2018 in review: security-minded

I spent more time writing about information-security issues in 2018 than in any prior year, which is only fair when I think about the security angles I and many of other people missed in prior years.

Exploring these issues made me realize how fascinating infosec is as a field of study–interface design, business models, human psychology and human villainy all intersect in this area. Plus, there’s real market demand for writing on this topic.

2018 calendarI did much of this writing for Yahoo, but I also picked up a new client that let me get into the weeds on security issues. Well after two friends had separately suggested I start writing for The Parallax–and after an e-mail or two to founder Seth Rosenblatt had gone unanswered–I spotted Seth at the Google I/O press lounge, introduced myself, and came home with a couple of story assignments.

(Lesson re-learned: Sometimes, the biggest ROI from going to conference consists of the business-development conversations you have there.)

Having this extra outlet helped diversify my income, especially during a few months when too many story pitches elsewhere suffered from poor product-market fit. My top priority for 2019 is further diversification: The Parallax is funded by a single sponsor, the Avast security-software firm, which on one hand frees it from the frailty of conventional online advertising but on the other leaves it somewhat brittle.

I’d also like to speak more often at conferences. Despite being half-terrified of public speaking in high school, I’ve become pretty good at what think of as the performance art of journalism. This took me some fun places in 2018, including my overdue introduction to Toronto. (See after the jump for a map of my business travel.)

My focus on online security and privacy extended to my own affairs. In 2018, I made Firefox my default browser and set its default search to DuckDuckGo, cut back on Facebook’s access to my data, and disabled SMS two-step verification on my most important accounts in favor of app or U2F security-key authentication.

At Yahoo, it’s now been more than five years since my first byline there–and with David Pogue’s November departure to return to the New York Times, I’m the last original Yahoo Tech columnist still writing for Yahoo. My streak is even longer at USA Today, where I just hit my seventh anniversary of writing for the site (and sometimes the paper). Permanence of any sort is not a given in freelance journalism, and I appreciate that these two places have not gotten bored with me.

I also appreciate or at least hope that you reading this haven’t gotten bored with me. I’d like to think this short list of my favorite work of 2018 had something to do with that.

Thanks for reading; please keep doing so in 2019.

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LastPass shows how to do two-step verification wrong

I finally signed up for LastPass Premium after years of using the free version of that password-management service. And I’m starting to regret that expense even though $2 a month should amount to a rounding error.

Instead of that minimal outlay, I’m irked by LastPass’s implementation of the feature I had in mind when typing in credit-card digits: support for Yubikey U2F security keys as a form of two-step verification.

Two-step verification, if any reminder is needed, secures your accounts by confirming any unusual login with a one-time code. The easy but brittle way to get a two-step code is to have a service text one to you, which works great unless somebody hijacks your phone number with a SIM swap. Using an app like Google Authenticator takes your wireless carrier’s security out of the equation but requires regenerating these codes each time you reset or switch phones.

Using a security key–Yubikey being one brand, “U2F” an older standard, “WebAuthn” a newer and broader standard–allows two-step verification independent of both your wireless carrier and your current phone.

Paying for LastPass Premium allowed me to use that. But what I didn’t realize upfront is that LastPass treats this as an A-or-B choice: If you don’t have your Yubikey handy, you can’t click or type a button to enter a Google Authenticator code instead as you can with a Google account.

A LastPass tech-support notice doesn’t quite capture the broken state of this user experience:

If multiple Authentication methods are used, only one will activate per login attempt. If you disable one, then another will activate on the next log in attempt. Because only one activates at a time, you cannot have multiple prompts during the same log in.

The reality you see if you happened to leave your Yubikey at home or just have your phone closer at hand: an “I’ve lost my YubiKey device” link you’re supposed to click to remove that security option from your account.

This absolutist approach to two-step verification is not helpful. But it’s also something I should have looked up myself before throwing $24 at this service.

A different default browser with a different default search

Several weeks ago, I switched my laptop to a setting I’d last maintained in the previous decade: Mozilla Firefox as the default browser.

