Best and Worst Tech Gifts for 2017

The holiday season is upon us, and that means people will be scrambling to find the best presents for their friends, family and loved ones. Geeky gadgets are always popular, but not just for the recipients! The Internet of Things (IoT) has been a major boon for hackers and marketers, as well. So let me help you identify the best and worst tech gifts for this season…

Worst Gift: DNA Analysis Kit

DNA analysis kits have gotten very popular: send away a little swab of your mouth and get back a detailed analysis of your heritage. Some tests even claim to provide you with health information. I’m not here to judge those aspects, however (for that, you can check this article). I’m here to explain why these services could present a privacy nightmare. First of all, there may be relatives out there that you don’t want to know about – or have them know about you. I’ve personally heard a horror story about a paternity secret that was kept for decades – and would have remained a secret had this test not been run. (The analysis kit was given as a gift, by the way).

But beyond that, you also have to realize how much deeply personal information is contained in your DNA – and we’ve seen how even the most secure organizations have failed to keep their secrets safe. It’s well worth nothing that the privacy policies for companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com are pretty creepy. We’re just beginning to discover how to read our gene sequences and these services can continue to analyze that data forever. The privacy policies seem to allow them to share your data with others, as well. Even if they claim to share your data anonymously, it’s your DNA… it is you. I wouldn’t count on it remaining anonymous. Maybe some day these companies will manage to offer a truly secure and private service, but right now I would take a pass on this.

Don’t Skimp on IoT Devices

The Internet of Things is the new frontier of techie gadgets – taking something that used to just sit there and happily do its job, and connecting it to the Internet so your smartphone can talk it from anywhere on the planet. Thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, outlet switches, web cams, even toasters. Unfortunately, these devices (like most tech devices) need to be as cheap as possible. And one of the easiest places to save some money is on security. Most consumers are clueless, so why bother? My main advice here is to avoid no-name brands or super-cheap products from overseas. Bigger, established companies with reputations to protect are more likely to go the extra mile on security. If they screw up (and every company will at some point), more expensive products from established brands are more likely to fix or replace their products.

Avoid Antivirus Subscription Services

If you’re giving someone a computer, I would not bother to buy them a subscription to an antivirus service. I wrote about it extensively here, but in summary, these products tend to be overly aggressive and can actually do more harm than good. Windows computers come with Defender, which is free and plenty good for most people. For Macs, try the free home versions from Sophos or Avira. But your best protection is just safe surfing habits.

Protecting Your Network

The main gate to your home network castle is your WiFi router. Many Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) now provide you with a combination modem and WiFi router, but I would forego their box and buy your own. Buy a brand name router like DLink, TPLink, Netgear or ASUS. I’m not saying these brands are 100% secure – nothing is 100% secure – but they’re likely to fix their bugs in a timely manner. Be sure to register your device so that you will get emails when critical fixes are available. Here are some quick tips to make sure your WiFi router is secured:

  • Set a password for WiFi access – this means turning on WPA2 encryption. Make sure the password is not easy to guess. Write it down somewhere safe.
  • Enable the guest network. All modern routers should offer this option. It lets you keep your home computers, tablets and smartphones separate from less secure devices. Put your IoT devices on the guest network and have all your visitors use this network, as well (their devices could be infected without their knowledge).
  • Change the router’s admin password! It comes with a default password that is well known.
  • Set your router’s DNS to use Quad9 (see this article for more info).

This article has several other tips for locking down your IoT devices, including your router.

Protect Your Precious Data with Redundancy

Everyone should be backing up their files – certainly anything they can’t replace like family photos, home videos, historical documents, etc. For these special digital files, we should all be following the 3-2-1 rule: three copies of every file – the original plus two backups, one of which should be offsite. So ideally, you would have a cloud backup service and a little USB external hard drive for local backups. I personally like Backblaze for most people – it’s dead simple to use and the cost is very reasonable.

Power in the Darkness

I would recommend that everyone with a desktop computer have it hooked up to a good Uninterruptible Power Supply, or UPS. This is basically a big battery that will keep your computer running for a short time when you lose power. It’s not really about being able to use the computer when the lights are out, it’s about giving your computer time to shut down gracefully. Yanking the power from a running computer is really harsh and it could even corrupt your hard drive. Make sure to also connect your computer to the UPS via the included USB cable. This allows the UPS to tell your computer “hey, power is going away soon, shut down now!”

