Every few months, I get asked for guidance about what to consider when buying a domain name. Notes below for future reference!
On security; mostly digital, and particularly in relation to individuals. Notes from an enthusiastic amateur.
Been getting a bunch of targeted phishing emails recently. They’re pretending to be my domain registrar, saying that payment is overdue and they’re going to delete my domain permanently. I’ve received similar things before, but this one of the more convincing and aggressive attempts I’ve seen.
This reminded me about a task on my backlog of TODOs, sorting out my domain’s SPF and DKIM. Both are email authentication methods designed to detect forged sender addresses in emails, a.k.a. email spoofing. SPF + DKIM won’t prevent inbound phishing emails, but they do help prevent my own domain from being spoofed in shady outbound emails.
I’d forgotten to add a SPF record so sorted that out. I made sure to add
include values for both my email provider and my web host since the web host is responsible for sending things such as password reset emails from the CMS. Unfortunately, my email host Gandi doesn’t support DKIM. 🙁 So that’s a non-starter.
I’ve been considering switching to Proton though, and happily they offer SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.
Maybe I’ll make the switch a bigger priority.
Eventually I’ll look in to a DMARC policy, but that’s going to come a little later.
A few links that may be useful:
Last Monday, I met with some friends at the Cock in Hackney. One of them had just returned from Copenhagen and mentioned having to sort out something related to his NemID. I’d never heard of it before.
Apparently NemID is a common login tool that Danish residents use to access online banking and services offered by public institutions. It’s a little credit card-sized booklet of 148 key pairs that you use alongside a user ID and a password. It’s like an analogue version of two-factor authentication. Each time you log in to something with NemID, the key pair you use is invalidated and is never used again. When you’ve used up all of your key pairs, you’re sent a new NemID booklet.
It seems like a great system. Unlike biometric data, it would be easy to replace if it were compromised. Unlike most other two-factor authentication methods, it doesn’t require an additional (usually smart) device of some sort.
There are downsides though. NemID is administered by a single organisation, Nets DanID A/S, and all of the data seems to be held in one place. This was a problem in 2013 when a DDoS attack knocked it offline temporarily. The oversight also seems pretty iffy, see this January 2016 blog article: “NemID is not cryptologically secure – and the authorities do not care”.
It’s also hard to say how this could be rolled out in countries with larger populations… Denmark’s population is around 5.7 million. That’s a bit more manageable than the UK (~ 66 million), Brazil (~ 209 million), or India (~ 1.3 billion).
Apparently NemID is going to be replaced by MitID in the next few years, so it will be interesting to see if the Danish government forces any changes to make the system less centralised.
And it makes me wonder (again) if something like Dark Crystal could ever work on a national scale.
I just had my first experience with a subdomain takeover due to a dangling DNS record. It’s been lovely. /s
This note outlines how I came across it, what I had to do to fix it, and what I’ve learned from it.
Last night was my third Agorama Server Co-op meet up in Rebecca’s Flat, a delightfully dilapidated space at Raven Row. I think it was actually the fifth though, I missed the last two due to illness which was a real bummer. The weekend jam sounded particularly great.
This particular meetup was more informal and a little smaller than usual. It ended up being a really nice, wandering conversation on the multifaceted possibilities of the distributed web, what it could look like.
The notes below are a sort of a prompt dump, snippets I wrote down at the time because I didn’t want to forget it or wanted to look in to it more. See all Server Co-op write-ups here.
Dark Crystal is now up and running on Patchbay (ssb client). Got Samsung funding, woohoo! Possible to create bot that receives shard? Think they’re trying to avoid that, the human element is kind of critical.
What about physical crypto? Microdots are worth checking out. Microdot tattoos?
