Internet Privacy Laws change?

Extra, Extra, read all about it!  Internet privacy under assault!  Net neutrality coming to an end!  Typical reporting by the main stream media; not necessarily true in this case.  Yes congress, under pressure from ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) and some commercial interests, have passed a bill that could allow ISP’s to release traffic information; but not user or source identities (unless a court order asks for that).  However, this very information has been available to advertisers, spammers, and similar such ilk for quite some time.  In order to access this kind of data, they merely had to pay the owners of the destination websites to provide their traffic information.

First off, this isn’t happening immediately; Congress is not in direct control of the behavior of ISP’s.  This is the provence of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and it will require a rules making on their part in order to change what ISP’s can and cannot divulge and how much remuneration may be charged.  Back in 2015 the FCC, responding to law changes a few years before, performed a rules making resulting in the current privacy and net neutrality rules.  In summary:
As a refresher, that rule, which the Commission passed in Feb. 2015, sets down three bright-line rules for internet service providers:
. Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
. They may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, application, services, or any classes thereof.
. They may not favor some internet traffic over other internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—no paid prioritization or fast lanes

Oddly enough I don’t see any reference here to net privacy and I am not trying to confuse the issue; rather, I am trying to make a point, that the FCC continues its support for the safety of the internet user and his or her choice for a desired level of privacy.  The new law opens the door for the FCC to allow (at the FCC’s sole discretion), through new rules, for the ISP’s to have the same opportunity to make money from describing internet traffic in bulk to potential buyers as the web hosts have had for many years.

Any time the FCC makes or alters rules, there exists the potential for unanticipated consequences; but what those consequences may be will have to wait until the FCC acts.  In the mean time, very little has changed in the last 2 years regarding our privacy, access to information, priority of traffic, or safety while surfing.  If you have questions about how the laws impact you or your business, please call Benediktson Computer at 575-956-9723 or email us at help@benediktson.com

Hacks that endanger your safety

OOOps, Yahoo is admitting to being hacked again; this time it is a double whammy.  They are alerting their customers a fair bit after the damage was done.  They are also being as private as they legally can be about it; “if you or your information was involved, we will contact you with details”.  Details?  If account information fell into the hands of persons or entities outside yahoo proper and you happened to be one of millions of people who store their investment portfolio, investment account information, email account information, or personal information on their servers (to make day to day news, financial, activity, etc. easier), then that information may well have been compromised yet again.

Let me be clear, if you are one of the folks whose information was involved, the damage may have already been done, or it may be used in a month or a year.  I know it is tempting to maximize the convenience offered by services like Yahoo financial, or Bing, or Google, or Scott Trade, or any of hundreds of convenience services provided out in the web; but, we (the consumers) need to be mindful of the fragility of our personal information and therefore careful whom we trust it to.  The more information a service collects, the more attractive it becomes to hackers (thieves by any guise) looking to make big money quickly.

Your personal computer(s) represent a target containing information that might allow cleaning out one family; Yahoo’s servers represent a target containing information for more than a million families.  Even if it is harder to get into Yahoo’s computers, isn’t it clear that it would be worth the effort?  Now most of us have heard of someone who’s personal computer was compromised (causing the wise sufferer to cancel credit cards, change passwords, change account numbers, etc.); it seems a small step to me to understand why hackers would put forth the effort to raid Yahoo or Bing, or any of the other service holders out there.

Now comes the painful part; if you are alerted to the “event” within 24 hours, you have a real good opportunity to prevent any real damage.  You will experience a lot of anxiety and inconvenience to protect yourself, but you can stop it all before any permanent damage is done (you would hope).  On the other hand, if you aren’t alerted to the event until 6 months or a year have gone by (heck, one week would be bad let alone these longer periods), the damage could already have become painfully obvious by the time you are alerted.

All of this brings me to two points; one, choose carefully what you put on “helpful” websites; and two, be careful which of them you trust.  When one of the big banks was hacked a few years back, they alerted clients on the next business day after they found out; Yahoo, started alerting clients last week for a hack that occurred last year.  As consumers, we can pressure these companies into better practices through choosing carefully whom we do business with.

As always, if you have questions, Benediktson Computer is delighted to answer your questions before you have problems and ready to help after the trouble has started.
Benediktson Computer, Inc.
Help@benediktson.com
(575) 956-9723
and check us out on facebook.

Are all Computer Vendors alike?

