What’s a DDOS, and why can’t I get to Twitter?

We don’t yet know who is behind today’s massive disruption of Internet services, but it’s pretty clear how they’re doing it. They’re using people’s unprotected routers, smart doorbells, smart thermostates, security cameras, and other “Internet of Things” devices as a zombie army.
I’ll give an explanation of what’s going on, but first, let me urge you to make sure that any network-connected devices you have in your business or home network is NOT still using the default, factory-original password, but that you’ve set good, smart passwords for everything. If you do that, it’s less likely your device can be used as part of a “botnet” — a group of devices that have been compromised.
There are two main parts to what the attackers are doing. First, these hackers have used programs to rapidly scan through thousands upon thousands of Internet addresses to see if they can find a way into a private network, and into the devices on that network. If these automated hacking programs find networks and devices that aren’t properly protected, they plant their own malicious software on the devices, but leave the devices operating normally, so the users don’t know anything is wrong.
Once the devices are compromised, then the hackers send instructions to the malicious software, and tell it to start sending as many requests as it can to particular servers on the Internet, in order to flood those servers with more traffic than they can handle, effectively shutting them down. The term used is a Distributed Denial-of-service attack, or DDOS.
In today’s attack the servers that are being attacked aren’t web sites, but DNS servers – Domain Name Servers. They’re essentially directories, matching the names of websites and other servers (like www.<insertnamehere>.com) to the numeric Internet addresses of the actual servers those sites exist on.
Here’s an analogy: Imagine a receptionist in a large office building, who is frequently asked by people coming into the building for the office number of one of the building’s occupants. On a normal day, the receptionist gets a few questions an hour, and things go smoothly. Now imagine that for some reason, a hundred protesters crowd the lobby, all asking over and over for office numbers, just to be obnoxious. The poor guy can’t possibly answer everyone effectively, nor can he tell who is one of the protestors, and who is someone who is legitimately trying to find a business in the building.
That’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the picture. You’re just trying to use Twitter, or stream some music from Spotify, or connect to the cloud-based system you use to run your business, but your computer’s request for the address of the Internet site is getting lost in the crowd of all the bogus requests from the compromised devices, so it can’t make a connection.
The current cyberattacks are being investigated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t expect they’ll say anything about the source of the attacks until they’ve taken some direct action about it. For now, the company that has been the primary target has taken steps to protect themselves. However, it’s not likely that this is the last time we’ll see such a widespread disruption.
Update your passwords, folks! Don’t know how? Feel free to use the contact form here on my website to ask any questions you might have.

Save Those Web Pages For Later

…sort of like a doggy bag for the Internet!

There are so many websites with so many posts, that occasionally, you come across one that is not only worth your time reading, but worth saving for later! Instead of just bookmarking it, or — heaven forbid — printing it out (does anyone do that anymore?), there are several very good ways to save a link to the page. The three listed below are free services, though some have additional features that you can get with a paid subscription.

Instapaper's home page

Instapaper's home page

Instapaper is one very popular link-saving service. By adding a plug-in to your web browser, you can save any web page for later reading. And with apps for smartphones and tablets, you can read those articles anywhere. Instapaper works with all the major web browsers, giving you a toolbar button for saving pages. And your Instapaper account automatically gets a unique email address, so you can email links to articles to yourself for later reading. While viewing your list of saved articles, you can edit labels, add tags, organize your saved pages in folders, and remove articles you no longer want to save. There are also social sharing features, so you can use Facebook and Twitter to pass on articles to your friends.

www.getpocket.comPocket (formerly Read It Later) is another option, giving you a button in your toolbar for saving web pages. There aren’t as many features in the web version of their service, but the smartphone apps for iOS and Android let you share your links via Facebook and Twitter. And Pocket also has a way for you to email articles into your reading list.

Evernote LogoIf you want something with even more functionality, you can go with Evernote. They have the same basic tools: a button in your web browser, mobile apps, and email saving capabilities. But Evernote also lets you save text clippings from web pages, images and files from your computer, and all sorts of media. There are desktop applications for Windows and Mac OS X, letting you organize your saved information in folders, and quickly add new files and information with drag-and-drop simplicity. And they have smartphone and tablet apps that use your Evernote storage for information collections about people, food, and even school work.

This just scratches the surface of this kind of product. If you have other favorite web-clipping solutions, or if you have any questions about selecting and using these services, click here to contact me.


Computer Backup for Home Users

March 31st is World Backup Day, a day that some folks have set up to remind everyone to back up their computer data. And it’s worth taking time to think about it, because at some point, you ARE going to lose data. Computer storage will inevitably fail, and the time to plan for that failure is the moment you start saving anything on your computer — pictures, tax documents, emails, contacts, or anything else that you don’t want to lose.

“But backups are really complex!” Well, they have been in the past, but new products and technologies make it much easier to protect your data without risking your sanity! The best solutions will cost you something, but there are some really inexpensive or free ways to get the job done.

