Want some privacy and security online? Check out ibVPN!

July 4, 2015

I’ve been using using ibVPN for a while, and I think it’s great.  In case you don’t know, “VPN” means Virtual Priivate network.  To use Webopedia’s definition:

VPN is pronounced as separate letters and is short for virtual private network.

VPN is a network that is constructed by using public wires — usually the Internet — to connect to a private network, such as a company’s internal network. There are a number of systems that enable you to create networks using the Internet as the medium for transporting data. These systems use encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted.

At ibVPN they delete their logs after 10 days, which no doubt frustrates the police.  But they need to learn: Not all users of VPNs and other privacy tools are terrorists or drug traffickers.  Using a VPN, or encryption tools like PGP/GPG is like putting a letter in an envelope rather than sending a postcard that anyone can see.  I think having a private life is an essential human right.

In fact, I’ll offer Cameron and his cronies a deal: if they start posting their private emails, texts, Instant Messages and letters on a website for all to read, I’ll stop using a VPN.  I’m not talking about secret government correspondence.  Just their private, personal communications.

We got a deal, Dave?  Hmm, I guess not.

‘We can intercept your Google and Facebook activity all we want, so screw you!’ says UK government

June 17, 2014

The British government has for the first time spelt out why it thinks it has the right to snoop on our Google, Facebook and other internet traffic all it wants.

Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, has made a statement (available here) that claims according to UK law the security services only need to get warrants to snoop on communications from one UK party to another. Traffic to and from services like Google (which includes Gmail) and Facebook are classed as “external communications”, for which no warrants are required.

This is horrendous. The internet is a network of networks, many of which are in other countries. So a large amount of our online activity will be transferred via networks in the USA and other countries even if the activity is practically domestic. If you send an email via Gmail to another UK citizen, the government classes it as an “external communication”. The same will be true of activity on Facebook, Twitter, and a great many other services, even though your intention is to communicate or share with other UK residents. Tempora, the program run by the British snooping agency GCHQ, gathers data and metadata, then shares it with the NSA. This means that practically all our online activities are stored, and can be used in fishing expeditions, even though GCHQ or NSA do not suspect you of any potentially criminal activity. Tempora is a “buffer” which stores internet data for 3 days and metadata for 30 days. GCHQ’s computers sift through all this data, storing anything that is “of interest”, which means that online privacy really is nonexistent. Which is what many of us have assumed for ages (especially after Edward Snowden’s revelations), but now it’s official.

What really exasperates me is that major criminals and terrorists will be taking steps to avoid this already, for example by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). The real victims of GCHQ’s activities are us ordinary joes who are not engaged in criminal conspiracies but who want privacy (like people who send letters in sealed envelopes rather than postcards). We could encrypt our communications; but how many of us want to do this? and I’ll bet Tempora looks out for encrypted traffic and logs it as suspect.

The law needs changing. But that’s not going to happen. Why would the government give up these powers? So, I’m going to use my VPN account when I go online, and I advise everyone else to do the same. Tempora’s alarms will be set off by my suspicious activity; but if everyone is doing it GCHQ’s systems will overload. I hope. Remember, GCHQ has supercomputers and massive storage facilities. Big Brother, man! 1984 man!

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Privacy really is (nearly) dead

June 16, 2013

Should government agencies be able to track your email traffic, internet browsing, physical location, when you have a crap? Pretty redundant question really. As Bruce Schneier has written, the Prism programme, run by the NSA, has been going on for some time… we only know about it because the unbelievably brave whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed it to carefully chosen journalists, who have blown the lid on the gig. The NSA have been collecting info on whoever they choose – American, British, whoever – for quite some time, with no judicial oversight at all. That means, the NSA has been spying on the entire world, without even having to get a warrant!

I don’t think there’s much we can do about this. Extraordinary rendition, third-party torture, secret prisons run by the CIA all over the world: this is the status quo. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s pretty much impossible to cram the bastard back in. All we can do is look to our own privacy and that of our friends, as well as we can (and remember: the NSA has been constructing a massive data storing/trawling centre in Utah; so they can collect as much as they like without worrying about storage capacity – they could conceivably spy on all of us, every person with a phone line or other internet connection, anytime, anywhere.