So, rant on. Not only does Dell computer continue to contract with the lowest bidder to produce their equipment; but they have ended all meaningful support for equipment which is out of warranty.

 

I understand that this is part of their system which favors those who accept the additional markup in product cost called extended warranty and penalizes those who believe they are buying a quality product that should not require an extended warranty. By my reading of the Microsoft Windows license, vendors are responsible for providing media to allow reload of all windows products during the entire product life and if said media is not included with the product, then they are responsible for providing it at no cost to registered owners of products including Microsoft Licenses at the time of purchase.

This is in stark contrast to what I have experienced this last week while trying to service a 2-year old Dell Laptop. With high hopes, I contacted Dell support through their website to find that replacement media was not available for this product; thinking this must be in error, I opened a chat with a Dell support specialist who confirmed that they had discontinued that service. I asked how this was possible given their contract with Microsoft to provide Windows products. He replied that they would sell me media (at a price very much like full original retail) and that was their commitment to their contractual obligations.

Just for some background; companies like Dell buy licenses for windows at a reduced rate (bulk / quantity discount rate) and do not provide a COA (certificate of authenticity) number with the product; the product ID is pre-loaded on the machine. The result is that the owner of said machine must have either the original media that came with the machine (for cost reasons no such media is shipped with most of these systems) or use an install package specific to their make and model of product. Otherwise, the equipment is not legally licensed to run Windows. Some may not have had the experience of trying to run unlicensed Windows products; quite simply, they refuse to start up once they become unlicensed.

So here I hold what is now a $1400 boat anchor that belongs to a client in need of a functioning computer; I will invest $130 in a new license for it (which Dell is morally and contractually responsible for but not going to pay) and install a fresh retail copy of Windows 10 on the machine and the client who purchased the machine in good faith from Dell is caught in the middle.

As consumers, we all can influence the behavior of manufacturers and vendors alike; choose carefully when you purchase, and when possible, spend the 30 minutes to make your own “original media” on a DVD or on a USB stick. I highly recommend that once you have your computer working “just right”, that you have a complete duplicate made of the hard drive / SSD.

If any of this seems overwhelming, I do this regularly and will be delighted to do it for you. It really is so much more cost effective to do before “things” go wrong; and for when things do go wrong, Make regular backups of your data to protect your work.

Frustrating Security Measures.

Ah the frustration of it; my browser has just refused to load a video and I have this popup saying I need to update some module. What should I do now? Whatever you do, DO NOT click on the popup; it may be legitimate or it may be an attempt to infect you with viruses.

Please bear with me as I explain what causes this annoying behavior. Many web elements are precompiled to include a player, the necessary codecs (audio and video compression interpreters), and the actual audio and video material (the part we are waiting to experience) into a single web object. We click on the object and instead of watching a video we get some annoying request to upgrade. Our system is likely already fully updated to the latest elements; upgrading it won’t help one bit. Let me repeat that, no amount of upgrading will resolve this problem.

The problem is in the web object we are tying to watch; it contains elements which are out of date. What can we do? In many cases, you will have another popup or status message which further warns you but also gives you the option of accepting the risk or of activating this specific item or maybe even all items like it. If you trust the source of the item, you can go ahead and activate, or allow, or whatever positive option is offered, watch the video, and get on with your browsing.

Adobe Flash alerting that it contains an out of date component
Adobe Flash alerting that it contains an out of date component

If you do not trust the source of the item, maybe it is best to heed the warnings and not watch, listen, or whatever. If you simply must watch, regardless of all warnings, verify that your firewall and antivirus are functioning and up to date (I do this daily; weekly is adequate) and go for it.

When firefox has alerts, you can choose to allow using the box that pops up in the upper left region
When firefox has alerts, you can choose to allow using the box that pops up in the upper left region

If there is no option to bypass the warnings, then try to identify which “module” (Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, etc.) is being accused and go directly to the author’s download page / service and try performing an update to the module in question. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, you can try contacting the author of the video or sound file to get an updated version of the media item you were trying to experience. (I make these last two recommendations based on issues with how Java and Adobe media products function; sometimes updating the installed module will allow you to safely view media items that contain out of date components).

One final note, sometimes one browser (Internet Explorer, or Firefox) will flag a web item as unsafe but another browser (Chrome, Firefox, or Edge) can safely handle that item.

