A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for April, 2020

Mullvad VPN

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Periodically I’m asked to recommend a good Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider. I admit that I don’t spend a ton of time researching VPN providers because my primary use case for VPNs is to access my local network and secure my communications when traveling so most of the time I use my own VPN server. When I want to guard my network traffic against my Internet Service Provider (ISP), I use Tor. With that said, I do try to keep at least one known decent VPN provider in my back pocket to recommend to friends.

In the past I have usually recommended Private Internet Access because it’s ubiquitous, affordable, and its claim that it doesn’t keep logs has been proven in court. However, Private Internet Access is based in the United States, which means it can be subject to National Security Letters (NSL). Moreover, Private Internet Access was recently acquired by Kape Technologies. Kape Technologies has a troubling past and you can never guarantee that a company will maintain the same policies after it has been purchased so I’ve been looking at some alternative recommendations.

Of the handful with which I experimented, I ended up liking Mullvad VPN the most. In fact I ended up really liking it (for me finding a decent VPN provider is usually an exercise in finding the least terrible option).

Mullvad is headquartered in Sweden, which means it’s not subject to NSLs or other draconian United States laws (it’s subject to Swedish laws, but I’m outside of that jurisdiction). But even if it’s subjected to some kind of surveillance law, Mullvad goes to great length to enable you to be anonymous, which greatly hinders its ability to surveil you. To start with your account is just a pseudorandomly generated number. You don’t need to provide any identifiable information, not even an e-mail address. When you want to log in to pay your account, you simple enter your number. The nice thing about this is that the number is also easily disposed of. Since you can generate a new account by simply clicking on a link, you can throw away your account whenever you want. You can even generate accounts via its onion service (this link will only work if you’re using the Tor Browser).

Mullvad’s pricing is €5 (roughly $5.50 when I last paid) per month. Paying per month allows you to change accounts every month if you want. Payments can be made using more traditional services such as credit cards and PayPal, but you can also use more anonymous payment options such as Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash (I would like to see the option of using Monero since it has anonymity built-in).

The thing that initially motivated me to test Mullvad was the fact that it uses WireGuard. WireGuard is our new VPN overlord. If you’re new to WireGuard or less technically inclined, you can download and use Mullvad’s app. If you’re familiar with WireGuard or willing to learn about it, you can use Mullvad’s configuration file generator to generate WireGuard configuration files for your system (this is how I used it). Mullvad also supports OpenVPN, but I didn’t test it because it’s 2020 and WireGuard is our new VPN overlord.

Like most decent VPN providers, Mullvad also has a page to check if your Mullvad connection is setup correctly. It performs the usual tasks of reporting if you’re connecting through a Mullvad server and if your Domain Name System (DNS) requests are leaking. It also attempts to check if your browser is leaking information through WebRTC. You can also test your torrent client in case you want to download Linux distros (because that’s the only thing anybody downloads via BitTorrent) more securely.

I didn’t come across anything egregious with Mullvad, but don’t take my recommendation too seriously (this is the caveat I give to everybody who asks me to recommend a VPN provider). My VPN use case isn’t centered around maintaining anonymity and I didn’t perform thorough testing in that regard. Instead I tested it based on my use case, which is mostly protecting my connection from local actors when traveling. As with anything, you should test the service yourself.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 15th, 2020 at 6:00 am

The Users and the Used

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I’m happy that computer technology (for the purpose of this post, I mean any device with a computer in it, not a traditional desktop or laptop) has become ubiquitous. An individual who wants a computer no longer has to buy a kit and solder it together. Instead they can go to the store and pick up a device that will be fully functional out of the box. This has lead to a revolution in individual capabilities. Those of us who utilize computers can access a global communication network from almost anywhere using a device that fits in our pocket. We can crank out printed documents faster than any other time in human history. We can collect data from any number of sources and use it to perform analysis that was impractical before ubiquitous access to computers. In summary life is good.

However, the universe is an imperfect place and few things are without their downsides. The downside to the computer revolution is that there are, broadly speaking, different classes of users. They are often divided into technical and non-technical users, but I prefer to refer to them as users and used. My categorization isn’t so much based on technical ability (although there is a strong correlation) as by whether one is using their technology or being used by it.

