Short Note on Terrorism and Encryption

When the Paris attacks occurred, “security” agencies on both sides of the Atlantic jumped into the media spotlight to declare that encryption had helped the terrorist planning remain secret. Their spokespeople in the media (see NYTimes, etc…) were quick to jump in making unfounded claims based on secret sources. As time went on these early stories were retracted, or as the case of the NYTimes, simply pulled without comment.

Then a text was found on a terrorist’s phone in clear text. The tech privacy/security community was quick to jump out with their own claims that the terrorists did not use encryption.

Both sides are wrong and both of their arguments are red herrings, they both do a dis-service to those they claim to represent.

Let’s start with the privacy advocates’ arguments. All that we know is that the terrorists sent at least one message unencrypted, we do not know anything of the (probably many) messages sent previously. To focus on the fact that they did not use encryption (when logic tells us that they probably did) makes it seem that if they had used encryption then it would be alright to call for governmental back doors to its use. Refusing to enter the sty with the 3 letter agencies would have been the better course, for when it is eventually proven that the terrorists did in fact use encryption for some communications, the argument is lost.

The NSA/GCHQ/FBI arguments for back doors is based on a false dilemma. When these agencies make  claims that terrorists used encryption the correct response is not “did not”, but instead “so what!”. So what if they did use encryption? That does not lead to the conclusion that no one else can use secure communications.  Without privacy there can be no freedom, each is contingent upon the other. These terrorists traveled by train, should we make travel by train illegal? These terrorists had passports, they could not have accomplished their deed without these passports, should we outlaw passports? This is preposterous, it is as preposterous as the claims that secure communications should be banned because the terrorists used it.

I have a right to secure communication and privacy. If I choose to encrypt the data on my phone, my tablet, my computer; then that is my choice [edit: same as whether I choose to lock my house and car]. The government does not have a right to a back door to that data [nor keys to my house]. The privacy advocates argue that any governmental back door could be exploited by bad actors and should therefore not be mandated. I would take a different tack, and argue that the government has no right or authority to demand a back door, even if it could be proven that others could not exploit it. It is my nature endowed right to privacy to have my data secured and my communications private, period.

I recommend Wickr for secure communications. Wickr is encrypted messaging and is available for Windows, Linux, OSX, Android, and iOS. It is easy to use and free for personal use. You can message me at user “foggytown”

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Firefox 42, Major Improvements

Firefox 42 was just released with major improvements for both Android and desktop. Firefox now has tracking blocking built in! By default it is only on during private browsing, to enable it for general use go to about:config and scroll down to privacy.trackingprotection.enabled and set the value to true. This works on both mobile and desktop. It will block many ads and most trackers and works similarly to Ghostery or Privacy Badger.

For desktop use, Firefox also now includes an icon to show which tab is playing audio and the ability to mute it without leaving the current tab. This is a catch up feature that has been available in Chrome for some time. Still a welcome addition.

Firefox usage is in decline and that is a shame. The one browser coded by a non-profit with keeping the web open as its stated goal. Safari, IE/Edge, and Chrome are all made by large corporations concerned more with molding the web to their own needs/profits that with the fate of their users. Even after Edward Snowden’s revelations, many still cling to these locked down proprietary browsers. I honestly do not understand it.

Windows 10…What’s Up With That?

A couple of days ago I formatted Windows 10 and installed Kubuntu on my desktop. More on that in just a moment.

Anandtech has it’s comprehensive Windows 10 review up. If you are considering Win10, you should check out the review.

I took part in the Win10 Consumer Preview program from the day it was announced. I was more than happy to dump Windows 8.1…even for beta software. While some of the preview builds were a bit on the buggy side, my general impressions of Win10 were favorable. I knew the consumer preview was hovering up a fair amount of data by and about me, but I figured it was a beta and MS deserved all the telemetry they could get to make Win10 a solid release. My computer originally came with Win7, I upgraded it to Win8 and then to 8.1 and then installed the Win10 previews and the final release. I never once had a catastrophic failure. After Win10 final was released I did a clean install…hey I liked the OS and wanted the optimum experience. Shortly after that my problems started. First Windows Update installed a bad graphics driver and borked my system. I had to go back to a restore point to make my computer usable. Then MS pushed the faulty driver again, forcing me  to roll back the driver and disconnect from the internet while I figured out how to stop the automatic update. I finally found a setting to stop driver updates, it was in the old “System Settings” a leftover from Win95…you know the one that was re-labeled “Advanced System Settings” in XP or Vista. Talk about having to drill down. A pain in the behind to be sure and defensive computing should not be a requirement against your OS vendor.