It’s also very handy to have for your Internet modem and WiFi router – allowing you to use the Internet even when the power is off (using battery-operated devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops). You can find some great recommendations on UPS’s here.

Give the Gift of Privacy

Our level of privacy is quickly eroding, and much of this is done willingly these days by using “free” web services that support themselves by capturing and selling your personal info. Besides choosing the best web browser and plugins, there are two services everyone should strongly considering using: end-to-end encrypted email and a virtual private network.

Truly Private Email

Most of us use one of the prominent free email services. And why not? The service is excellent and it costs nothing… except your privacy. Google is not giving away gmail altruistically. They’re collecting vast amounts of information on you and using that info to target you with advertising. What could I find out about you by scanning all your emails? Probably quite a bit. And even if they say they will never abuse your data, that doesn’t mean hackers won’t just steal it. If you’re ready to put a stop to this rampant data mining, then you’re going to have to pony up and pay for your email. There are several secure email services out there now, including Tutanota, Hushmail, Mailfence, and others – but I personally like ProtonMail. It’s easy to use, reasonable priced and they’re expanding their services all the time. You can try their free tier first to see if you like it.

Blinders for Prying Eyes

Virtual Private Networks allow you to shield your Internet traffic from prying eyes – whether it be everyone else in the coffee shop or airport, or your Internet Service Provider (who now has no restrictions on snarfing up your data for profit). Choosing a VPN service can be tricky, however. I would avoid free services and find a reputable, long-lived company that focuses on privacy. TunnelBear is a great choice for most people, but ProtonMail now includes a VPN service that you can use if you pay for their email already. EncryptMe and VyperVPN are also good.

Give the Gift of Knowledge

Last but certainly not least, I personally like to read books when I want to learn about something. Forewarned is forearmed! Here are some great stocking stuffer ideas:

  • Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier. Bruce is a world-renowned security expert, but he’s also a very good writer. This book does a very good job at explaining why data privacy is so important and how our corporations and governments are holding way too much power of us. (Full review here.)
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. This book is short and entertaining fiction, but it’s also a treatise on the importance of security and privacy in the digital age. This book is even free, if you want to download the PDF.
  • Firewalls Don’t Stop Dragons by me! The entire purpose of my book is to help people protect themselves. The book covers all the tips above, and over 100 other tips, complete with easy step-by-step instructions and pictures, covering Mac, PC, iOS and Android.  If you’re giving someone a new computer, tablet or smartphone, it’s a great companion gift.

 

Evading Malware with Quad9

Evading malware can be difficult these days. The bad guys are very clever and surfing the Internet involves several complicated technologies. Software is rife with bugs and traps are ready and waiting for any slip-up you might make. I posted a detailed article on choosing the most secure web browser setup recently that you should have a look at, but today I’m going to talk about something much simpler and more fundamental: choosing your Domain Name Service, or DNS.

Brief Overview of Internet Routing

Whenever you type in a web address like “google.com” or “amazon.com”, you are giving your web browser a domain name. Domain names are easy for humans to remember, but the Internet actually routes traffic based on IP addresses. So the very first thing your web browser does is convert that domain name to an IP address using a Domain Name Service. Your DNS provider is usually just given to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Comcast, Spectrum, or Verizon. Though you can choose whatever service you want, most people never change the default.

Enter Quad9

A new DNS provider called Quad9 has been created by a consortium of concerned companies, including law enforcement, in an effort to stem the tide of malware and botnets. This non-profit organization was founded not only to enhance security but also to protect privacy. (There’s still a long way to go before it’s totally private, though). Quad9 will actively block your web browser, your apps, and even Internet-connected devices from talking to known-bad servers, using a list that is updated multiple times per day. This can save you from phishing sites, malvertising, and botnet control servers. It’s important to note that this service will not perform any other filtering. That is, it’s specifically avoiding censorship issues and focusing solely on evading malware.