Asked what ppl think about potential threat of quantum computing to modern cryptography methods, response was a little not as I expected (this is why I come to these things!). Personally I’ve been feeling a little tin-foil-hat-y, but general consensus from the other voices in the room seemed to be pretty ambivalent since the theory far outstrips the practicalities currently. Which is true, but it also just feels kind of like an arms race (particularly since it involves hardware / infrastructure). Whoever cracks it first wins the golden goose unless we can come up with cryptography that works against it. GP then mentioned the post-quantum crypto contest with NIST due to end pretty soon, looks pretty promising. I didn’t realise there was that much going on with quantum resistant algorithm research, so that makes me feel a bit better. I guess my concern is still there though, to a big degree. Banks, for example, are on notoriously crappy tech that is rarely overhauled. What of them, and the other institutions we rely on? Oh lord, and voting tech…
Got talking about what I’d been up to (not much, see first para…) and mentioned that I ultimately decided not to move my site on to Dat, partly due to scale issues w/ static site generators (read more on this) but more to do with the fact that I think I’d rather use Dat for something new and neato, rather than just repurpose something that already exists and is doing ok in it’s current form. Then we started talking about static site generators more generally and someone mentioned Pelican, which I hadn’t come across before. It’s written in Python and originally released in 2010 (!), so up there with Jekyll as one of the earlier static site generators.
HL demoed his mother-of-all-apps for us, it looks *so great*! Absolutely something I would use. Really excited to see where he takes it. I need to look in to Hypercore and Expo a bit more. The first I’d heard of, the second not so much. Apparently Expo is a cross platform app framework built around React Native. Ppl could not say enough good things about it and honestly, it does look fantastic. Particularly as a tool to dip your toe in to app waters, so to speak.
Towards the end of the demo, the conversation wound through lots of different topics. Blockchain, platforms vs aggregators, a bunch of CS history (need to read more about that…), the sustainability of open source, etc. The rest of this note details snippets from this part of the conversation that I need to look in to more.
Services / apps / platforms I’d like to look in to a bit:
- Mapeo, an “open source, offline-first map editor”
- Manyverse, kind of Scuttlebutt for your phone but better (shouldn’t suck the life out of your phone trying to sync)
- Node.js for mobile apps
- Webrecorder, like a personal Wayback Machine; also, did you know you can sometimes find YouTube vids that have been taken down archived on the Wayback Machine?
A reading list. (Some of these links are painful to open, some orgs really need to cool their jets on the pop-ups and trackers):
- The Bill Gates Line, an article on platforms vs aggregators
- The Internet Was Built on the Free Labor of Open Source Developers. Is That Sustainable?; does free mean questionable accountability? “Beggars can’t be choosers”
- Unleashing Colombia’s Full Potential Using Blockchain Technology, an editorial from the Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Why There Will Never Be Another Red Hat: The Economics of Open Source, published in 2014
- The Curse of Xanadu, published by Wired in ‘95
- Whatever happened to the Semantic Web? from Two-bit History
- 50 Years Later, We Still Don’t Grasp the Mother of All Demos
- The Father of Mobile Computing is Not Impressed, an interview with Alan Kay on Fast Company
Some soundbites. These are paraphrased points made by others that I found super-relevant. Bits in square brackets are added by me for clarity:
- “Ordering is the toughest thing to sort out” [when it comes to ledgers / append-only logs]
- “Biggest problem with blockchain is the definition of consensus, and how to establish consensus”
- “Article 13 [aka the “upload filter” provision] is forcing people’s hand, we’re going to see a lot more of this.”
- “So much of this bullshit has come from chasing the technology and not the needs.” Related: “But seriously… does it need to be an app?”
- “The future of the web will be much more about interoperability than a black-and-white, decentralised vs centralised approach.”
- “Porn is a canary in the coal mine for whether a piece of tech is ready for primetime.” [Is someone using it for porn? Ok, it’s going to gain traction.]
- “Could we ever have another Xerox PARC?” “Probably not, research now is just too results-driven. A report every week, and sometimes the funder has already indicated what they’d prefer your results to be.”
So many distributed / decentralised web conversations get quasi-evangelical about how this or that tech will save the world. Why does it have to be winner takes it all? Different needs require different technologies.
We recognise biodiversity as a fundamental requirement of a healthy, thriving biosphere. Why don’t we champion technodiversity in the same way? Embrace the chaos.
I rely heavily on messaging services since many of my friends and family (probably the majority) live outside of the UK, as do some critical professional contacts. I mainly use WhatsApp for encrypted messaging but have wanted to move away from it for some time due to concerns about Facebook. The recent news regarding the integration of WhatsApp, Instagram messages, and Facebook Messenger has been the catalyst for actual change within my group of peers.
