Online Privacy: How to Get It and How to Keep It.

Is complete privacy online even possible?
Is complete privacy online even possible?

In the wake of the NSA/British Intelligence scandal, and the continuing surveillance of Internet Service Providers and websites such as Google, the interest in personal privacy has grown. While this article won’t be a long-form argument for personal privacy (mostly because I don’t think I need to do so), there are a few relatively easy things you can do to keep your online persona under your control and there’s good reason for it.

The oft-repeated adage is that “you shouldn’t put anything on the internet that you want to keep private.” While this sounds logical and simple, it usually isn’t. So much of what we do is tied up in the Internet. If you’ve ever bought anything online, done a web search or even paid a bill via a website, then that information is stored somewhere and is accessible to someone. And, while many make the argument that they have nothing to hide, the truth is that you probably do.

Not all of us have a murder or mob ties to cover up necessarily, but almost everyone has a debit/credit card information that we don’t want out there, or a few less-than-flattering pictures. On a different note, just because what you’re doing isn’t illegal, it doesn’t mean that you want to broadcast it to the world. In fact, you might be breaking the law without even knowing it.

That said, what do we do about it? Is there any way to hide everything we do on the net from everyone? The answer is: not really, but there are things you can do to minimize the amount of data you drop into the internet, and at best make it anonymous (not directly tied to you).

I’m going to outline a few steps you can take if you’re concerned about your privacy that will give you the most return for time invested. Much like my recent post on internet security, this is a short list of simple to do things that give you the greatest “bang for your buck”.

Your Browsing and Searching

The browser is where most websites will get the information they collect on you. Most of it is pretty general, the OS/browser you’re using, how long you were on the site, and things like that. However, sites that are more clandestine or that you use frequently can collect a large amount of information about you.

Firefox can be set to wipe everything but passwords every time it's closed.
Firefox can be set to wipe everything but passwords every time it’s closed.

Take Google for example. This is a website that we know collects data on its users and we know has been syphoned by the NSA (National Security Agency). When you log into any of their services, or do any searches from the site, all that information is stored and linked together. This data, over time, can build a pretty accurate picture of you based on your search and browsing habits. It’s not even necessary for you to give Google a name for them to find out who you are, as this can be mined from the data you give them. If you’re constantly going to a few sites and logging in, and any one of them has your name anywhere on it, then that can be linked back to your data.

The data doesn’t even necessarily have to come from you. The recent Facebook breach allowed people to access the contact lists of people they didn’t even know and download them. If you are in the contact lists of people who have Facebook and they’ve uploaded their contact lists to Facebook, then you’re on the site… even if you’re not on the site. Your information can be compromised if you’ve never had an account.

There’s not too much that you can do about the Facebook debacle, short of making sure that no one who has you as a contact uploads their data to the site. Though, there are a few things that you can do in general to reduce your footprint online.

As mentioned in my Internet security post, set your browser to hide you online. Most major browsers now have a “Do Not Track” option in them that will tell sites that you want to opt out of being watched. Most “good” sites will honour this and not track you. However, a few will still do so.

DuckDuckGo is not the most powerful search engine, but it's definitely the most stealthy.
DuckDuckGo is not the most powerful search engine, but it’s definitely the most stealthy.

To combat this, we need to take the browser work a bit further. Having the browser automatically use incognito mode (Chromium/Chrome) will greatly reduce the amount of tracking data that the browser can pass on. However, incognito mode can cause problems with certain websites, so, you can do like I do and have the browser clear everything every time you close it. Firefox has this option, and while it’s not as robust as the incognito/stealth mode, it does make browsing significantly easier. Every time I close the browser and reopen it, it’s like I’ve just installed the browser; websites have nothing to track because as far as they can see, I’ve never been to any websites.

Now, if you don’t want to make any changes to your browser or you want another layer of security, you can change the search engine that you use. While the biggest ones such as Yahoo! and Bing also collect your data and share it, there are ones that are built specifically with privacy in mind. The main engine I use to do all of my searching is DuckDuckGo which keeps no logs on its users and sets up an encrypted connection (via SSL) between you and the search engine so nothing can be intercepted.*

Using the above techniques you can keep your search history private, or at the very least separate you from your searches.

Your Connection and Software

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t protect you against someone snooping on your connection to the internet. Even though you’re anonymous to the search engine, you’re not so anonymous someone who’s watching you browse, such as your ISP or someone sniffing packets in a cafe. To secure that, we’re going to need to hide your internet connection.

The easiest (cheapest) way to do this is to always try the https:// version of a website before the http:// (note the “s” for secure). This little change will create a secure connection between you and the website, making your traffic unintelligible to a malicious viewer. Not all sites support this, but some of the big ones do. The site you’re going to will still be visible, but the contents will not. Keep in mind that this is the “free” option and is very hit-or-miss.


Private Internet Access’s “Why use a VPN?” video.

Another option, which is the route I would recommend, is to push all your data through an encrypted VPN (Virtual Private Network). There are a lot of them out there, depending on how much privacy you want and what price you’re willing to pay for it. Some offer a full range of services including news access as well as other benefits like VyperVPN (will run you about $20/month) or simple unlogged access like PrivateInternetAccess **(about $4/month). In both cases, the system creates an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) VPN between you and their servers and then pipes you with an anonymous IP out to the internet.