If you have questions regarding what is unsafe versus what is relatively safer, or want help upgrading or just want help understanding this topic or many others please contact Benediktson Computer, Inc.

email: help@benediktson.com or

call 575-956-9723.

Scams again?

Okay, here we are again; another week in which I was unable to accomplish some of the tasks I had hoped to get to because the evil doers of this world are once again trying new ways to steal from the computer users.  This week has brought to my attention some brand new schemes and the polishing of some older schemes to trick even the most wary of computer users out of their money.  I, myself, received a couple emails that looked very official from Microsoft, Oracle, and Adobe trying to trick me into logging in by clicking directly from the email and providing a username and password to a website that looked very authentic; but, was not.

The sophistication of some of these malicious schemes is frightening; my father received a request for account verification from what appeared to be his stock broker.  Only the day before he had received a warning regarding such schemes and was wary enough to check with the broker to see if they had sent such a request.  On top of these the folks behind ransom ware attacks have significantly improved their attacks and are, once again, getting past most of the anti virus products on the market.

How do we protect ourselves?  As has been the case for some time, knowledge and wariness on the part of the user is the first line of defense.  If you have doubts, is there a way to check and see if the supposed source did actually produce the web page or email you encounter?  If it is an email, is the return address correct for the business it purports to be from; if it is a web page, is the address (URL) appropriate for the business in question?  Sometimes it is hard to tell what the URL of a page actually is; so, I have a few helpful hints.  URL’s will appear in the address bar and maybe in the status bar of your browser (usually the second or third row on your screen); the computer reads them from left to right starting with HTTP or HTTPS, this followed with the address of the page, keep reading left to right until you hit .com, .net, .org, or similar, the name to the left of the first top level domain (that .com, .net, .org we found) is the name of the website you are interacting with.  If you think you are on your bank’s web site, and you see an address like http://wfbank.ci/ you can be certain it is not your bank’s actual web site.  In this example there are a couple indications of trouble: banks use https exclusively; the .ci top level domain indicates the business is registered in Christmas Island, unless your bank is from there, this should be a giveaway too.

Do I really need to be able to recognize the URL of all my financial service providers and all the major software providers I work with?  I would recommend that you do; the current scams tend to rely on the user not being able to tell that they are interacting with a scammer instead of a trusted business.  One of the services my business provides is to help clients by teaching their employees how to recognize an authentic page from a replaced page, by teaching them what kinds of activities tend to be more dangerous than others and do so within the scope of your business’s regular activities.  This is a case where knowledge is very important in prevention.

One final word on scams of all kinds but primarily internet based scams.  If your anti virus or your firewall or the safety features of your browser warn you about a page or an activity, there is a real good chance, nay likelihood that danger does lurk in your path; please get a second opinion before proceeding.   I would much rather take multiple phone calls or even be called onto a site to prevent a client getting had in a scam than have to clean up the mess after the scam.

Privacy on the internet?

The Expectation of Privacy.  In my own home, with the doors locked, curtains pulled, and windows closed I have a reasonable expectation of privacy; a concept bandied about in legal venues to distinguish when material or activities may be scrutinized by legal authorities.  When I publish material of any kind to the internet, I make it public (not private) with that act; that is what the word publish means and it is no accident that I use “post” and “publish” almost synonymously.   I know that many websites and services (facebook, twitter, etc.) have privacy settings and privacy policies; but, those policies apply to material that has been published to their service.  It is this nature of activity that leads me to assert that we should have no reasonable expectation of privacy for all materials we publish to the internet via any of these public services.

Yes, I understand that you can set a post (published media) to friends only, or to only yourself and one other specific individual, and having done so you might feel that you should be able to expect that to be private; but, consider for a moment that you have transmitted that media (a picture, a video, a graphic, or just some text) to a remote computer (server farm or storage facility) out of your personal protection and grasp, into an electronic facility specifically designed to provide that same service to millions of other people.  The term “shared storage” comes to my mind along with many of the connotations of the term shared and I see no reason to expect privacy to be included.

With our government and law enforcement both having admitted to asking for and receiving access to information stored in a variety of these services, I feel we, as users of these services, should take seriously the notion that law enforcement expects to be able to use that information in court to convict or assist in the conviction of crimes; this means that they do not recognize any of this information as being private.  Any expectation of privacy we have regarding information that we publish is therefore mistaken.  This is a separate issue from what happens when hackers expose information on a server; but the result is the same.  While it is true that the act of hacking (gaining unintended access to information) may be a crime in itself; once the information thusly obtained is published in the open, it is there for any and all to experience regardless of how it was originally stored.