And then the privacy hullabaloo broke. If you are unaware of the privacy controversy, let me Bing that for you.

Then the clincher happened. I use a tv as a second monitor and speakers, it is connected through hdmi. Every time the computer slept I would lose audio which required a reboot to fix. Once again, none of the preview releases had this problem…but there it was in the final.

So just as I was getting excited about the imminent release of Cortana for Android and the improved integration that would bring, I decided to bail on Windows once again. I still don’t know what made me go back to Windows last time…I am like the battered spouse returning to the abuser time and time again. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson for good this time…but…time will tell.

Computing’s Big Birthday

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Windows 95. An operating system that changed the very fabric of society. Hyperbole? No. Pre-Win95, computers were for business, the elite, and a handful of geeks. Win95 along with (comparatively) cheap Intel processors introduced the era of the $1000 PC and began bringing to fruition Gates’ vision of a PC on every desktop.

A monumental release it was. However, today marks an even bigger anniversary in computing history. Today is the 24th anniversary of Linus Torvalds’ unveiling of his eponymous OS, Linux.

While Linux never gained traction on the desktop, it has taken the rest of the computing environment by storm. Powering most of the internet infrastructure, the vast majority of smart phones, it is running in everything from satellites to automobiles to air traffic control to nuclear submarines.

While most of us toil away on Windows PCs or iOS tablets, it is Linux which has become the foundation upon which our entire computing experience relies. Today each of us should raise a toast to the little OS that can did.

Finally, A Social Network…

…that I can get behind.

Finally, there is a new kid on the block. And while the deck may be stacked against it, I hope it succeeds. Taking on tech behemoths such as Google and Facebook can be no easy task for a scrappy young start-up. But this service has an ace or two up its sleeve: Privacy and User Control. Imagine that, two things that both Facebook and Google Plus sorely lack.

I am speaking of MeWe by the company Sgrouples. MeWe doesn’t bill itself as a social network but as a private communications network.

Compare MeWe’s 815 word privacy policy written in common English to Facebook’s 5443 word jumble of legalese. If you have ever read a privacy policy, then you know that the shorter the better. It takes very few words to say that your data is protected, but many many words to explain how your data will be exploited.

The site has the full backing of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the W3C.

“The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information. The power to abuse the open Internet has become so tempting both for government and big companies. MeWe
gives the power of the Internet back to the people with a platform built for collaboration and privacy.”  Sir Tim Berners-Lee
To me this seems like a much needed service. So even though I don’t know anyone who uses the service yet, I went ahead and signed up for an account with the hope that it succeeds.
Check out the press release announcing the service. You can find me on MeWe at:
What do you think, is there room for one more social network?

Still Replacing Google Services

I’ve been using the internet long enough to remember the wreck it was before Google came along.  Before Google came along, search engines only indexed meta data–and shady sites would lie in their meta data (description tag) causing the accidental opening of porn sites and other things that one would rather not see. Google’s indexing of entire sites was revolutionary and made the web a better place.

Then along came Gmail with its then whopping 1 GB of storage. Before this, webmail services offered a few MBs and it was necessary to delete mail as it came in to keep from exceeding your quota.  Adequate storage was an amazing idea and made the web a better place.

Over time Google released more services, many revolutionary, many amazing, many making the web a better place. I found myself using many of them…Android, Play Store, Search, Docs, Drive, Voice, Reader, Chrome, Music, News, Maps, Calendar, Sites, Books, Picasa, Youtube,…

Then, at about the same time, three events occurred that caused me to re-think my relationship with Google and its services. First there was Google Now, a fairly amazing predictive assistant for Android. Then Google Plus, an attempt by Google to compete with Facebook. And thirdly, Larry Page replaced Eric Schmidt as CEO of Google. Let’s take each of these in order before continuing.

