear tomorrow, but it is in danger of slowly eroding. While technologies have been steadily improving what people can see and do online, other interests have been trying to develop new ways to regulate and control people’s behavior. Questions about what you can see and do online used to face technical constraints, but now these are transitioning to issues about what other people want you to see and do. Noted anthropologist and author David Graeber recently remarked in an interview with the Guardian that control has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it. Geo-blocking is a regulative measure that seems to confirm Graeber’s views. PC Magazine concisely defines it as the practice of preventing people from accessing web content based on where they are (determined by their IP address). Geo-blocking and other types of regional restrictions are used by both companies and governments, and for a variety of purposes (for example, enforcing copyright regimes, running regional sales promotions, censorship, etc.). Freedome is a user-friendly VPN that gives people a way to re-assert control over what they can see and do online. It encrypts communications, disables tracking software, and protects people from malware. It basically gives people the kind of protection they need to surf the web while staying safe from the more prominent forms of digital threats. It also helps people circumvent geo-blocking by letting them choose different “virtual locations”. Virtual locations let people choose where they want to appear to be when they’re surfing online. So if a user selects Canada as their location, the websites they visit will think they are located in Canada. If they select Japan, websites will think they’re in Japan. I’m sure you get the idea. Choosing different virtual locations lets web surfers bypass these geo-blocks so that their access to content remains unrestricted. They can watch YouTube videos reserved for American audiences, access Facebook or Twitter when vacationing in a country that blocks those services, and avoid other measures that attempt to prevent them from enjoying their digital freedom. Freedome recently added Belgium and Poland as new choices, giving Freedome users a total of 17 different places to surf from. But the list needs to keep expanding to keep the fight for digital freedom going, so the Freedome team wants to know: where do you want to do your online surfing? [polldaddy poll=8754876] [Image by Sari Choch-Be | Flickr ]

Mar 27, 2015
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cyber censorship

Join the Fight against Cyber Censorship

For this year's World Day against Cyber Censorship, F-Secure is giving away free subscriptions for our one-button Freedome app. You can use the key qsf257 to get a free 3-month subscription to Freedome! Freedom of expression is an important issue for everyone. Developments over the past year have highlighted how sensitive the matter is. It transcends national and cultural borders, yet these borders shape the issue differently for people across the globe. It belongs to us all, but it means different things to different people. Reporters without Borders launched the World Day against Cyber Censorship in 2008. Its intent is to raise awareness that our rights to say what we really think are not something to take for granted. Free speech is a dynamic concept that constantly grows and contracts in the face of developments that threaten its growth. While the Internet has given many people across the globe a powerful new voice, there are always threats mobilizing against this invaluable resource. The World Day against Cyber Censorship draws attention to this struggle. Last year Reporters without Borders compiled a list of what they call “Enemies of the Internet” as part of the annual event. If you look through it you’ll notice a diverse list of government agencies from nations across the world. Many of the events that highlight the fragility of our digital freedoms are attributable to these institutions, such as the Gemalto hack that saw the encryption keys to millions of phone calls stolen by the NSA and its fellow conspirators. And in some cases surveillance is just the beginning, as once these institutions identify their targets they can escalate their actions to include oppression. Hong Kong protestors saw this when local pro-democracy websites became infected with malware. Turkish people saw this during the Twitter crackdown. Drawing attention to these agencies as “enemies” of the Internet places the struggle within a larger dichotomy – enemies and allies. Even if it is a bit of a cliché or oversimplification of the conflict, it points out that people still have an opportunity to mobilize and assert their rights. And nobody is alone in this fight - we all have enemies and allies in this struggle. Having said all of this, World Day against Cyber Censorship isn't all about doom-and-gloom. Reporters without Borders is working to circumvent a number of websites blocked by governments. The Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to work to inform, educate, and represent the voices crying out for a free and open Internet. And F-Secure wants to help by making privacy and security solutions easy and accessible for people all over the world. Just get your trial version of the app and then use the key when it asks for your subscription number. Freedome gives you a one-button app that lets you encrypt your communications, disable trackers, and even change your virtual location. Check out this blog post for more information about the app. It's first come first serve, so don't miss this chance to take control of your digital freedom!

Mar 12, 2015
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Mikko Hypponen to Talk Privacy at the Mobile World Congress

This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
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