The other thing we can do is support whistle blowers like Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange… and all the others out there. As Schneier says in his article on the matter (and I really do urge you to follow his blog

The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.

Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.

We need whistle-blowers.

Leaking information without getting caught is difficult. It’s almost impossible to maintain privacy in the Internet Age. The WikiLeaks platform seems to have been secure — Bradley Manning was caught not because of a technological flaw, but because someone he trusted betrayed him — but the U.S. government seems to have successfully destroyed it as a platform. None of the spin-offs have risen to become viable yet. The New Yorker recently unveiled its Strongbox platform for leaking material, which is still new but looks good. This link contains the best advice on how to leak information to the press via phone, email, or the post office. The National Whistleblowers Center has a page on national-security whistle-blowers and their rights.

Leaking information is also very dangerous. The Obama Administration has embarked on a war on whistle-blowers, pursuing them — both legally and through intimidation — further than any previous administration has done. Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, and William Binney have all been persecuted for exposing technical details of our surveillance state. Bradley Manning has been treated cruelly and inhumanly — and possibly tortured — for his more-indiscriminate leaking of State Department secrets.

The Obama Administration’s actions against the Associated Press, its persecution of Julian Assange, and its unprecedented prosecution of Manning on charges of “aiding the enemy” demonstrate how far it’s willing to go to intimidate whistle-blowers — as well as the journalists who talk to them.

But whistle-blowing is vital, even more broadly than in government spying. It’s necessary for good government, and to protect us from abuse of power.

We need details on the full extent of the FBI’s spying capabilities. We don’t know what information it routinely collects on American citizens, what extra information it collects on those on various watch lists, and what legal justifications it invokes for its actions. We don’t know its plans for future data collection. We don’t know what scandals and illegal actions — either past or present — are currently being covered up.

We also need information about what data the NSA gathers, either domestically or internationally. We don’t know how much it collects surreptitiously, and how much it relies on arrangements with various companies. We don’t know how much it uses password cracking to get at encrypted data, and how much it exploits existing system vulnerabilities. We don’t know whether it deliberately inserts backdoors into systems it wants to monitor, either with or without the permission of the communications-system vendors.

And we need details about the sorts of analysis the organizations perform. We don’t know what they quickly cull at the point of collection, and what they store for later analysis — and how long they store it. We don’t know what sort of database profiling they do, how extensive their CCTV and surveillance-drone analysis is, how much they perform behavioral analysis, or how extensively they trace friends of people on their watch lists.

We don’t know how big the U.S. surveillance apparatus is today, either in terms of money and people or in terms of how many people are monitored or how much data is collected. Modern technology makes it possible to monitor vastly more people — yesterday’s NSA revelations demonstrate that they could easily surveil everyone — than could ever be done manually.

Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power. What’s important here are government programs and methods, not data about individuals. I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior. Do it carefully and do it safely, but — and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programs — do it.

If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you.

For the rest of us, we can help by protesting this war on whistle-blowers. We need to force our politicians not to punish them — to investigate the abuses and not the messengers — and to ensure that those unjustly persecuted can obtain redress.

It must be really scary, blowing the whistle when you see things going on that just shouldn’t be happening. But we have to blow the whistle nevertheless. Otherwise, governments and their corporate buddies will just become more and more untouchable. They will be able to do what they want to whoever they want whenever, wherever and however they want. Is that the world you want to live in?

That very nearly is the world we’re living in. Only the glare of publicity can stop our world evolving into a massive police state. Do you want that?

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Robin Walker – what a nasty piece of Tory to find on the sole of your shoe!

May 1, 2013

I am a member of online campaign groups like 38 Degrees and Open Rights Group. These are groups that ask members what campaigns it should get involved with, then the group will call on its members to send to local MPs. ministers and other such, so our will is focused and targeted and helps ensure that the government and others can’t just ignore us. Divided we are nothing. United we can do anything… well, the government can’t just ignore us.