Someone spying on you would only see a mass of garbled data being sent to some server somewhere where it disappears. Any website or person on the internet would see your data coming from a block of IPs owned by a VPN company. There’s virtually no way to connect the two (no pun intended).

Skype will allow you to stop cookies and not keep a history as well as other privacy options.
Skype will allow you to stop cookies and not keep a history as well as other privacy options.

If you’re only concerned about eaves-dropping when you’re out and about, you can also use something like Hamachi Log Me In to create an SSL VPN between a mobile device/another computer and a home machine. Keep in mind that with this system, anyone watching your home machine will be able to see the data unencrypted. The secure connection is only between your remote device and the home computer.

Lastly, the software you use on the internet that isn’t your browser, such as Skype or Yahoo! messenger is also targetable. While there’s only a little you can do to secure these, you can do a few things. First of all, check your privacy settings and make sure you have everything locked down. Most of these services have a small but useful section in the options called “Privacy”. Also, make sure your chat history isn’t being saved. You can turn this off in every messenger. While it doesn’t guarantee that the data isn’t being stored elsewhere, it does reduce the lifetime of the data and the chance that it will be recovered.

Am I Private Yet?

So the question remains as to what affect will all this have? The truth is that we don’t know entirely. Depending on who’s targeting you and why, the things listed above, if implemented properly, can range from significant annoyance to complete blackout. However, if you implement no privacy measures you can rest assured that some, if not all, of your data is being collected and catalogued.

Tor is a more advanced way of getting privacy online, but it has it's own weaknesses. Check it out here.
Tor is a more advanced way of getting privacy online, but it has its own weaknesses.

Not all of these may be for you. But a smattering of them in some form or another will help, especially the VPN services, and I recommend you at the very least lock down your browser as mentioned above and in my previous internet security post. Even if you think you have nothing to hide, you may find out in the worst way possible, that yes, you did.

* You can get the add-on/plugin for your browser of choice as well so it’s automatically in the upper right search box on your browser.

** If you’re just looking for privacy and nothing else, this is the way to go.

Vietnam and My Interest in the Minutiae

Image (c)2010 by Think0.
Image (c)2010 by Think0.

As I had mentioned on a placeholder post (since deleted) I have been in Vietnam for the past few weeks on an academic trip. This blog is generally geared towards technology, so I won’t be focusing on my trip per se, but on the technology I encountered there. There are a few things of interesting note to me and perhaps others that are part of every day life in Vietnam. I decided to combine these all into this one post.

This has got to be a nightmare for installers.
This has got to be a nightmare for installers.

Keep in mind that this is from an American’s point of view, so some of this stuff may be, and is, used all over the world, but this was my first encounter with it in mass. The air conditioning systems mentioned later are a good example of this minutiae that I find interesting, but is probably old-hat for people who’ve always used this stuff.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the cabling over the streets. While Vietnam is generally well “wired” in the sense that basic broadband was available in the cities I went to, the majority of it seems to be above ground. Cabling that would normally be hidden beneath the streets was up on posts, creating some very haphazard-looking displays close to that of spider webbing.

I actually saw some installers putting in some new wiring, but I was unable to catch any video of it. It mostly involved threading the wiring around the post and to its destination. It wasn’t clear to me how they were differentiating different cables from each other, or how they were avoiding cross-talk and interference, or if they were even concerned about that.

One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, "found" open.
One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, “found” open.

Speaking of being wired, the city of Da Nang was in the process of implementing a city-wide WiFi service. Even though it wasn’t officially available (it should be by the time this post hits) I was able to use it almost everywhere in the city with varying levels of success. It was about what you’d expect from a public wireless service. Useful, but not as robust as a privately-owned system.

3G service was fairly ubiquitous, and the VNMobile Blackberry that I had been given had signal just about everywhere I went. I did not have the ability to test data transfer speeds, but 3-4 bars was present in most locations, and cities were generally solid throughout. Mobile devices themselves were everywhere, just as in any city anywhere in the world, though I saw much fewer tablets than state-side. I’m not sure the reason for this, but I imagine transportation might be part of it. Most Vietnamese ride motorbikes so maybe finding a place for a device of that size is difficult. I can only speculate.

The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.
The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.

Moving on to more minutiae, the traffic light systems are quite similar to what you’ll find in just about every country, with the addition of a timer. Especially in the larger cities, lights had timers that would tell you how many seconds until it would change. It was my understanding that this was prevent people from preempting the lights and causing accidents, as well letting motorists check their mobile devices or do other things at a stop light without holding up traffic when it suddenly went green.

Also, while this might be odd to point out, the air conditioners, both in private residences I visited as well as in most hotels, were these single-room setups. They were mostly operated by a remote, and as I found out later, called “ductless” air conditioners. Here in the United States, A/C units are usually large affairs (especially in the case of central heating and air), even the small units, and have to be planted on the outside of a residence. The ones I encountered in Vietnam used less power, could be placed anywhere in a building and were hyper-efficient. However, they had the drawback of not quite offering quite the cooling power of some of the Western ones that I’m accustomed to.