When Google Now was released I quickly enabled it on my phone.  And like many Google services, it was amazing. Within a few days it was offering up suggestions and it quickly became apparent that Google had amassed a huge amount of data about me. They knew when and where I worked, they knew where I went, where I wanted to go (maps searches), who I talked to, intimate details of my life (calendar), and much much more. Appalled, I turned off Google Now and began re-thinking my relationship to Google.

Google saw Facebook eating the internet and cobbled together Google Plus to compete. Not deterred by no one using it, Google forced integration into its other services to push up the user base.  Picasa web was diminished as photo features were pushed to Plus, Youtube comments need a Plus account to use, you can not review an app on the Play Store without having a Plus account, and many more. As it spread, Plus also became more and more intrusive. And since no one uses Plus, there was no added value to this increasingly intrusive activity.

Eric Schmidt was always creepy, but when he turned the reigns of Google over to co-founder Larry Page, the don’t do evil thing seems to have fallen by the wayside. He seems mostly to blame for the ever increasing encroachment of Plus into everything while coming off as Machiavellian to a dangerous degree. From ending popular services to creating a dystopian future, Google has become a much worse public citizen since his return.

These three events, along with the Snowden leaks, have led me to reconsider my relationship with Google. There is no guarantee that Google is a decent steward of my data, even the fact that the accumulated data exists at all, makes it a target for NSA snooping or other nefarious access. The question I had to ask was, “do I trust an ad agency to know the most intimate details of my life?” Despite all the services that it offers, Google remains an advertising agency and amassing a portfolio on each of its users is its main objective. There is an old saw that states that “when a company is giving away its services, the product is you.” This could not be truer of Google, they do not offer these amazing services out of an altruistic leaning. The product is you.

With the decision made to start decreasing my reliance on Google’s many services, the question became how to begin? Particularly when the company has become synonymous with the internet? The rest of this post illustrates my personal pulling back (or is that pushing out?) from Google’s many services, finding alternatives and shuffling data to make things work in a cohesive fashion. My journey will not translate to your path, I only offer it here as one possibility, as they say: “Your mileage may vary.”

Before breaking down the challenges of switching various services, one other point must be brought to light. Integration. Google is huge and its reach is both long and wide, the integration of its various services is perhaps the largest hurdle to leaving it behind. Add a contact to Gmail and it automatically changes on your Android device and on Voice. And since no single service can replace Google (there would be no point in switching if it did) some of this convenience will surely be lost.

With the preamble out of the way, lets jump into switching services, we’ll start with the big one: Search. Google has become synonymous with search to the point that we actually use it as a verb. They are also very good at it, this makes it difficult to find a decent alternative. Two privacy focused alternatives are available; DuckDuckGo and IXQuick. Each of these services had major road blocks preventing me from switching to them as replacements to Google search. DuckDuckGo while offering quality results without tracking cookies does not allow one to filter for recent documents, a feature that I am dependent on for finding things. IXQuick pulls and integrates results from other services giving good results, it allows filtering for recent documents, but its ads are not easily distinguishable from the results. Either of these services may meet your needs, but I decided to go with Bing for the majority of my search needs. Occasionally I still fallback to Google to find that hard to find item, but overall Bing offers a compelling alternative. While Microsoft may be as bad as Google in many respects, using a single service does not allow them to gain as much of my data as Google has acquired.

Google’s Gmail webmail is another best of breed service.  After googling searching the web for good alternatives I tested three services, any of which could be a good replacement. GMX, Zoho, and Microsoft’s Outlook (formerly Hotmail or Live). Both Zoho and Outlook offer contacts and calendar integration and both sync with Android. If these services and integration are important to you you may want to consider one of them.  I decided to go with Zoho Mail (although I do not use their contacts and calendar–see below.)  After setting up a Zoho account, I logged into both Gmail and Zoho through the Thunderbird email client using IMAP, I was then able to drag my Gmail archive into Zoho where it was uploaded allowing me to have continuity. I then forwarded my Gmail to Zoho giving me plenty of time to get my email changed with friends, associates, and services. I use my own domain with Zoho which is free and easy to set up.