Before I continue, I want to note that this categorization, like all attempts to categorize unique individuals, isn’t black and white. Most people will fall into the gray area in between the categories. The main question is whether they fall more towards the user category of the used.

It’s probably easiest to explain the used category first. The computing technology market is overflowing with cheap devices and free services. You can get a smartphone for little or even nothing from some carriers, an Internet connected doorbell for a pittance, and an e-mail account with practically unlimited storage for free. On the surface these look like amazing deals, but they come with a hidden cost. The manufacturers of those devices and providers of those services, being predominantly for-profit companies, are making their money in most cases by collecting your personal information and selling it to advertisers and government agencies (both of which are annoying, but the latter can be deadly). While you may think you’re using the technology you’re actually being used through it by the manufacturers and providers.

A user is the opposite. Instead of using technology that uses them, they use technology that they dominate. For example, Windows 10 was a free upgrade for users of previous versions of Windows. Not surprisingly, Windows 10 also collects a lot of personal information. Instead of using Windows 10, users of that operating system are being used by it. The opposite side of the spectrum is something like Linux from Scratch, where a user creates their own Linux distro from the ground up so they know every component that makes up their operating system. As I stated earlier most people fall into the gray area between the extremes. I predominantly run Fedora Linux on my systems. As far as I’m aware there is no included spyware and the developers aren’t otherwise making money by exploiting my use of the operating system. So it’s my system, I’m using it, not being used through it.

Another example that illustrates the user versus the used categories is online services. I sometimes think everybody on the planet has a Gmail account. Its popularity doesn’t surprise me. Gmail is a very good e-mail service. However, Gmail is primarily a mechanism for Google to collect information to sell to advertisers. People who use Gmail are really being used through it by Google. The opposite side of the spectrum (which is where I fall in this case) is self-hosting an e-mail server. I have a physical server in my house that runs an e-mail server that I setup and continue to maintain. I am using it rather than being used by it.

I noted earlier in this article that there is a strong correlation between technical people and users as well as non-technical people and those being used. It isn’t a one-to-one correlation though. I know people with little technical savvy who utilize products and services that aren’t using them. Oftentimes they have a technical friend who assists them (I’m often that friend), but not always. I would actually argue that the bigger correlation to users and those being used is those who are curious about technology versus those who aren’t. I know quite a few people with little technical savvy who are curious about technology. Their curiosity leads them to learn and they oftentimes become technically savvy in time. But before they do they often make use of technology rather than be used by it. They may buy a laptop to put Linux on it without having the slightest clue at first how to do it. They may setup a personal web server poorly, watch it get exploited, and then try again using what they learned from their mistakes. They may decide to use Signal instead of WhatsApp not because they understand the technical differences between the two but because they are curious about the “secure communications app” that their technical friends are always discussing.

Neither category is objectively better. Both involve trade-offs. I generally encourage people to move themselves more towards the user category though because it offers individuals more power over the tools they use and I’m a strong advocate for individual power. If you follow an even slightly radical philosophy though, I strongly suggest that you to move towards the user category. The information being collected by those being used often finds its way into the hands of government agents and they are more than happy to make use of it to suppress dissidents.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 14th, 2020 at 6:00 am

Upgrading My Network

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The network at my previous dwelling evolved over several years, which made it a hodgepodge of different gear. Before I moved out the final form of it was a Ubiquiti EdgeMax router, a Ubiquiti Edge Switch, and an Apple Airport Extreme (I got a good deal on it, but it was never something I recommended to people). When I bought my new house I decided to upgrade my network to Ubiquiti UniFi gear. For those who are unaware UniFi gear fits into that niche between consumer and enterprise networking gear (it’s often touted as enterprise gear, but I have my doubts that it would work as well on a massive network spanning multiple locations as more traditional enterprise gear) often referred to as prosumer or SOHO (Small Office/Home Office).

Because I live out in the boonies, my Internet connection is pretty lackluster so I opted for a Security Gateway 3P for my router (it’s generally agreed that the hardware is too slow to keep up with the demands of many modern Internet connections, but I don’t have to worry about that). If I had built a new house, I’d have put Ethernet drops in every room, but I bought a preexisting house with no Ethernet drops, which meant Wi-Fi was going to be my primary form of network connectivity. I still needed Ethernet connections for my servers though so I opted for a 24-port switch as my backbone and AP-AC-M access points for Wi-Fi. The AP-AC-M access points provide mesh networking, which is nice in a house without Ethernet drops because you can extend your Wi-Fi network by connecting new access points to already installed access points. Moreover, they’re rated for outdoor use so I can use them to extend my Wi-Fi network across my property.