My local MP is the Tory Robin Walker. Incidentally, his late father Peter Walker (1932-2010) was MP for Worcester until 1992, when he resigned as MP and was sent to the House of Lords to do his masters’ work. Robin has been a pretty engaged MP – he has replied to every email I’ve sent him (he uses official House of Commons writing paper and envelopes – you would have thought that Parliament had discouraged use of snail mail) but only once has he expressed agreement with my point, about the Defamation Bill). Most recently he sent me a (probably form) letter telling me how important it was that the government keep my communication and other logs for all eternity just in case I were a terrorist or paedophile. He wrote:

Communications data is vital for the police in their fight against crime, including serious offences, such as child abuse, drug-dealing and terrorism.

Note the use of the “big 3″: child abuse, drug-dealing and terrorism”. The suggestion is that opposing the Data Communications Data Bill is, or supports, nonces, pushers and suicide bombers. Thanks Robin; yet another reason to avoid voting for him when the general election comes round.

Right now, I don’t have a clue who’ll get my vote: it won’t be the Conservatives, the Lib Dems are no longer a viable choice…if Ed Miliband can drag Labour back to the left I might put my mark by his name; but how likely will that happen?

Brits are wage-slaves, with mortgages and their children’s educations keeping the populace keeping their nose to the stone, while bankers, corporate directors and other vested interests keep their money in tax havens. But don’t worry: the Conservatives want your personal data, phone logs, emails, bowel movements, whatever, stored for all eternity in a massive computer system that probably fail (as do most government-contracted computer systems do). We’re stuck with this situation unless someone does something about it.

Who’s your MP? Does he care about you? I’d love to see along string of Comments to this post, telling us how our MPs act for our best interests. And my current voting advice regarding the next election: go to the voting station, spoil your ballot (I like to write at the bottom of the voting card “None of the above” and a X in a box next to it), put it in the black box, and be on your way. This is not apathy, this is showing the establishment that the status quo must end.

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How to search the internet 4: Understanding search engine results

May 12, 2010

This is the fourth part of my guide on how to search the internet. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is here. Part 5, about using “advanced operators” is here.

So you’ve used Google or some other web search engine, following the tips I’ve given you in this little series, and you’ve been confronted with “results” that don’t actually seem to be any help whatsoever. And it’s true, often Google comes across as an incomprehensible joke designed to make you feel bad. But don’t fret: Google (and its kind) really don’t want you to run screaming; they want you to use the results to find what it is you’re looking for. Unfortunately, this may involve having to learn a thing or two about how Google works. It may be scary-looking at first glance, but really Google want you to find their results pages easily to comprehend. They want you to return to Google.com every time you want help in finding what you want. It can be a rather intimidating interface the first time you look at a results page: but it is all pretty simple really. You just need to know how to understanding the reams of info Google throws at you. Hopefully, this 4th part of my guide will make it all seem far easier.

First thing first: very often Google will offer you a list of sponsored results that may give you what you’re looking for; but if you click on a sponsored link you will be putting money in Mr Google’s pocket and chances are that link will be useless. Forget the sponsored links: go for the meat and potatoes in the list of real links.

Look at the search results; very often you will find other kinds of info alongside those results. Stuff like:

Suggested spelling corrections: Google may think you typed in your query incorrectly. If you’re no good at spelling, this can be a life-saver. But if you know damn well you typed your query correctly, forget this option;

Dictionary definitions: Are you actually searching for the word/s you mean to search for? Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. Think about it. Spelling can be a right tricky operation;

Cached pages: Google carries a huge number of pages that are not currently up to date. Maybe one of those cached pages may contain the info you need. Worth checking if regular searches are turning up sweet F-all;

Similar pages: Often Google won’t find a page that contains the precise info you want, but it has algorithms to turn up similar results. Have a look at them, you’ve nothing to lose really…;

News headlines: A webpage dealing with your query might be hard to find, but it’s often easier for Google to find news stories on related material. And these news stories may well include links to more relevant info. This can save you a bunch of time searching for that little nugget of info that will give you what you want. Remember: news stories are updated frequently, whereas a static page may never be more relevant. Use those options;