Some of the Google services that I was using I found to be superfluous and unnecessary.  So while seeking alternatives, I found that I didn’t really need one, I simply dropped the service. These unneeded services included Google Music, Youtube, and Google Now. I have a large local collection of music and really did not need Google’s Music service. If you stream music you might consider a service like Pandora or Spotify; for buying digital music I use Amazon mp3 store. Since my online video needs are limited, I found Vimeo to be a solid replacement for Youtube. Google Now was simply dumped as not necessary to my needs.

Maps is a hard to do service that Google has done a great job with, finding a replacement was difficult. Two online services which come close to matching Google are Bing Maps and Nokia’s Here Maps. I went with Here Maps and find it perfectly adequate for my needs. It gives good directions, it is fast and fluid, and it is easy to use. Unfortunately, there are no Here Maps for Android. I decided on a paid map app that gives good results, is available 100% offline and has turn-by-turn navigation; OsmAnd+Maps and Navigation, it costs $8 and uses Open Street Maps as a data source.

Google shut-down its RSS Reader making a switch easy.  With the demise of Google Reader many services sprang up to take its place. The Old Reader and Feedly came closest to meeting my needs, they are both very good services. In the end, I decided to go with a self hosted service called Tiny Tiny RSS. Self hosting is not for everyone, but either of the above listed services are good alternatives. TT-RSS was easy to set up on my Raspberry Pi and is fast with a nice interface and keyboard shortcuts.

Google’s web browser, Chrome, was an easy one to replace. I simply reverted to Firefox. Firefox is cross platform on the desktop and also runs on Android. If you quit using Firefox long ago because it was slow, give it another try, it is faster and uses less RAM than ever. Also Mozilla, the makers of Firefox, are one of the best internet citizens.

Contacts/Calendar, if you decided to go with Zoho mail above, then you are all set, these are included and sync with Android using Exchange.  Microsoft’s Outlook service also has contacts and calendar baked in and it, too, seamlessly syncs with Android. Either of these two services are more than adequate replacements for those of Google. Once again, I went with a self-hosted solution called OwnCloud. As stated above, self-hosting is not for everyone, but if you are up for it, OwnCloud is a feature rich web service running on your own server. Since it uses industry standards to sync data, your contacts and calendar are available wherever you need them (although in a vain attempt to protect its own technologies, Microsoft is slow to adopt these standards).

For many, Google’s online documents editor (Docs) and cloud storage (Drive) are indispensable.  I was heavily invested in Docs but since Drive was so late to the game, and lacked a Linux client, I never really used it.  My needs for cloud document editing are quite limited, I use an Android app from Zoho called Writer to edit documents stored on Dropbox which are then synced to my desktop. Zoho also offers online document editing as does Microsoft on its Skydrive storage service. For cloud storage with desktop sync there are numerous alternatives to Drive, besides Dropbox and Skydrive, there is also Box, Copy, and numerous others (Wuala, SpiderOak, etc…); most of these have a mobile application. I would be remiss not to mention that the self-hosted OwnCloud also has online storage with a desktop and mobile client.

The Google Play Books is unique among book services in that it allows you to upload your own books and then makes them available on all your devices. This makes it superior to its main rivals, with Kindel being the main one. Since I only read digital books on my Android tablet, I went with an Android app to replace Google Books.  I chose to go with Moon+ Reader which integrates with the desktop client Calibre and also with Dropbox to load books and synchronize reading position between devices.

Picasa web photo albums used to be a great service, but with the advent of Google Plus it has gone steadily downhill.  Since Yahoo has recently started showing Flickr some update love the decision to move back to Flickr was an easy one. Since Flickr now offers a full terabyte of data storage, the choice was an easy one.