Normally, I’d run down some options, and then give my recommendations at the end. This time, though, I’m going to start by laying out my preferred recommendation for a long-term backup strategy. Then I’ll give you some intermediate steps to get you backing things up now, with an eye to moving to that strategy.

The Best Way to Backup

The most effective solution is to have both a local and a remote backup, managed by software that does both continuously through the day. Why both local and remote? A local backup can be made quickly, and restored quickly, but since it’s right next to your original data, it’s subject to the same risks (theft, flood, fire, etc) that the original data is. A remote backup is physically isolated from your original data, but it is slower to backup and restore. The combination of the two gives you the most security and flexibility.

So — how do you do this? I recommend Code42’s CrashPlan software, and specifically their CrashPlan+ Unlimited service. For just under $3.00 a month (if you buy four years of service, as of this writing), you can backup everything on a single computer to both a local and remote location. CrashPlan hosts backup servers at their secure data centers, on high-availability networks, so you can always retrieve your files when you need to. You can even access those files using your smartphone, using custom applications for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Plus, you can backup to an external hard drive, with the same software, and with just a few more clicks in the setup.

The CrashPlan software is available for Mac OS X and Windows (and even Linux!), and using it is pretty simple. Install it, and it will prompt you through the process of creating an account with CrashPlan (which is used to identify your data if you need to restore it to a different location), selecting what files and folders to back up, and the destination for those backups. From there, the program works in the background, and you’ll rarely notice that it’s even there.

CrashPlan also maintains multiple versions of files, in case you need to go back to an earlier version of that budget spreadsheet, or recover the original of a digital photo that you edited.

(Note: I am not sponsored or compensated by CrashPlan or Code42. In fact, I’m a paying customer, with no agenda other than giving you information about a very good product)

If you have more than one computer in your home (and an increasing number of us do!), then consider CrashPlan+ Family Unlimited. The cost for a four-year service agreement comes to just under $6 a month, and covers up to ten computers. The other advantage of the Family Unlimited package is that you can also back up from one computer to another within your home network. With this feature, you can add a huge hard drive or two to one system, and have all the other computers run their CrashPlan backups to it. Combining this with the remote backup for all of your systems, and you’ve got a great setup!

There are several other great online backup services, such as Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, and SpiderOak,just to name a few. The prices and features vary a bit, so shop around. It seems to me that CrashPlan has the best features AND the best prices. Even if you pay month-to-month, their Unlimited plan is just $5.00 a month, and the Family Unlimited plan is $12.00 a month.

Let’s Dial It Back a Bit

If the costs of the CrashPlan services seem a little high to you, there are some options that are less expensive.

If you’re not the kind of person who saves a lot of pictures, music, or videos on your computer, then you probably aren’t using that much space on your computer. I know a few people whose entire collection of electronic data would fit on a single DVD! For these folks, the CrashPlan+ account will give you 10 GB of online space, for under $1.50 a month (again, if you buy a four-year plan — it’s $2.50 month-to-month). The software works exactly the same, it just limits how much space you get.

If you just don’t want to spend any money on an online backup service, CrashPlan has a solution for you, as well. Can you say, “Free?” Without paying a dime, you can download and use their software to backup to an external drive, or to another computer on your network, or even to a friend’s computer across the Internet! All you and your friend need is the CrashPlan software, enough extra space so that you can share it with them, and a reasonably fast Internet connection. You exchange the codes that the software generates for you, and your friend’s computer shows up as a backup destination for you, and vice versa.

These backups are secure, too: If you store your backups on your friend’s computer, they won’t be able to see your actual files, just the encrypted, compressed files that CrashPlan stores backups in, with cryptic names and no real way of opening them.

Getting Your Data Back

One thing that very few people think about when it comes to backups is the restore process, and that’s unfortunate. After all, backups are only good if you can get your data back!

With CrashPlan, restoring your data is pretty simple. If your computer has failed and you repair or replace it, and have to start from scratch, you simply install the CrashPlan software, and once you have connected it to either your backup drive or the CrashPlan servers, you choose a tab in the program, select the computer you want to restore from, and tell it where to put the data on your working computer. Restoring from a local drive is reasonably fast; restoring from an Internet location is much slower — but it works.

At The Very Least

If you don’t want to go with CrashPlan, or any of the other services I’ve mentioned, then at least use the backup options that came with your computer.

Windows 7 includes a “Backup and Restore” control panel item, which will let you set up a schedule to backup all of your system or just selected folders, and gives you the option of storing backups on an external drive, CDs or DVDs, or on another computer on your network.

Mac OS X includes TimeMachine, which is amazingly simple to set up. When you first connect an external drive to your Mac, you will be asked if you want to use it for a TimeMachine backup drive. If you allow that, then it automatically starts backing up everything on your system. There are ways to make it backup to network drives (most significantly to Apple’s TimeCapsule hardware), if you want to do that, as well.

What Can You Afford To Lose?

If you’re not sure if you really need backup software, ask yourself this: “If I lost my computer, what would I need to get back from it?” If your answer is, “Nothing,” then you don’t need backup software. But if you have things that you don’t want to lose, or can’t afford to lose, then get a backup strategy going now. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have.