The Q&A below is an amalgamation of many different conversations I am having at the moment about moving to a more privacy-first messaging app. I have focused on Signal and Telegram for the time being since they seem to be the most likely candidates.
I’ve done my best to pull together this information in a fairly short time, and some of it is new to me. If any of it seems incorrect, let me know.
I have nothing to hide, and I have no fear of my data being used against me by a private company or the government. Why should should I make data privacy a priority when I’m choosing a messaging app?
There are many ideological arguments against the “I have nothing to hide” viewpoint, most of which I agree with. That said, it can be near-impossible to agree 100% on ideology, so perhaps it is better to consider the practical.
When your messages are not encrypted, their contents are visible to anyone that has access to them. In an ideal world that would only be you, the recipient, and whatever app you use to manage your messages. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated and there are many weak points that can be exploited. For example, if the WiFi network you’re on is insecure, your messages will be exposed to unintended prying eyes. Think of the last time you connected to WiFi in an airport, hotel, or cafe. Was it always password protected? Was it clear who supplied the network?
You may not be worried even if your messages were compromised, surely there is nothing in your messages that could be of consequence. But what about the photos of your adorable 4 year old niece from your sister? The online banking details you sent to your partner since the rent payment failed and they needed to sort it out? The message to your worried mother about your blood test results? The company Twitter password you sent to a co-worker that urgently needed access?
There are some things that are best kept private, and encryption lets you do just that.
I’m concerned about the privacy of my data, but why should I switch when WhatsApp already has end-to-end encryption? Isn’t that enough?
It is certainly a great step in the right direction, but whether it’s enough depends upon how much you trust Facebook and how you feel about Facebook’s role in the spread of misinformation.
I don’t personally have much confidence in Facebook regarding their use of my data, no matter how minimal, so WhatsApp is not my first choice for encrypted messaging.
Oh man, another app… I really don’t want another app…
I’m with you! It’s frustrating. I don’t have a good answer for this, except that personally I’m going to try to cultivate a little more patience for multiple apps. The WhatsApp / Facebook “monopoly” is kind of what led us here in the first place.
Besides that, the best advice I can give is to frequently Kondo apps and micromanage your notifications. Smartphones give you great, granular control over notifications nowadays, so take full advantage. Turn off the chimes, turn off the lock screen notifications, turn off the message previews. It makes managing multiple messaging apps (and your sanity) a lot easier.
And finally, if you feel like one particular app is a really great fit, then advocate for it! If you’re enthusiastic about it and get your friends / family on board, you may find you have fewer apps to juggle.
My phone is ancient! What privacy-focused messaging app would offer support for my device?
It depends upon the limitations of your specific device.
Signal currently supports Android and iOS. You can find more information about Signal’s operating system requirements in their documentation. Telegram currently supports Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. You can find more information about Telegram’s operating system requirements in their FAQs.
I am not sure about the memory or disk space usage for the different apps though, this is something I would have to look in to further.
I’m very up for switching to a privacy-first messaging app, but the actual switch will involve convincing my contacts to leave too. I wouldn’t mind bringing this up, but it feels like a political decision. Political discussion is not welcome in my field / organisation / family / friend group. How can I approach this?
This is a very understandable and tricky concern. How best to approach this depends completely on your specific circumstances and relationships. It is impossible to give general advice, but I’ll give it a go.
You could delay the conversation, however I would say that even if you do not have the “should we make the switch” conversation with your contacts now, it will likely come up at some point due to the current trajectory of WhatsApp. When you do broach the subject, perhaps consider focusing on the practical upsides of switching to an encrypted messaging app (see answer to first question above for more on this).
If you feel you simply can’t bring this up, then of course you could always continue to use WhatsApp for certain conversations and use a different app for others. Though every app provider would probably prefer you believe otherwise, there is no rule against using multiple apps!
On a more general note, the mis-use of personal data has led to previously unimaginable consequences and turbulence in recent years. As such, every decision related to the transmission of personal data, even something as mundane as choosing a messaging app, is unavoidably political. So though we cannot avoid the political nature of the choice, we can control how we treat that choice. We can be passive, or deliberate.
What is preventing these privacy-focused messaging apps from being acquired by some tech giant and the cycle happening all over again?