For free web hosting I switched from Google Sites to Zoho Sites, while it has ads, they are fairly inconspicuous.

Google Voice used to be best of breed for online telephony, but it has not been updated in a long time (years?). I ended up porting my number to RingTo and have not regretted the switch. RingTo does number forwarding and has online voicemail as well as an Android app.

I still use Google News regularly and have not found an adequate replacement.

A special note on Android: I am pretty much an Android fanboy. However, I have a love hate relationship with the carriers. To rectify this, I root my devices and install an alternative version of Android based on the Android Open Source Project called Cyanogenmod. Since I have a monetary investment in apps from the Google Play Store, I continue to use this service. However, I keep my usage to a minimum be also relying on two other app stores: F-Droid has only free open source apps while Amazon App Store has paid apps and even gives away a free one every day.

So, with the exception of News and the Android app store, I have completely weened myself of Google’s services. While this does not stop the NSA from accessing all of my data, it at least makes it less convenient than the one stop shop of Google.

What about you, are you re-thinking your relationship with Google? If so, how is it going? When I first started this adventure over 6 months ago it seemed like an insurmountable challenge but turned out to be fairly easy with hardly any inconvenience.

(Google) Reader is Dead, Long Live RSS

RSS (Wikipedia) Really Simple Syndication was first implemented in the late 90s but really came into its own with release of version 2.0 in 2002.  RSS was a democratization of the web.  Before RSS if one wanted to follow a website an email list was the only option.  Email lists place the power to curate in the hands of the publishers, they are centralized and leave the reader passive in their content consumption. With widespread usage of RSS power was decentralized and the consumer/reader had control over what they read and when they read it.

In late 2005 Google released the RSS aggregator Google Reader.  The advantage of Google Reader over previous aggregators was that Google maintained the list of feeds and their status on their servers and they could be accessed in their proper state from any computer.  Peruse your feeds at work and when you went back online from home Google Reader would load where you had left off.  This advantage led to the downfall of other RSS aggregators; they became niche products used by the diehard few.  And RSS suffered because of it.  The promise of decentralized feeds with the consumer in control was consumed by Google’s centralized feed storage and handling. Convenience won out over decentralization and RSS became just one more way that Google added to the plethora of information they are gathering on users.  For a time the status quo was maintained in equilibrium.

Then along came mobile.  Publishers and aggregators used the disruption to further cement their hold on consumers and their consumption of web content. Aggregators and publishers then sought to curate feeds based on what friends were reading, likes and dislikes, or ad dollars.  These new aggregators (such as Flipboard and Google Currents) not only serve the reader their feeds but also curate and include ads based on content, in some cases publishers maintain control over content and receive payment in exchange for their content.  Readers were further reduced to passive consumers. The novelty of flipping through digital magazines that are similar to their real world counterparts won out over the goal of decentralized RSS.

Earlier this year, in an attempt to move more people to the higher ad value Google Plus, Google announced the closing of Google Reader to take place July 1st of this year. Google had successfully used Microsoft’s tactics to cripple an unprofitable technology: Embrace, Extent, Extinguish. But not all went according to plan.

Rather than passively migrate to the more centralized higher ad yielding sites like Plus or Currents, consumers sought out alternatives. And as the market is wont to do, others rose to fill the vacuum being left by Google Reader.  A race ensued to give consumers what they wanted.  Internet stalwarts such as Digg and AOL were joined by up and comers like Feedly in a race to fill consumer demand.

Instead of the slow death of RSS following the closing of Google Reader, we are witnessing a revival.  The promise of RSS as a decentralized consumer controlled technology is being restored.  This reader/consumer, while taken aback by the announced closure of Google Reader, now sees it as a sort of renaissance in syndication.  While before their was one reader controlled by one technology behemoth, there are now many aggregators each serving a different niche and in doing so, returning the early promise of RSS.

So, while Google Reader is dead, RSS lives on, the choices are almost limitless. See this chart for a long list of replacements or go here to see a more curated list.

The death of Google Reader is not to be mourned, but to be celebrated; as the title says: “Long live RSS.”