Does this mean we should stop using internet based services to hold our photos and videos?  I suggest that, no it means we should be thoughtful about what we publish with an eye to only publishing material that we consider appropriate for public exposure.  As I write this letter, I do so with the expectation that it will be publicly shared and, as such, have little reservation in having it published.  There is already a history of embarrassing photos being accessed and made public and I am sure there are similarly embarrassing videos that have been made public without the owner’s (publisher’s) permission; and I would suggest that this is the result of those publisher’s not understanding how public all of the internet is, or of the potential for any given material that has been published to become public.

As one final topic, I want to discuss IM and PM; messages sent via Internet messenger services.  These should represent a higher level of privacy expectation and at one time may have; they no longer do so.  Regardless of which of the private message services you use (I refer to the publicly available ones like Yahoo messenger, google message services, Skype, and other similar services), they provide a host where the messages are stored and immediately forwarded to the assigned destination; it is this storage which represents the potential breakdown in security.  Law enforcement (with court assistance) can request transcripts of the sessions which means that hackers can also gain access to those transcripts or logs of the conversations.

No matter how you communicate; if you do so over cell phone, wired phone, internet, or radio, there is potential for someone to intercept your communication; with most methods the likelihood of unintended access to the material you communicate is quite small, yet very real.  The big issue I see is that many folks expect privacy where they should not; anything you publish to the internet is subject to public exposure.

Successful Communication, more definitions

More Communications assistance.  When you are trying to get assistance from a technical support specialist or your IT person, it is helpful if you and that person have some common ground; some words that you can agree upon the proper use just for this event.  Last week I started with a few words that I felt were basic necessities; this week a few more that are still very basic, that are necessary for good communication.

Email: Any electronically transmitted message with one or more specific destinations.  Smart phone texts are a special case where the recipient is identified by a phone number; more classic emails use an address made up of a mailbox name and server name separated by an at symbol “@”.  For example george@gmail.com; george is the name on the mailbox and gmail.com is the name of the server (sometimes also called the service).
Email client: This is the program or App that is used to access your mailbox or mailboxes; it usually allows you to order all your emails (electronic letters) conveniently, compose outgoing email to whomever you desire and read those sent to you.  It may also include a calendar and other handy functions.
Post: Post (verb), the act of sending material to the internet in electronic form; sending an email is one example, adding a comment or photo or video to a social media site are examples, tweeting is an example.
Post (noun), is the material, however simple or complex, sent to the internet.  It can be blank (containing nothing) or extremely complex (an entire novel, a feature movie, etc.).  Regardless of what it is, once it is a post, it no longer enjoys the privacy of your personal device, it now exists on the internet.
IM, or Instant Message: A form of information exchange which, in its simplest form, is an exchange between two persons over an electronic connection in which both are simultaneously active and sending each to the other.  The resulting immediate receipt by the intended destination and ability to immediately respond was what set IM apart from Email.  IM grew to include live messaging among groups with voice and live video or shared media previously prepared as a virtual meeting tool and much more.
Network: any group of devices connected for the purpose of information exchange; often with a single information transmission protocol.  Telephone systems are one of the biggest and a very complicated example of a network; the internet is a good example, your in house printer sharing system is another example.  Perhaps not too obvious is the tendency for networks to be inter-connected.
Modem: Technically a device which performs modulation and demodulation.  In a more specific way, the device which extracts and converts network signals from a common carrier (phone lines, cable tv lines, fiber optic cable) to ethernet signal (or wifi) and also injects and converts local network signals (ethernet, or wifi) back onto the common carrier; thus providing two way communication for a given location.  Sound confusing?  A simple example is two people attaching a can to a single string and then talking to each other through the cans (the cans are modems in this example, the string is the common carrier; it works best of the string is taut).
Router: a network device that provides an interface (junction) between two or more networks; most current retail routers also include a small switch (see below) and wifi (wireless networking) capabilities.  It is a common function for a router to take a single internet connection and provide access to that internet source to a local private network with the router managing local addresses for all the local network devices.  In doing so it provides a layer of privacy for the local network while still providing internet access to those same devices.
Switch: a hub, the physical device that connects devices via cable to the other devices in a network.  Commonly, the LAN (local area network) cable from a router plugs into one port on a switch and all the other wired devices in a network connect to other ports in the same switch thus connecting all of them together (physically); in this way the router can control communications between any and all devices in a network).

