With the recent news scandal about the NSA surveillance program code named PRISM more people is starting to question their use of cloud services thinking about their privacy. I’ve talked about free network services and ugly cloud stories but this is the ugliest of all stories going mainstream.
But in addition to that list, Peng Zhong created a web site called PRISM Break with a nice and easy to understand list of software, both desktop and web services to help protect your privacy.
I’ve already been using several of these programs and discovered new ones. It might be scary to run your own instances of web services or change the software you’ve always used, but freedom and privacy are worth a shot. I hope these list gets bigger with new software developments and current offerings get better as more people use them and get more attention.
Political scandals have always been about leaked information. Don’t you wonder why sensitive data has been passed around in clear text on the leaked cables that Wikileaks has been making public, while your latest SpongeBob Blu-ray or DVD disc is encrypted with DRM locks and transactions like your book purchase at Amazon is secured and encrypted by SSL certificates?
Encryption has been overlooked by general public all the time. You only hear about it in “hacker” films or breaking news scandals. Although encryption is commonly associated with hiding secrets, when in fact it’s more about securing information. When you change the mindset you’ll start considering encryption as something more relevant for your everyday digital life.
For example, the cloud storage service Mega has encryption built in, after the lessons learned on the data kidnapping of MegaUpload servers. This is for the protection of both parties, the service providers and yourself, the user. This way, only you can open the files and not even Mega employees can know what is in your storage account. Dropbox, Google Drive and other services don’t provide the same level of security, so basically anyone that has access to those servers can see your personal information.
There are many types of encryption methods. One of them is called GPG (initially PGP but the free software version is known as GPG).
GPG is a two key system, where you hold a private key and a public key. The way it works is that you encrypt a file with someone’s public key and send it. On the receiving end, the other person has a private key, and only with the private key the message can be deciphered.
Public keys can be obtained from the person directly through a file transfer or email attachment prior to encrypted communication. Some people, like me, publish their public keys on their personal web page. The most common method to get a public key is to search it on key servers. Most GPG GUI programs have the option to search, download and upload public keys on key servers.
So to get started with protecting our data using encryption, you’ll need to learn the basic concept words:
Encryption will protect the contents of the file, image, text or whatever is being encrypted, so that only the owner of the private key can view it.
If you want to protect a file only for your eyes, encrypt it with your own public key.
This is the process of removing the encryption so that you can view the contents of the protected file. This can only be done if the contents were encrypted with the public key of the person who’s supposed to see the information.
If someone sends you a file that was encrypted with your public key, only you, who has the private key, can decrypt the file.
Sometimes the only layer of protection you need, is to make sure the contents of a file or email were not altered between the time you send it and the time it is received by the other person.
It also works as a way to make sure that a message is coming from you, since you need your private key to sign the file and only you have access to it.
Signing a file or text is a mechanism to know that the contents are intact. This does not hide the message itself, it only adds a signature to the file to ensure that every bit is in place with no modifications.
This is how you check a file or message’s signature for authenticity and integrity. If the signature doesn’t match, it means that the file has been altered or didn’t came from the right person.
You can sign or encrypt a message or file. Signing doesn’t hide the information but it helps to certify that the information hasn’t been modified by anyone else before reaching you. Encrypting will hide the information so no one can see the message or file’s contents.
To setup GPG on your system, you’ll need to generate your public and private keys. Any GNU based system is compatible with GPG (GNU Privacy Guard). Most GNU/Linux distributions are already bundled with the gpg command-line tool. If not, on a Debian-based distribution you can install it with:
sudo aptitude install gpg
Generating your keys
After you installed gpg on your system, to create your keys for the first time, all you need to do is open a terminal and type:
This will start a step by step process with some simple questions. When in doubt, use the default options by just pressing Enter. Don’t fear the command line, it’s just text.
When asked for a passphrase, note that GPG is not asking for a pass *word*, it’s asking for a pass *phrase* so make sure it is longer than one word and an easy to remember sentence.
Once that is done, you can check your list of keys with
Key search and import
If someone hands you their public key on a file, you’ll need to import it to your keyring to use it:
gpg --import key.asc
The key.asc is the file with the public key.
You can also search for someone’s public key on key servers
If you’re on GNU/Linux and using KDE you can install the user interface KGPG
sudo aptitude install kgpg
On Gnome, you can use Seahorse
sudo aptitude install seahorse
For graphical user interface options on Mac OS X and Windows, you can check the GPG website.