A UniFi network is really a software defined network, which means that there is a central controller that you enter your configuration information into and it pushes the required settings out to the appropriate devices. Ubiquiti provides the Cloud Key as a hardware controller, but I already have virtual machine hosts aplenty so I decided to setup a UniFi Controller in a virtual machine.

Previously I was resistant to the idea of having to have a dedicated controller for my network. However, after experiencing software defined networking, I don’t think I could ever go back. Making a single change in one location and having that change propagated out to my entire network is a huge time saver. For example, I decided that I wanted to setup a guest Wi-Fi network. Without a central controller this would have required me to log into the web interface of each access point and enter the new guest network configuration. With a software defined network I merely add the new guest network configuration into my UniFi Controller and it pushes that configuration to each of my access points. If I want to change the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) password for one of my wireless networks, I can change it in the UniFi Controller and each access point will receive the update.

The UniFi Controller also provides a lot of valuable information. I initially setup my wireless network with two access points, but the statistics in the UniFi Controller indicated that my wireless coverage wasn’t great in the bedroom, was barely available on my three season porch, and was entirely unavailable out by my fire pit. I purchased a third access point and rearranged the other two and now have excellent Wi-Fi coverage everywhere I want it. While I could have gathered the same information on a network without a centralized controller by logging into each access point individually, it would have been a pain in the ass. The UniFi Controller also allows you to upload the floor plan of your home and it will show you the expected Wi-Fi coverage based on where you place your access points. I haven’t used that feature yet (I need to create the floor plan in a format that the controller can use), but I plan on playing with it in the future.

Overall the investment into more expensive UniFi gear has been worth it to me. However, most people probably don’t need to spend so much money on their home network. I know many people are able to do everything they want using nothing more than the all in one modem/switch/Wi-Fi access point provided by their Internet Service Provider (admittedly I don’t trust such devices and always place them outside of my network’s firewall). But if you need to setup a network that is more complex than the average home network, UniFi gear is something to consider.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 13th, 2020 at 9:41 pm

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The Importance of Open Platforms

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Late last week I pre-ordered the UBports Community Edition PinePhone. It’s not ready for prime time yet. Neither of the cameras work and the battery life from what I’ve read is around four to five hours and there are few applications available at the moment. So why did I pre-order it? Because UBports has been improving rapidly, my iPhone is the last closed platform I run regularly (I keep one macOS machine running mostly so I can backup my iPhone to it), and open platforms may soon be our only option for secure communications:

Signal is warning that an anti-encryption bill circulating in Congress could force the private messaging app to pull out of the US market.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the free app, which offers end-to-end encryption, has seen a surge in traffic. But on Wednesday, the nonprofit behind the app published a blog post, raising the alarm around the EARN IT Act. “At a time when more people than ever are benefiting from these (encryption) protections, the EARN IT bill proposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee threatens to put them at risk,” Signal developer Joshua Lund wrote in the post.

I used Signal as an example for this post, but in the future when (it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when) the government legally mandates cryptographic back doors in consumer products (you know the law will have an exception for products sold to the government) it’ll mean every secure communication application and platform will either have to no longer be made available in the United States or will have to insert a back door that allows government agents and anybody else who can crack the back door complete access to our data.

On an open platform such a Linux this isn’t the end of the world. I can source both my operating system and my applications from anywhere. If secure communication applications are made illegal in the United States, I have the option of downloading and use an application made in a freer area or better yet developed anonymously (it’s much harder to enforce these laws if the government can’t identify and locate the developers). Closed platforms such as iOS and Android (although Android to a lesser extent since it still allows side loading of applications and you can download an image built off of the Android Open Source Project) require you to download software from their walled garden app stores. If Signal is no longer legally available in the United States, people running iOS and Android will no longer be able to use Signal because those apps will no longer be available in the respective United States app stores.