Firefox took the place of Microsoft’s Edge, which I’d decided to give a shot as part of my reintroduction to Windows before seeing Edge crash too often. In another year, I would have made Google’s Chrome the default instead–but a combination of privacy and security trends led me to return to an old favorite.

Firefox had been my default browser in Windows since February of 2004, when it was an obvious pick over the horrific Internet Explorer 6. But a few years after the 2008 introduction of Chrome, Firefox had stopped keeping up, and I began relying on Chrome in Windows.

I kept Safari as the default on my Macs for its better fit with the operating system–although its memory-hogging habits had me close to also dumping it for Chrome until a recent round of improvements.

Last year, however, Mozilla shipped a faster, more memory-efficient version of Firefox. That browser has since finally caught up with Chrome in supporting “U2F” two-step verification, where you plug in a cryptographically signed USB flash drive to confirm a login. And as I realized when writing a browser-comparison columns for USA Today, Firefox comes close to Safari at protecting your privacy across the Web–especially if you install its Facebook Container extension, which blocks Facebook’s tracking at other sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve dropped Chrome outright. I almost always keep both browsers open, with much of my Chrome tabs devoted to such Google services as Gmail and Google Docs. (Confession: I only learned while writing this that Google Docs’ offline mode now works in Firefox.) Chrome continues to do some things better than Firefox–for instance, while it doesn’t offer a simplified page-display option like Firefox’s Reader View, it’s been more aggressive at disciplining intrusive ads.

When I set Firefox as the default in Windows, I also switched its default search from Google to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo. That’s something I’d done in my iPad’s copy of Safari years ago, then recommended to readers last July in a Yahoo post; it seemed a good time to expand that experiment to a browser I use more often.

Since DuckDuckGo doesn’t match such Google features as the option to limit a search to pages published within a range of dates, I’m still flipping over to Chrome reasonably often for more specialized searches. But even there, I’ve reduced my visibility to Google by setting a sync password to encrypt my browsing history.

All this adds up to considerably less Google in my Web life. I can’t say it’s been bad.

A travel to-do for Android Pie: enable lockdown

The first new feature in Android Pie that I noticed after installing it on my Pixel 12 days ago was its Adaptive Battery feature, which hunts and handcuffs energy-hungry apps (yes, that seems like a feature that shouldn’t have had to wait for a 9.0 release). The first new setting I changed was Pie’s “lockdown” option.

That’s the feature Google left out of the keynote sessions at Google I/O in May and instead saved for the closing minutes of a more technical briefing on the last day of the conference. Lockdown disables your phone’s fingerprint unlock and hides all notifications from the lock screen–a useful option if, as Android security manager Xiaowen Xin said during this presentation, “you need to hand it over for inspection at a security checkpoint.”

Or as avgeek blogger Seth Miller phrased things in a tweet then, it’s Android’s “airport mode.” It’s how you’d want your phone to behave if you must hand it over to somebody you shouldn’t automatically trust.

But lockdown isn’t on by default or all that easy to find. You have to open the Settings app, tap “Security & location,” tap “Lock screen preferences,” and then tap the slider next to “Show lockdown option” so it’s highlighted in blue.

Turning it on isn’t super-obvious either: Wake but don’t unlock your phone by pressing the power button, then hold down the power button again for about a second. You should see a “Lockdown” button on a menu that will pop out of the right side of the screen; tap that, and your fingerprint’s no good to unlock the device.

Now you know. Whenever you get Android Pie on your phone–yes, I realize that could be many months, unless apathetic vendor support prolongs that timeframe to “never”–enable this option. Then please get in the habit of using it.

Black Hat priorities: don’t get pwned, do get work done

LAS VEGAS–I took my own phone and laptop to the Black Hat USA security conference here, which is often held out as a bad idea.

Before I flew out to Vegas Tuesday, I got more than a few “Are you bringing a burner phone?” and “Are you leaving your laptop at home?” questions.

Black Hat backdropBut bringing burner hardware means dealing with a different set of security settings and doesn’t address the risk of compromise of social-media accounts. And writing thousand-word posts on my phone risks compromising my sanity.

