ProtonMail Update: v2.0

My favorite encrypted email service, ProtonMail has moved into a new phase in its beta rollout.  Last week ProtonMail rolled out beta version 2.0.  The full details can be found on the ProtonMail blog, but there are several significant upgrades that I would like to point out here.

https://protonmail.ch
https://protonmail.ch

Encrypted Attachments to Outside Users:  ProtonMail now allows you to encrypt attachments and to outside users, not just to other ProtonMail users.  This is one of the features I wrote that I would like to see in my last post about ProtonMail (not that I think I had anything to do with the decision to add this feature).

Public Key Download:  ProtonMail now offers you the ability to download your public key.  This allows you to share it with PGP users, and allows them to send encrypted messages to your ProtonMail account.  I also wrote about this last time, but I would still like to see this feature upgraded to allow the import of others’ public keys.

Event Logging:  Under ProtonMail’s “Security” tab (in Settings) is an option to log authentication events (logins, logouts, and unsuccessful login attempts).  The Advanced Logging feature displays the event, a time and date stamp, and the IP address from which the event occurred, while the Basic Logging only displays the event and a time/date stamp.  Event logging can also be disabled completely, allowing you to (theoretically) prevent ProtonMail from recording your login times and IP addresses.  According to ProtonMail the event logs are only available in the user’s mailbox, which means they are encrypted.

The most exciting feature won’t be around until a little later this week though: on August 20th ProtonMail will release beta apps for both iOS and Android.

I am very happy to see ProtonMail adding features like these. I would still very much like to have a two-factor authentication option, and I am told that we should expect one late this year.  Updates to follow.

Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS

I am thrilled to announce the upcoming August 20th release of Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS!  The second book in the series, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS is intended to help the layman with both basic digital security and in the development of a comprehensive digital security perimeter.  Written in plain English, Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS takes a step-by-step approach to enhancing mobile device security, and will help you reclaim some privacy in both the physical and digital realms.

Your Ultimate Security Guide IOS - 3DSome of the techniques readers of this book will understand how to employ include:

  • Harden the iOS operating system by manipulating nearly every setting that impacts security and/or privacy
  • Use password managers to create and use strong usernames, passwords, and to employ two-factor authentication
  • Use apps that provide end-to-end encryption for your text, voice, email, and chat communications, and take steps to mitigate location tracking and other metadata collection
  • Use “disposable” phone numbers to protect your real number from data marketers, telemarketers, and lower your online profile
  • Lock down your Wi-Fi network and protect your internet traffic using virtual private networks
  • Replace a variety of insecure native apps with security- and privacy-focused alternatives
  • Protect your sensitive online accounts through a comprehensive, systematic approach
  • Employ best practices to lower online exposure and minimize your attack surface

Look for Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS on Amazon on August 20th.

AxCrypt – File Encryption Made Simple

Immediately after finishing Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition a close friend who’d bought the book called me and asked why I hadn’t included AxCrypt.  The answer I gave him was that I was unfamiliar with the program.  After looking into it and testing it for a few weeks I’m sorry that I didn’t include it; it will definitely be included in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 10.

AxCrypt 256x256 logo

AxCrypt uses the AES encryption algorithm (128-bit) and operates entirely from the right-click context menu.  When you want to encrypt a file right-click it, find AxCrypt in the context menu, and hover until the flyout appears.  The flyout menu allows you the option to Encrypt, Encrypt a Copy, and Enrypt to .EXE, among several other options.  Encrypt does exactly what you would think – it encrypts the file.  Encrypt a copy creates a new, encrypted copy of the file and leaves the original unencrypted.  Encrypt to .EXE allows you to create an executable file that can be opened on a computer that does not have AxCrypt installed.  AxCrypt also offers you the ability to use keyfiles in addition to a password, though it restricts the types of files that may be used to keyfiles generated by AxCrypt.  If you’ve read Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition,  you know I’m a fan of keyfiles.

Opening a file encrypted with AxCrypt is even easier – just double-click and enter the password (and keyfile if necessary).  The file will open where you may view and edit it; closing the file will revert it back to its encrypted state.  If you wish to decrypt the file permanently, right click on it, hover on AxCrypt, and select Decrypt from the flyout.  After you enter the correct password the file will be decrypted and written in plain text to your hard drive.

AxCrypt also has a “Secure Delete” function that overwrites files with a single, pseudo-random pass.   After speaking to Axantum Software founder Svante Seleborg I also learned that it can be configured to do a seven-pass overwrite via the registry, but I will  stick to using Eraser for my data erasure needs due to its flexibility and convenience.

If you are looking for a simple, painless application for encrypting individual files AxCrypt is definitely worth considering.  AxCrypt is free and available from http://www.axantum.com/AxCrypt/.

Thoughts on the LastPass Breach

I have a couple of thoughts regarding the breach on the popular password manager LastPass earlier this week.  Initially I was disheartened to hear about the breach but was very glad that LastPass dealt with it swiftly and responsibly.  I actually learned of the breach from LastPass, with an email alerting me to change my master password.  Additionally LastPass is verifying all intial post-breach logins via email unless two-factor authentication is enabled on the account. I was also glad to hear that the attackers were unable to make off with anything more substantial than very strongly hashed (encrypted) master passwords, cryptographic salts, and email addresses.  Though certainly less than ideal, the attackers were still unable to capture plaintext password vaults.

LastPassLogo822x100

Though I don’t use LastPass anymore I did for several years and because of this and my comfort with it, I recommended it in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition and plan to in the upcoming iOS 8.3 Edition.  The two big take-aways from this breach (at least in my mind) are:

Cloud-based password managers are inherently risky.  This may be a provocative statement because many people use web-based password managers without incident.  But for how long?  Because of the treasure trove of information a password manager contains they are naturally a target.  Secondly, because they are a more complex system than a host-based password manager like Password Safe there are more potential points of failure.  The data must transit the internet, back and forth from your computer to the internet, be decrypted locally to be used, be re-encrypted before being re-uploaded to the cloud server, etc.  A lot of things have to be done correctly for it to be secure throughout the entire process.

Two-factor authentication is important.  When I first saw the email from LastPass about the breach my heart sank.  I no longer use LastPass but I know a lot of people who do.  Fortunately I know that msot of them also use two-factor authentication and as I learned more about the breach I realized that accounts protected with two-factor were still safe.  I gave high praise to LastPass in Your Ultimate Security Guide: Windows 7 Edition for the multitudinous two-factor options it offers: “The Grid” (my favorite), Google Authenticator, fingerprints, Yubikey, etc.  With two-factor enabled my friends were able to rest easy that their passwords had not been breached.  This is the kind of confidence I want in an internet system, especially one with which so much critical data is entrusted.

As I said earlier, I would still recommend LastPass to anyone who is determined to have a web-based password manager.  The convenience of the system is hard to deny, but personally, I’d rather have the security of knowing exactly where all of my passwords are stored.

Why YOU Need a Virtual Private Network

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.

IPv6 Test

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.

ProtonMail Update

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.

https://protonmail.ch
https://protonmail.ch

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.

USB Flash Drives

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.

The 64 Gb versions of the SanDisk Cruzer Fit (left) and the Kingston Data Traveler.
The 64 Gb versions of the SanDisk Cruzer Fit (left) and the Kingston Data Traveler.