As the governments of the world continue to take our so-called civil rights behind a shed and unceremoniously put a bullet in their heads closed platforms will continue to become more of a liability. Open platforms on the other hand can be developed by anybody anywhere. They can even be developed anonymously (Bitcoin is probably the most successful example of a project whose initial developer remains anonymous), which makes it difficult for governments to put pressure on the developers to comply with laws.

If you want to ensure your ability to communicate securely in the future and you haven’t already transitioned to open platforms, you should either begin your transition or at least begin to plan your transition. Not all of the pieces are ready yet. Smartphones remain one area where open platforms are lagging behind, but there is a roadmap available so you can at least begin planning a move towards open an smartphone (and at $150 the PinePhone is a pretty low risk platform to try).

Written by Christopher Burg

April 13th, 2020 at 6:00 am

Fascism Is More Dangerous than COVID-19

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St. George Carlin once said, “Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter.” While our temporary privileges are in a constant state of erosion, they seem to erode the fastest during emergency situations. During this COVID-19 outbreak we’ve seen our rights erode even faster than they did immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Now you can’t even leave your home without permission:

Citations for violating Gov. Tiim Walz’ orders to stay at home and halt business operations have started trickling in across the state, including a few in the metro area.

As of Monday, eight people were charged with violating the emergency orders. The orders require bars and restaurants to halt dine-in services as well as having residents largely stay at home. Violating the order is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

I’m not going to discuss the danger of COVID-19 because it’s irrelevant. Instead I’m going to argue that no matter how dangerous COVID-19 is, fascism is more dangerous.

What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is most major governments in the world descend further into fascist ideology. This descent has been happening with alarming speed here in the United States. Not only is a majority of the population under a stay at home order imprisoned in their homes, but the national borders are closed, some state borders are being closed, passports aren’t being issued or renewed, the federal government is telling private companies what to produce, and the Federal Reserve is considering buying stakes in private companies. And this is just the United States. Other countries are following suit. For example, France is nationalizing businesses and Spain is nationalizing private hospitals. Disregard the claims of the nationalizations being temporary. In the government thesaurus temporary is a synonym for permanent.

So we now need permission to leave our homes, the borders are closed, nobody can get papers to travel outside of the country, and private businesses are being controlled by the state. This is a recipe for bad times to come, because these are all planks in the ideology of fascism. Anybody who had read even a base level of history of the consequences of fascism should be aware that the death toll was higher than even the most bleak COVID-19 projections. Moreover, people living under fascist regimes were in a constant state of anxiety because they could disappear at any moment for the transgression of angering a random government goon… or a neighbor.

The world is moving in a dangerous direction and COVID-19 is the emergency being exploited to justify it. If people continue to accept their governments grabbing for more and more power, they will soon wake up to a world far more dangerous and frightening than one where nobody took any precautions against COVID-19. Unfortunately, I know most of the world will ignore this warning because the majority of people are more scared of the threat they see than the threat they don’t see.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 7th, 2020 at 6:00 am

Don’t Use Zoom

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With most of the country under a stay at home order turned into a prison, people are turning to video conferencing software to socialize. With all of the available options out there somehow the worst possible option has become the most popular (which seems like the overarching theme to our current crises). Zoom appears to have become the most popular video conferencing software for people imprisoned in their homes.

Don’t use Zoom.

Why? First, the company uses misleading marketing. If you’ve seen some of the company’s marketing, you might be under the mistaken impression Zoom video conferences are end-to-end encrypted. They’re not. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. A while back Zoom pulled a rather sneaky maneuver and installed a secret web server on Macs, which was supposedly meant to make using the software easier for Safari users (the claim was bullshit). Apple wasn’t amused and removed the software via an update. Zoom did remove that functionality, but the software still had surprises in store for Mac users. It turns out that it contained a security vulnerability that allowed a remote attacker to access the computer’s webcam and microphone… oh and provided them with root access. Don’t worry Windows users, Zoom didn’t forget about you. The Windows version of Zoom contained a vulnerability that allowed attackers to steal system password. And so everybody could suffer equally, Zoom made it easy for randos to join supposedly private video conferences.

I’m not even done yet. Zoom also leaked users’ e-mail addresses and photos to randos and, until it was caught, was also selling personal data to Facebook.

So I reiterate, don’t use Zoom.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 2nd, 2020 at 6:00 am

Posted in Technology

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