Using a virtual private network (VPN) is an important part of strong digital security. A VPN can accomplish several tasks. First, it creates an encrypted tunnel to a remote server through which your traffic transits. This means that anyone inspecting your traffic (from internet service providers to malicious hackers) will capture nothing but unusable, encrypted data. For best security I recommend using the OpenVPN or IPSec encryption protocols. Next, because your traffic appears to originate from a remote server your IP address is not correlated with your browsing. This is important: if you visit a website that logs your IP address they can use the IP address to find your geographical location, your internet service provider, and all your visits to that site. Using a VPN server that hundreds of other people also use makes you less distinctive and protects your physical location. Lastly, VPNs can be used to help bypass geographical restrictions. If you are in a country that blocks certain content you can use your VPN to connect to a server in another country, bypassing geographical restriction.
I recommend strongly against using free VPN services. The recent story about a free VPN known as Hola! last week is an excellent reminder of why paying for a VPN is worth it: Hola! was selling the bandwidth of anyone who had their plugin installed, sometimes to malicious users who conducted botnet activity. This opens users up to a number of security risks. Free VPN providers have also been known to monetize by collecting and selling user information which defeats much of the raison d’être for a VPN.
To determine if your VPN is leaking information about you or how much information you are leaking if you are not using a VPN, Private Internet Access (with which I am an affiliate) has some helpful links. They will test whether your DNS is leaked, if your IP address is leaked when you send an email, and if your IPv6 address is leaked.
Though I like Astrill, Private Internet Access, and WiTopia, there are pleny of great VPN options out there. Most are under $100 per year and offer a great many features. This is a very small price to pay for the disporportionate level of security and privacy they provide.
Earlier this year a major vulnerability called the WebRTC vulnerability was discovered in Windows machines running Chrome and Firefox. This vulnerability can compromise your privacy by allowing websites to see your true IPv6 address despite the use of a VPN. When using a VPN any site you visit should only see the IP address of the VPN’s exit server. This prevents them from correlating you with your visit with your geographic location, and building profiles based on your IP address. To test your system and see if your IP is leaking you can visit https://ipleak.net/.
Thankfully this vulnerability is very easy to correct in Firefox but it cannot be corrected through the “Options” dialogue. To correct it go to your URL bar in Firefox and type “about:config.” This will open a menu where power-users can make many adjustments to the application (many of these adjustments can be made through the Settings, but many cannot). Bypass the warning and scroll down to “media.peerconnection.enabled.” This setting is “true” by default. Double-click this line which will toggle the value to “false.” This is all that is required to turn off WebRTC and secure this vulnerability.
There are add-ons for Chrome (WebRTC Leak Prevent and ScriptSafe) that are intended to defeat the WebRTC vulnerability. It has been reported that these add-ons can be bypassed by a malicious adversary and should not be relied on. However, if you must use Chrome you should enable one of these add-ons.
For full protection use Firefox and adjust as described above. Using NoScript may also help mitigate this vulnerability.
As I mentioned in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition, ProtonMail is one of my favorite new email providers. As time has passed I have only grown to love this service more. ProtonMail has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, at TED, and in many other prominent outlets. While I mentioned ProtonMail in YUSG: Win7, those pages only allowed limited space to cover this email service so I discussed only a few of the most important features. There are several more options that deserve some attention.
Privacy and anonymity: Protonmail does not require you to submit your name, date of birth, telephone number or other personal information when requesting an account. Because ProtonMail is still in beta an email address is required to request an account at this time (it will be used to notify you the account is ready), but this can be anonymous, too. I have successfully used Gmail addresses with modifiers (as discussed in Chapter 2 of YUSG: Win7), notsharingmy.info, and 33mail addresses to request Protonmail accounts.
Message expiration: Messages can be set to expire after as little as one hour (or as many as 672 hours/28 days). Message deletion works with ProtonMail and non-ProtonMail recipients alike and allows you to have some control over how long your messages are retained. Be aware that this expiry is from the time it is received in the recipient’s inbox, not from the time it is opened meaning it may be deleted before the recipient has a chance to read it. Also be aware that if the recipient replies to your message a copy of that message will be saved in the reply and stored in his or her “Sent” folder.