So here’s what I did with my devices instead:

  • Put my laptop in airplane mode, then enabled only WiFi to reduce the PC’s attack surface to that minimum.
  • For the same reason, turned off Bluetooth and NFC on my phone.
  • Set the Windows firewall to block all inbound connections.
  • Used a loaner Verizon hot spot for all my data on both my laptop and phone–I even disabled mobile data on the latter gadget, just in case somebody set up a malicious cell site.
  • Connected only though a Virtual Private Network on both devices, each of which were set to go offline if the Private Internet Access app dropped that encrypted connection.
  • Did not plug in a USB flash drive or charge my phone through anything but the chargers I brought from home.
  • Did not download an update, install an app, or type in a password.
  • Did not leave my laptop or phone alone in my hotel room.

Combined, this probably rates as overkill–unless the National Security Agency or a comparable nation-state actor has developed an intense interest in me, in which case I’m probably doomed. Using a VPN alone on the conference WiFi should keep my data secure from eavesdropping attempts, on top of the fact that all the sites I use for work already encrypt their connections.

But for my first trip here, I figured I’d rather err on the side of paranoia. (You’re welcome to make your case otherwise in the comments.)

Then I showed up and saw that everybody else had brought the usual array of devices. And a disturbing number of them weren’t even bothering to use encryption for things as basic as e-mail.

When your old laptop dies at the perfect time

My old MacBook Air is now not only retired but dead. And it could not have happened at a better time.

I had resolved to donate the 2012-vintage laptop I’d finally replaced with an HP Spectre x360 last fall by donating it to the local Apple user group Washington Apple Pi, whose MacRecycleClinic refubishes still-functional Macs for reuse and scavenges the rest for parts. And since I’m speaking at Saturday’s Pi meeting about the state of computer security–the gathering runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon-ish in Enterprise Hall room 178 at George Mason University’s main campus in Fairfax, with my spot a little after 11 a.m.–I could bring the old Air with me to hand over.

So yesterday afternoon, I made one last backup of the Air’s files, signed it out of its Web services as per Apple’s advice, and rebooted it into macOS Recovery to wipe the drive and re-install macOS High Sierra from that hidden partition. Then I followed the counsel of experts for a USA Today column earlier this month and used Apple’s FileVault software to encrypt its solid state drive all over again.

Several hours later, High Sierra wrapped up that chore. I once again rebooted into Recovery, used Disk Utility to wipe the SSD–and then couldn’t install High Sierra, because the installer reported that the drive’s Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) software had found a problem that left the volume unusable.

After a moment’s irritation, I realized that this timing was perfect. It followed not just five years of trouble-free drive performance but a complete erasure, re-encryption and re-erasure of the volume, so there could be nothing left to recover–and therefore no need to apply physical force to destroy the drive. This Mac has failed me for the last time, and I am okay with that.

An occupational risk of freelancing: zero words on topic A

The European Commission socked Google with a €4.34 billion fine Wednesday over its treatment of Android device vendors, and I have had zero words published to my name about that blockbuster ruling.

It happens. When you’re not on staff and not in the newsroom as a major story breaks, you can get left aside as staff writers jump on that topic and editors scurry to get their copy posted. That collective rush to publish–and the glut of hot takes about whatever tech issue tops a day’s headlines–may then result in you not being able to sell anything about said storyline before everybody’s moved on to the next breaking topic.

So, yes, I have not opined at length over the EC’s judgment that Google abused its market power in requiring Android vendors to ship its Chrome browser and set its own search as the default if they wanted to bundle the Play Store. I haven’t even gone on radio or TV to spout off on Google getting this roughly $5 billion haircut, leaving only my initial, skeptical tweets as my comments.

I feel like I’ve put my tech-pundit status in jeopardy, especially considering the shameful lack of even unpaid broadcast exposure.

On the other hand, I should appreciate being able to think through this matter instead of having to file 800 words of first-few-hours analysis.

On the other other hand, my self-employed status also means I don’t have to crank out four posts in a day every time Apple commits news. And not being beholden to a single newsroom lets me self-assign less-obvious coverage, as long as I can find a willing client. That occupational flexibility may yet allow me to get back to Topic A in tech news this week, if I can just find the right angle to pitch to the right editor…