Next week I would like to expand on a topic that I believe is implied in several of these definitions and its impact on our day to day use of modern electronic devices; that is the topic of Privacy or Expectation of Privacy.

Vocabulary, computerese

Communication, successful communication, is important in so many interactions but it became painfully obvious to me last week when I was trying to assist a customer over the phone. We were both speaking english but we weren’t communicating.  This wasn’t the first time I have experienced this issue; but it was a severe case and one that finally pushed me to action.
The problem, as it appears to me now, is that a lot of vocabulary has been built up surrounding modern computing and the tech industries.  To be clear, I am not talking about the highly technical language of designers, programmers, security specialists and the like; I am talking about the day to day language that our children have grown up with, and those of us in the industry or supporting the industry have struggled to keep up with.  What appears to have happened is that the majority of our population has never been exposed to this vocabulary; until recently they had no reason to know of its existence, let alone understand the words or their application.
A few examples of the vocabulary I am talking about are the words Desktop, Icon, or App.  For persons of my father’s generation Desktop is understood as the surface of their desk; my daughter would recognize the same word as identifying the work surface on her tablet, where the Icons for Apps can be quickly located.  It turns out that it doesn’t matter which Operating System (another bit of vocabulary) you have or which User Interface you use, most modern electronic devices have a Desktop, with Icons, for Apps.  Being able to recognize what they are and which is which is really helpful when someone is providing assistance but cannot see the screen.  Numerous times I have asked a client to “go to the desktop” and find a specific icon, only to have the client tell me there is no such thing; I will usually then describe the desired icon only to be told no, it isn’t anywhere.  My mistake was at the beginning; we didn’t understand Desktop the same and they weren’t seeing what I expected them to see.
So, I offer a few definitions in the hope that they will assist in the beginnings of a shared understanding.  From this shared understanding I hope to build the basis for more successful communication.

Desktop: (from Wiktionary) The main graphical user interface of an operating system, usually displaying icons, windows and background wallpaper.
Icon: a discreet picture or symbol which may be on a desktop or menu to provide direct access to some functionality, Application (app), or program.
App: an application or program to realize some simple or complex function.
User Interface: the collection of controls allowing a user access to the features of a computer, tablet, phone, or other electronic device; often used o provide simplified access to the operating system of a computer.
Operating System: the unified definitions and controls that provide a link between the user interface and components of a computational device.  MS Windows is an integrated Operating System and User Interface; while IOS is a User Interface.
Browser: an app or program designed to provide generalized access to the internet or internet style content.

These definitions are not exhaustive; but are specific to the topic of providing a basis for a shared understanding when working on or talking about modern computers.  I hope to provide more definitions next week in a follow up article to fill in some of the blanks left by this article.

Web content: When is help not helpful?

So, a minor rant to all folks and ‘bots out there who build websites. I just spent 45 minutes trying to figure out which carrier a vendor uses to ship its products; there was a handy link on their page about “carriers” and another “shipping help”. I had high hopes that one or the other would have information on which shipping method would be used; neither even gave a hint. Please let us all not fall into the Microsoft habit of giving accurate and completely useless answers to questions. When you set up a help page or an information page, please think about what information the person who came to that page might be desiring and offer complete, accurate, AND useful information.

An example (one I have been guilty of) “what would it cost to have you fix my broken computer?” answer: 85 dollars an hour plus parts. This is a perfect example of a Microsoft answer; it is of no use to the owner of the broken computer. A better answer would have been $45 (from a recent repair I did); a good answer would be (again from that incident), I will have your computer back to you in 3 days by noon with a charge of $42.50 for labor and $2.50 in parts for a total bill of $45.

While very little of the information is important to me (the technician), the timing of the return of the product may be as big a part of the expense to the user (who was without that computer for a few days) as the dollars and cents; and, the actual cost is far more useful than my hourly rate or the notion of some undisclosed fee for parts. Similarly, the company that is shipping me parts for a client repair tells me when I can expect the product but not which carrier; this is important because some carriers deliver in the morning, some in the evening, some to P.O. boxes and some only to street addresses and some charge more for residential than business deliveries.

Please think about (or get help thinking about) the audience and what kind of answer is helpful to them; why else have a help page or an information page?

Privacy?

A common question of late is “Should I have an expectation of privacy?”.