These GUI front ends will integrate well with your desktop environments, so you can easily encrypt, decrypt, sign or verify files from the file manger right-click menu options.
GPG and Email
The easiest way I can recommend to use encryption with email, is with Enigmail, an extension for the Mozilla Thunderbird email client. It integrates very well and makes it easy to sign, encrypt, verify and decrypt email messages.
Lifehacker published an article about how a plain text code editor called Textastic rivals the famous Textmate in features with a lower price. I find this kind of articles a bit funny when the “fathers” of almost all text code editors are Emacs and Vi, both of which free as in freedom and cost. Why would anyone pay for a proprietary product that has only a subset of features from these two? It’s beyond my comprehension.
I can understand it a bit more when comparing text editors to IDEs like Eclipse, Netbeans or Zend Studio, which have their unique connectors and fancy things to debug stuff (like the whole Android development kit, which is, by the way, also available at no cost). But when talking about text editors, I really don’t see the advantages.
In this case, since I’m an Emacs user, I can only compare to that. If you’re a Vi(m) user, leave some tips in the comments.
On the features mentioned in the article it talks about code completion and highlighting for “many popular languages”, when Emacs has that for those, plus the unpopular ones. Both Vi and Emacs run on the three major platforms (Gnu/Linux, OS X and Windows) and there are some mobile versions of them too. In any case, you can use them through a remote terminal on your device. Autosaves and versioning are built in on Emacs since I don’t know how many years ago, it also has theming since about two years ago. Emacs also supports “textmate snippets” using YaSnippet mode. To manage files I haven’t seen anything more powerful than Dired mode and you can even view images and PDF files inside your text editor.
There is so much more you can do using Emacs as your text editor. The advantage of learning one tool for many tasks is that you won’t need to relearn new commands, workflows or keyboard shortcuts. But there are also many other alternatives: Vi, Nano, Kedit, Gedit, Notepad++ and the list goes on.
So my question still remains: Why do people pay for sub-par products when better options are available at no cost?
I’ve seen many posts about alternative RSS feed readers out there. But when they talk about open source feed readers they refer to desktop clients, and when they don’t make the freedom distinction, they mention proprietary web services. But these days, with all the mobility and multiple devices, who wants a desktop feed reader?
If you are worried about another web service you love to use might go dark in the future, there is hope. Here are some good free and open web based RSS feed reader clients you can use as Google Reader alternatives and host them yourself.
A very nice looking site, with responsive design for mobile devices. You can also mute or feature certain articles based on tags found in the content. Written in Python using Django, Celery, RabbitMQ, MongoDB and PostgreSQL.
I know little about this one. The project’s web page is offline, but the code can be obtained from Debian repositories.
sudo aptitude install yocto-reader
Switching from Google Reader to another proprietary feed reader service makes little difference. It doesn’t solve the real issue, just solves the short term need before that other service decides to terminate the service as well or something weird happens. Hosting your own web based feed reader will provide you with the convenience of having your feeds available from any device anywhere, and be in control of your data and applications.
In my continuous attempts to free myself from proprietary webservices and run my own Free Network Services, I’ve finally set up my own GNU Mediagoblin instance. This is a multimedia gallery project to host, show and share several kinds of media files, like images, videos, ascii art, SVGs and even 3D models. From the Mediagoblin site it describes the project as:
MediaGoblin is a free software media publishing platform that anyone can run. You can think of it as a decentralized alternative to Flickr, YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.
One thing I noticed was that the quality of the images was not good. I enhanced the quality of the image resizes done by default and the improvement was noticeable. It’s still not as sharp as Flickr’s quality yet (I don’t know how they do it) but it is cleaner and with no artifacts.
Also I’ve enhanced the way the EXIF info is presented. I added a camera settings section that shows key relevant info most photographers are interested in looking at: what camera was used, when the photo was taken, exposure, aperture, ISO and focal length. By clicking the “Additional Information” button you can now see all the EXIF information on the file that was previously being omitted.
I hope my patches get accepted upstream and I plan to continue working on the project as I find it very useful. The planned features for future releases I’m eagerly waiting for are the API and the multiple file upload. That way I can post more of my content easily and maybe write a script to import all photos from Flickr. That would be nice.
Of course, nothing from Microsoft can be well done. Not even something as simple as a zipped VM image. So they have put up a message saying that they’ve had problems unzipping the files in OS X and GNU/Linux and they recommend some specific programs to open it up. Not a big deal though.