If the messaging service is already controlled by private investors, perhaps not much. Here is a very brief summary of how Telegram and Signal are structured as organisations. Note that much of the information that follows has been gleaned via Signal article and Telegram article on Wikipedia.
Telegram is owned by Telegram Messenger LLP and has been funded by Digital Fortress LLC. They have stated that they are not for profit but are not structured as a nonprofit, possibly due to the overhead involved in setting up an official nonprofit. The sustainability of their business model is unclear, however they did put together an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to fund a new blockchain platform and cryptocurrency. Activity around this seems to have halted in early 2018.
Signal is owned by Signal Messenger LLC which is funded by the Signal Foundation, a 501(c) nonprofit organisation whose mission is to make “private communication accessible and ubiquitous”. Much of the funding ($50 million) used to create this nonprofit came from Brian Acton, a WhatsApp co-founder. Acton left Facebook in late 2017 and is now the foundation’s Executive Chairman. Signal’s open source Signal Protocol is said to be used by a number of large entities (including WhatsApp) for encryption. Part of Signal’s ongoing business model may be to offer services in relation to their protocol, though that is just speculation.
Because of Signal’s nonprofit status, I feel more confident in Signal’s longevity as an independent entity.
Regardless, there will always be churn in this sector, so I would expect to switch again some day. I look at switching messaging apps in a similar way to how I look at switching banks. It is a big hassle to switch, but eventually the arguments for leaving outweigh the reasons to stay. So I switch, and then I keep tabs on it to ensure it remains the best of the options that are open to me.
I really rely on [insert very specific feature]. Would another privacy-focused messaging app support the features I need?
Perhaps! The best place to find out is the app’s own website, they’re jumping to tell you all of the great things their app can do. Another place that might be worth checking is Slant.
Personally, I am most concerned about conversation backups and mute / unmute capabilities.
I want to have some way of backing up my conversations in case I ever lose my phone. But with convenience comes a cost. Backups are notoriously tricky with encrypted messaging since they introduce another potential weak point, the server that stores the backup. With Signal, you can back up on Android but not iOS (though iOS backups do seem to be on their roadmap). Telegram seems to allow backups of some sort, but it is unclear what this means for encryption. The only easily-available information I could find currently was their related FAQ “Why not just make all chats ‘secret’?” and their founder’s blog post “Why Isn’t Telegram End-to-End Encrypted by Default?”
Both Telegram and Signal seem to support conversation muting according to various documentation and articles I found online. The muting duration and other functionality offered by each service will likely be slightly different from WhatsApp.
If I’m going to switch to a more privacy-focused messaging app, which app should I choose?
The three biggest factors in choosing a messaging app are probably the user base, features, and data privacy.
From a data privacy perspective, Signal is likely the best choice. Signal is fully open source, meaning that the security in every aspect of the service can be reviewed and is publicly-verifiable. Though Telegram has an open API and protocol, the backend software is not open source so the security cannot be fully evaluated by a third party.
From a features perspective, it is probably safe to say that WhatsApp is the most fully-featured encrypted messaging app out there currently. It is hard to tell how those features might change over time in light of Facebook’s plan to integrate it with Facebook Messenger and Instagram. Telegram used to be more fully featured than Signal, but at the moment it seems about neck-and-neck.
But as a final point, maybe just don’t choose. There is nothing wrong with using multiple messaging apps. I use FaceTime and iMessage with my family because they all happen to have iPhones (though Apple’s not perfect!). I use Signal with lots of friends. I’ll probably hang on to WhatsApp ultimately as well, for a little while at least, since certain contacts are going to struggle to switch to a different app for one reason or another.
A closing thought. Though I’ve focused on Telegram and Signal here, there are a lot of other encrypted messaging apps out there to explore.
For mobile, take a look at Viber, Line, Threema. For business-y stuff, maybe take a look at Wire or Keybase. If you’re just talking desktop and are interested in getting a little techy, check out Freenode and Scuttlebutt.
This is a conversation worth continuing.
– – –
repeat these instructions until the project is complete
finish the project, scrap all of it.
finish the project, scrap half of it.
finish the project, scrap a third of it.
– – –
Musarc’s going to be at Palais de Tokyo in April. Info/tickets
– – –
– – –
– – –