Product search: You want to know something about a particular project name. So search for that project name, add a bit of info on what the product can/is meant to do, and see what turns up. This approach works a lot more than you might think;

Translation: So what you want isn’t available in your mother tongue. But it may well be out there for speakers of other languages. Just think: if you are looking for info on a product released by a Portugese company, what makes you think that info will be in English? Search Portugese sites, using Google’s Translation feature or the other translators offered by search services. These translators are often pretty crap; but at least it’ll give you a good idea of what’s what;

Do book searches: Useful info may not yet be available in articles, but books often contain useful stuff. So it can often be a good idea to do a book search;

Cached pages: When a web page is undergoing a lot of changes, clicking on a Google link to a page might take you to the latest version of that page, which may be missing information that was presented some time before. Sometimes, these changes can happen frequently, so a Google link will not take you to the info that the search results first suggested.

Fortunately, Google will often cache an earlier version of the page. So, let’s say a particular page yesterday contained the info you want; but you go to today’s version of the page no longer holds that info. A problem? Not necessarily. Next to the Google link to the updated page will be a link to a [i]cached[/i] version of the page; basically, a version of the page that Google downloaded and cached before the important info was removed. So you click to navigate to the cached page, and you will find the info as it was before it got removed. Google’s system of caching certain pages helps ensure that the history of the web is respected to a certain extent.

If you want to download a version of a page that existed longer ago (several weeks, or months, maybe even years) you can go to [b]The Wayback Machine[/b] at archive.org. This is a project to archive internet sites the way they were in the past, so the current generation’s “now now now” attitude doesn’t drive the history of internet sites into oblivion. [b]The Wayback Machine[/b] doesn’t promise to archive the internet of the past forever; but it is a very useful project that has a multitude of potential uses. Archive.org, like most such projects, is run by volunteers and is always in need of financial support, as well as more practical support such as providing servers. I’d advise anyone who finds such projects very useful to contribute even just a few dollars.

There’s a lot of info on how to understand Google results, and how to configure the way Google works to it gives you the info you want and hopefully protects your privacy, here: http://www.googleguide.com/category/understanding-results/http://www.googleguide.com/category/understanding-results/. I really advise anyone who’s seriously into using Google as best they can to check out this info. Google really is one of the best resources available online… and it’s free! Let’s make the most of it while we can! Before the goddamn Man tries to take it away from us!

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How to search the internet 2: how a modern web search works

March 29, 2010

In the first instalment of this guide on how to search the internet, I gave a little history of the search engine: I covered Archie, Gopher, and site directories like the Open Directory Project. Those are the old technologies, all pretty much obsolete now. That brings us to the present day and the modern search engine.

When I write “modern search engine”, I mean web search sites like Google and Bing. Because they all work in pretty much the same way – the only difference seems to be in the algorithms each service uses.

Now I could tell you all about spiders crawling the web and stuff, but I think most of you would just tune out after a couple of lines. So I will give you 2 lovely Youtube videos to watch instead:

The 3 Minute Guide to How Search Works:

A slightly longer video that looks at the subject from the perspective of a webmaster who wants to increase traffic to his site:

Watched them? Good. So now you have the basic idea: little programs called “bots”, “crawlers” or “spiders” are sent out to crawl over the world wide web, following links, and compiling lists of URLs that they consider to contain good information. And how do these mindless software automatons decide that the info is “good”? It all comes down to the algorithms.

It’s Google’s algorithms – the “secret ingredient” – that has made Google the world’s favourite search engine and kept them at the top for so many years. Any coder of sufficient proficiency can create bots to crawl the web; but it’s the secret algorithms that turn a regular bot into a googlebot. And there just hasn’t been another bot that can compete.

At least that’s how it has seemed for some time. Yahoo has a hard core of admirers; Altavista.com has had success mostly due to its “Babel Fish” translation service blowing its rivals out of the water; but it’s only recently that a true contender for the title of Number One Search Engine to step up and challenge Google. That challenger’s name: Bing.