Secure messages to and FROM non-Protonmail users: When I was working on YUSG: Win7 ProtonMail offered the ability to send an encrypted email to a non-ProtonMail user. Since that time ProtonMail has added the ability for non-ProtonMail users to respond securely to these messages. The problem with this is still exchanging a password securely (this is perhaps best done face-to-face) but if a password can be securely established this would be a fairly elegant solution for communicating with users who can’t or won’t set up a ProtonMail account.
Encrypted Attachments: As of May 5, 2015 ProtonMail now offers encrypted attachments between ProtonMail users (it does not encrypt attachments to non-ProtonMail accounts). Currently very few options exist for encrypting attachments (Mailvelope doesn’t do it) and this ability alone is a huge benefit.
Email Notification: If you have a ProtonMail account but don’t use it daily, fear not! ProtonMail offers the option of notifying you at another email address when you have email in your ProtonMail inbox. Though I may gradually transition a large percentage of my email to ProtonMail for now I only use it occasionally and really appreciate this feature.
Things I would still like to see: Though ProtonMail is really endearing itself to me and I find myself using it more and more there are still a few things I would like to see it offer:
Two-Factor Authentication. I have a very hard time trusting my security to a password only. I would much rather have the added security of a second authentication factor (maybe a system similar to the LastPass Grid could be a useful option?). On the upside ProtonMail places no limit on the number or type of characters that may be used in either the login or mailbox passwords. Both my login and mailbox passwords are in excess of 200 characters and changed frequently which gives me some peace of mind.
PGP Integration. I would love the ability to import my PGP keys into ProtonMail. This would allow me the ability to communicate securely with PGP users who have not migrated to ProtonMail, and to use my own keypair(s) if so inclined.
Encrypted for Attachments for Outside Users: Being able to encrypt an attachment to outside users would be a huge benefit. On the other hand accounts are free; if the person with whom you need to share attachments won’t set up an account you could set one up for them.
App(s) for Android and iPhone: It would be great to access ProtonMail on mobile devices. That said, it is hard to input long, complex passwords on mobile devices making two-factor authentication even more important (as well as the need for users to utilize a password manager). According to the ProtonMail blog (scroll down to the comments) apps are forthcoming for both Android and iOS.
So how do we make this happen? Setting all of this up costs money, and interest in ProtonMail has seen an incredibly spike in account requests over the last months. The best way to make this happen is to donate to ProtonMail (via PayPayl or BitCoin). I have no financial interest in ProtonMail but I strongly believe universal, easily implemented, user-friendly, encrypted email to be a worthy cause.
Since YUSG: Win7 was released, several of you have asked which USB flash drives I prefer. There are two that I use on a daily basis for my backups, the Kingston Data Traveler and the SanDisk Cruzer Fit.
The Kingston Digital DataTraveler SE9 64GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive. I like this flash drive because it is rugged and can survive life on my keychain; I have had the same one for almost eighteen months now and it is still going strong. There is a new version that is USB 3.0 capable but I have yet to try it (link HERE). Though I am quite certain it performs, the redesigned keychain hole doesn’t look as sturdy. I intend to get my hands on one in the coming weeks and report back.
The other USB flash drive I use is the SanDisk Cruzer Fit CZ33 64GB USB 2.0 Low-Profile Flash Drive. This flash drive is low-profile enough to remain in my USB port full-time and does not snag when taking my laptop in and out of a bag. I have two of these, and one of the two is always in my machine being backed up by CryptSync and the other is at my offsite backup location. There is also a USB 3.0 version of this drive available and I have tried it but do not prefer it because it is much larger and sticks out much further (link HERE). This is probably not an issue if you primarily utilize a desktop PC or travel with your laptop infrequently.
All three of the flash drives I use for backups are full-disk encrypted with TrueCrypt.
Just a few days after it was released, the first review of Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition is already in! The review is extremely complimentary and I am extremely flattered to receive such high praise from such a well-known figure in the privacy and security community. If you haven’t run across it yet you can find it HERE.
Welcome to YourUltimateSecurity.Guide! I am very excited to finally see Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition in print and on sale on Amazon.com! Since the security world shifts so rapidly, this blog will support the book with updates, news, checksums, and other useful information. This site is also a means through which to contact me with any questions, comments, corrections, or other feedback. I am very interested to hear what you think about the book!
This site will also provide links to some of the applications listed in the book and in full disclosure some of these links will be affiliate links. As I mentioned in the book, however, I will not endorse anything that I do not fully believe in and any product to which I link has my full endorsement.
Stay tuned for the next in the series, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS Edition, coming in the Fall of 2015!