The A/C on the inside feeds through a tube to a fan mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.
The A/C on the inside (top) feeds through a tube to a fan (bottom) mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.

Lastly, along the same line as the air conditioners, the most common type of water heater was not a tank water heater as is common in the States. Almost every place I went used in-line tankless water heaters. These work by heating water as it’s used rather than heating and holding it until use. These can be set up to heat with electricity (the most common I saw), natural gas or even propane. The only problem I had with these was that they sometimes didn’t get hot enough or took a long time to get “warmed up”. Again, very efficient but not as robust as the tank ones I’m used to using in the US.

I did a lot more on this trip than look at water heaters and street lights, but I thought that these little tidbits were the best suited for this blog. I find the differences in the technology that people use on a daily basis the most interesting, as all “good” technology intertwines itself seamlessly into our lives.

-CJ Julius

The Easiest Way to Root a Galaxy Note 10.1

Unlocking your Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Proceed with Caution)
Proceed with Caution

Rooting your device is a pretty dangerous game, even nowadays when it’s almost commonplace. You can lose your data, void your warranty or even brick your device. However, if you’re looking to really unlock the power of your Android tablet, there’s really no better way. It gives you unparalleled access to your files, ability to install apps that do some pretty amazing things, or even install your own OS aside from Android.

So, obvious warnings aside (above), I want to show you the easiest way I’ve found to root the Galaxy Note 10.1, my favorite tablet. Ideally, you’ll lose no information and really not notice much of a change to the OS, excluding a new app that manages root access. It’s also really quick (maybe 30 minutes at most).

However, one last time, I am pointing out that this can destroy everything, and is just here for your edification; I take no responsibility for you turning your Galaxy Note into a dinner tray.

The Tools

There are four pieces of software and two pieces of hardware that you’ll need for this.

Software:

  1. Windows – Sorry, but you’ll need to use Windows Vista or later (I haven’t tried on XP, so I have no idea, but I imagine it will work)
  2. Android 2.2 or later – Works all the way up to Jellybean 4.1 that I’ve tested.
  3. Samsung Kies – This is the software that you’ll need to set up your computer to modify the system files we’re going to be changing. [Download]
  4. CF-AutoRoot – The rooting software itself, just open this link in a tab and we’ll get back to what you need later. [Download]

Hardware:

  1. Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 – Your tablet, durh.
  2. Charging Cable – Has a 30-pin connector on one end and a USB on the other.

The Process

First of all, install Samsung Kies if you haven’t already. At the end of the install select the option that you don’t want to launch it (there’s no reason to, we’re not going to be directly using it) and to launch in Normal Mode. That’s all we’re doing with that.

This is what it should look like if you've done it right.
This is what it should look like if you’ve done it right.

On your tablet, open Settings and go to the “About Device” page, usually located at the bottom of the options. You can see your Android version here (make sure it falls in the range listed in tools) and the Model Number. It should be something like GT-N8xxx. Remember this model number.

Look at the page for the CF-AutoRoot forum that is listed above and find a link with your model number in the third post. It must EXACTLY match that number. Download that zip file and unpack it somewhere.

Now, on your tablet, hold in the Power Button and the Volume Down button for about 10 seconds. Your tablet will take a screenshot and then reboot. Keep holding down the buttons until you see a diagnostic screen with an Android symbol and the WARNING page which you should probably read. We’re reaching the point of no return. Click the Volume Up button to acknowledge that you understand the risks. You will see a “Downloading…” message.

This new app will be installed after reboot and will let you manage how apps get access to root.
This new app will be installed after reboot.

Plug the charging cable into the tablet and into a suitable USB port on your computer. Set the tablet aside and leave it alone.

Open the Odin-vxxxxx.exe as an administrator.* You should see a yellow box with COM1 or something like that in it. If not, reboot your computer and try again, starting from the beginning of this paragraph.

In Odin, click on the PDA button. Navigate to the folder where you unpacked Odin executable, select the .MD5 file (it should be the only option) and open it. Click the Start button.

After a few seconds the first box should turn green and say PASS. Once it does the tablet will reboot and your tablet is now rooted.

The Aftermath

Root Explorer App is a really powerful tool, especially for the price (free).
Root Explorer App is a really powerful tool, especially for the price (free).

This “autoroot” is the simplest of roots and keeps your tablet as close to stock (as Samsung released it) as possible. It gives you and apps superuser access and manages them through a new app called SuperSU. This is perfect if you’re looking to install some stuff that needs Superuser access or you want to go poking around yourself. However, this isn’t tailored for power users or those who want to supplant Android with another OS.

The first super-user required app that I send most people to is Root Browser on the Play Store. It’s a powerful file browser and it’s free. Be careful not to damage your system!

*If you don’t see the Odin executable, then you may need to get it separately. A stand-alone version of Odin can be found on the same forum attached to the second post. Just download it and extract it to the same folder as the MD5 and continue on.

-CJ Julius