Microsoft has been trying for years to break into the search engine market, with a plethora of products: Live Search, Windows Live Search, MSN Search – they even tried to buy, then made a deal with Yahoo to get that Microsoft name up there with the giants – but nothing was able to make much impact on Google. Then in 2008 Microsoft (following the tried and tested strategy of “embrace, extend, extinguish”) bought a tech company called Powerset and, importantly, its “semantic technology”. Microsoft claim that their improved technology cuts down on the risk of “search overload”, when a user is inundated with millions of barely relevant results – something that can happen when using Google. And Microsoft has used the near-ubiquity of its web browser, by incorporating Bing into Internet Explorer 8. Google is still number one search engine, but Microsoft has certainly made its mark on the territory.

So who’s going to win this battle of the search engines? I think it could still go either way. Google has years of good form and a hell of an online presence; but Microsoft still owns the desktop and the browser. And anyway, someone else might come from the left field and clinch it in the final seconds – Ixquick is a potential outside bet with their whole “ethical privacy” trip; Google’s got the “Don’t be evil” motto but it’s Ixquick who are out there actually being “not evil” (and if privacy is a major concern, don’t forget Scroogle). One thing we should have learnt from IT history is that nothing is set in stone.

I’ll bet you’re thinking “Oh well done Google and Microsoft, give yourselves a pat on the back… but what in hell has any of this got to do with how to use a goddamn search engine?!! I figured it would be useful to cover all this history and present situation stuff. Well, maybe interesting rather than useful… I certainly find this kinda crap fascinating. But you’re right, it doesn’t tell us a great deal about how to use a search engine. So I promise: the next instalment of this howto will actually cover some proper howto material. So keep ’em peeled… you definitely don’t want to miss this!!

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Ixquick.com: the internet search engine that respects your privacy

December 30, 2009

Most search engines, like Google and Yahoo, earn their keep by selling targeted advertising. The way in which they decide what adverts should be targeted at you varies from search engine to search engine. Some simply display adverts that seem appropriate to the search items you just used. But there are other, possibly more sinister methods. Google, for instance, uses cookies and browser interaction to build up a detailed record of the websites you’ve been to. Although Google say they store this info just for ad targeting and related uses, there’s always the possibility that these incredibly detailed logs could be used for evil. Let’s say that Barack Obama suddenly became a Fascist dictator and ordered Google to hand over all its records so he could use them to help choose victims to persecute. Google is a law-abiding corporation, so they’d give up the info in a heartbeat (and don’t try to kid yourself otherwise – they don’t mind helping out the Chinese government, so what makes you think they wouldn’t obey US authorities?).

Unsurprisingly, some people don’t like the idea of their info being collated. And there are various ways to avoid Google’s lists. For instance there’s Scroogle.org – an independent search site that actually uses Google to locate pages for you but removes all identifying data from the search so Google doesn’t know who initiated the search. If you use Firefox, there’s an add-on called CustomizeGoogle that can anonymize your Google userid as well as tweaking your search preferences in various ways.

But both of those solutions involve using Google. Many people are happy with that as they think Google’s the best search engine out there. But if you object to the way Google collects personal data on its users, perhaps you should boycott Google altogether. So is it possible to reject Google completely and still use a search engine that is good but doesn’t compile lists on you?

Well I think that’s perfectly possible – by using Ixquick.com. Ixquick says it’s the only search engine that does not collect users’ IP addresses. And it isn’t all just hype – On July 14th, 2008 Ixquick was awarded the first European Privacy Seal.
This means that Ixquick is the only EU-approved search engine. Pretty damn impressive.

But all of that means nothing if Ixquick searches are crap. So how does Ixquick measure up to Google? Not too shabby, I think. I’ve been comparing the two search engines side by side for a couple of weeks, and on the whole Ixquick has performed very well. But don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself. Believe me, if you are at all concerned about your privacy, it’s definitely worthwhile for you to at least take a look at Ixquick. Maybe you’ll decide that Google is just too good to abandon. But at least take a look at Ixquick. Your privacy is valuable, so don’t give it up too cheaply.

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