Evading Malware using DNS

To use the Quad9 service, you just need to change a simple setting on your computer, and the Quad9 web site has two videos to help you do it (one for Mac, one for Windows). If you want to kick it up a notch, you can set your DNS service right on your home’s router to use 9.9.9.9 (four 9’s, or “quad” 9). Most devices will defer to the router’s choice of DNS provider by default. But you can effectively change this setting for every device on your home network in one fell swoop.

Smartphone Privacy: Reining in Nosy Apps

Every application you install on your smartphone comes with a set of permissions – a list of things it would like to access. This includes things like your camera, microphone, location, contact list, photos, calendar and more. While these functions allow your apps to do amazing things, they can also compromise your privacy. These permissions are usually established when you install the app or first use it. Many of us don’t even give this a thought and just click “yeah, sure, whatever” (I’m pretty sure that’s what the button says). But have you ever stopped to question these requests? For example, should you really grant a Sudoku app access to your contact list? Or a dating app access to all your photos? It’s not uncommon for apps to request way more access than they truly need – maybe to enable some social features you don’t care about or perhaps even to gather intel on you that they might sell to third parties (like marketing companies).

Software developer Felix Krause recently published an article on how permissions in iOS apps (iPhone, iPad) can be easily abused, allowing them to take pictures or video with the front or rear camera, record audio, and even use facial recognition. Of course, you had to have given this app permission to do these things at some point. Maybe it even made sense for that application to have those permissions. But the point he’s making is that these apps can use those permissions for more than the obvious purpose. Furthermore, there may be no obvious way to know when the app is accessing these things.

Need to Know Basis Only

The bottom line is that you should only grant permissions that make sense for the given app’s real purpose, and that you should restrict those permissions as much as possible. For many iOS apps, you can grant permission to these sensitive functions and data only when the application is in use (it’s the foremost app, the one you can see). When the application is not in use (in the background), their access is cut off (or at least severely restricted). For example: why would you want to grant Google Maps access to your location when you’re not actually using it? What else might Google use that location data for? (You know that Google is an advertising company, right?)

Privacy Over Permission

Obviously, for Google Maps to work, it needs your location. And many other apps have a valid need for access to your camera, microphone, photos and so on. But you should question every one of those permissions and dial them back to the bare minimum.

This is fairly straightforward on Apple devices. You simply go to Settings, and then Privacy. There you will find the various privacy-related functions and features, and by clicking on each one you can see which applications can access them. You can then select “always”, “never” or (in some cases) “while using”. Dial them back as far as you can – you can always change it later if you find it’s necessary. This article has some more info, if you need more help. On the whole, Apple does a good job giving users power over their privacy.

Android apps were notorious for being all-or-nothing with requested permissions. However, in Android Marshmallow, Google allowed for finer-grain control. Android 6 gave users the ability to revoke permissions after initial install. The Android interface is often customized by the phone manufacturers and cell phone providers, so it’s harder to give blanket instructions on how to change app permissions on any Android phone. Generally, you go to Settings, then Apps. When you open any individual app and look at App Info, you should find the app’s permission settings. For more info, you can see this article or this one straight from Google.

Privacy First: Apple Strikes Another Blow

Full disclosure: I’m an Apple user and have been for decades. But one of the reasons I’ve been such an ardent Apple fan is that I’ve always felt like they had my back. I’m not sure how much of this is altruistic – but you can argue that the actual reasons might be more compelling (if more cynical): it’s their business model. Apple is a hardware company. They make computers, phones, tablets, and other devices. The software that comes with those devices is almost entirely free and is used to increase the value of the hardware. Most people still think of Google as a search engine company. If you happen to know that Google makes the Android smartphone operating system, then you might think of them as a hardware and software maker, too. And they are. But Google makes about 90% of their revenue from advertising.

Why does that matter? Because this means that Google’s primary product is you. They want to know all about you (and I mean all about you) so they can sell highly-targeted ads. Google may be extremely keen to protect your privacy… from everyone but Google. While Apple certainly has access to your personal information, and they even have a small ad business, they appear to be taking great pains to avoid abusing their position, drawing a stark contrast with Google and others. They actually appear to care about protecting your privacy and see this as a key marketing differentiator.

Apple Fires Another Shot Across the Bow

Apple was the first browser-maker to block third-party cookies by default about 6 years ago, which caused a huge fuss. Google was even caught circumventing this and ended up paying a $22M fine (which is, of course, nothing to Google).

And now Apple is at it again: daring to protect its users’ privacy using a new technology called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP). This feature, built into Apple’s Safari browser, adds some common sense limits on the scope of web tracking. The details are rather arcane (if you want to give it shot, try this article), but the upshot is that Apple is actually proactively trying to protect its users’ privacy without breaking the way the web works (at least not the parts that users care about). It’s not preventing you from seeing ads. It’s not even preventing you from being tracked. It’s just putting some strict time limits on how long you can be tracked, depending on the user’s apparent actual interest in the product or web site. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Let Me Get My Tiny Violin

Not to web advertisers. They’re collectively freaking out, calling it “sabotage”. But let’s just be clear here that people never asked to be tracked. Advertisers love to claim that their targeted ads are so amazingly beneficial that removing them is actually harming the people they’re tracking. From an open letter to Apple from several ad agencies:

Apple’s unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love. Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful. Put simply, machine-driven cookie choices do not represent user choice; they represent browser-manufacturer choice.

There are several problems with this statement. First, ITP doesn’t block ads and it doesn’t even prevent tracking – it just puts a time limit on tracking. Second, making ads more generic just takes things back to the ways ads were before tracking (ie, less creepy) – which is how advertising worked for decades or even centuries. Finally, users rarely bother tweaking any settings – even if they know and understand how tracking works, many people simply can’t be motivated to change their default browser preferences. It’s the Tyranny of the Default. People don’t actively say “I want to be tracked! Where is the setting that allows that? I want to make sure it’s enabled!” But sadly they also don’t do anything to stop being tracked.

Time for a Change

So kudos to Apple for trying to strike a balance and sticking up for their users. But I’m honestly more pleased that this has once again raised the issue of privacy and tracking. Most people just aren’t aware of the degree to which they’re being tracked, nor have they probably considered the consequences for themselves and for society in general. It’s going on constantly, right under our noses, and the results have so far been kept largely secret. (If you want to get just a taste of what these marketers know about you, check out aboutthedata.com from Acxiom or My Account from Google).

We got here because people don’t want to pay for web content – which led us to the ad-based web. We can debate the ethics of ad-blocking, but we really just need a new revenue model for the web that doesn’t incur horrendous privacy issues (for example, the new Brave web browser and micropayments).

[NOTE: Check out this week’s podcast where I go more in-depth on how and why we’re tracked, and what you can do to protect your privacy.]

Terms of Service: What Did I Just Sign?

Somewhere along the line, corporations decided that they needed to tack licensing agreements (terms of service) onto just about every product produced. We’ve gotten to the point where we just ignore them and click “Agree” or rip off the little sticker that says something about “by removing this sticker you agree to…. ” blah, blah, blah. Too long; didn’t read (abbreviated “TL;DR”.) The lawyers who write these agreements know we don’t read them. You would not be blamed for believing that they intentionally make these agreements long and hard to read so that we don’t read them.

And yet, does it really matter? When was the last time you looked back and said to yourself “man, I wish I hadn’t clicked ‘Agree’…”. Probably never. That’s because in many cases you’re signing away something you’ll probably never notice: your right to privacy or your right to sue.

Informed Consent

The bottom line, though, is that in order to have a productive debate on these issues, we have to be informed consumers. For market forces to work, we have to be able to easily compare this product with that product, and that should include the legally binding agreements attached to these products and services. And on a deeper level, we also need to be informed citizens so that we can vote for representatives that promise to protect our rights.

To that end, let me introduce you to a cool new web site: ToS;DR (that’s short for “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read”). The site cuts through the lengthy, obfuscating language and summarizes the key elements of these Terms of Service and End User License Agreements. They even have a simple report card grading system to help you quickly assess a given service, though I would still read the individual ratings because each of us will care about different things. You can even help them to keep the ratings up to date.

A Cure for Your Apathy

If you still find yourself unconcerned, then I highly encourage each of you to watch the documentary called Terms and Conditions May Apply (which can be found on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). You can find more privacy information and links on my Resources page.