Some folks may believe that what they send via email is private, and those who send encrypted email would seem to have good reason to expect privacy regarding the content of their emails. Further, there are those who have nice privacy disclaimers embedded in every email. I will leave it up to an attorney to clarify whether the disclaimers provide any measure of protection for the individual or firm whose email contain such a disclaimer.

My issue is that many folks expect email to be private; after all, you send email to a specific destination or list of destinations. If you are concerned about privacy of the content, you might send that email in one of the secure (encrypted) formats and expect that this choice guarantees the privacy of your email content. A fly in the ointment is that our government (never mind other governments and their level of respect for personal and professional privacy) has been utilizing a system of court orders to compel secret (unpublished) access to mail on professional mail servers and hosts.

If an article published in ZDnet is to be believed (it agrees with and draws details from a Rueters News Service article), the NSA / FBI have on many occasions compelled services to provide emails based on some criteria for external access by those other than the intended recipient. What is worse; it is the nature of the mail servers to decrypt the incoming emails in order to perform the government requested “scan” for phrases to identify emails to be extracted. This brings into question the use of the term secure when referring to emails that are intended by the sender to be secure. Secure in this case refers to the emails being transmitted securely; but, the government requesting the emails to be scanned at the server bypasses the standard protection provided by this kind of service.

While I see this as a clear violation of our fourth amendment rights (and others), it may be some time before legal systems are enacted to alter or prevent these kinds of actions by our government agencies (never mind the acts of hackers). In the mean time, this event (which I see no reason to expect is an isolated one) serves as a reminder to us to be more careful regarding what we consider to be private in this age of expanding technologies. This kind of event combined with the hacking events that have been revealed in various news releases make it quite clear that anything published and stored electronically is at risk of becoming public or, at a minimum, viewed by unintended recipients.

What can we do? for extreme cases where privacy is important, provide a shared encryption system to the intended recipients, encrypt the contents of an email, paste that into the body or attach it and send the email(remember to never share the encryption keys electronically – this is how Yahoo, Google, Microsoft Exchange, and other large mail servers can decrypt mail they host – the encryption technique and link to shared keys are included with the email). After receiving the email, the recipient will then decrypt the contents; allowing them and, hopefully, only them to read the contents. Another solution is to avoid using the big commercial mail servers. Many businesses lease or rent web hosting for their corporate website and most of these also include mail hosting service as well. The reason this is likely to be more secure seems two fold to me; first: it is a much smaller prize and the government and hackers may simply not find it worth the effort; second: you as the owner of the hosting service are the very entity who the government will need to make a request of for access to the mails that flow through that server.

This kind of concern regarding privacy of materials should also extend to the use of cloud services, social networks, and blogs. If it is a large public host (Apple Cloud, Microsoft Cloud, One Drive, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), the odds of it attracting the interest of the government or private hackers is far greater than if it is hosted on your own private network or even leased web service. The advantage to selecting one of the large public hosts is that they tend to act fairly responsibly in terms of performing backups, equipment maintenance, and intrusion prevention (except for court orders from the government agencies).

It seems to me that we already have law in place to protect us from these kinds of secret intrusions into our privacy; still, we have at least two recent events made public where it is clear US government agencies are acting outside the clear intent of privacy laws. This indicates that their exist other laws, on the books, that need to be challenged and changed or repealed. It is up to we, the people, to bring this topic to the attention of our law makers, or simply understand and live with the consequences.

Dealing with slowing networks

Sometimes troubleshooting internet issues leads you through unusual twists and turns and sometimes it is just about checking on the basics. In the last week I have been asked to fix connectivity for two different businesses. When I hear that request my curiosity gets the better of me; I really need to find out the answer to “what is leading these people to ask for this service?”. I confess that each case is unique but it usually revolves around network or internet speed issues.

A quick history of networks and the internet might be helpful here. Way back when, in the age of dial-up service, we used coax cable in various topologies (rings, stars, chains, etc.) and networks transmitted data at amazing speeds of 20k (thousand bits per second) all the way up to 2m (2 million bits per second); this was okay because printers could produce up to 30 characters per second and modems (dial-up devices used to bring internet access to your network or a single machine) were capable 120 baud (12 words per second = approximately 120 bits per second) , 300 baud, 1200 baud (a fairly common speed at one point) all the way up to 9600 baud (realistically somewhere between 480 and 960 characters per second). As networking matured, standards like 10 base 2 and 10 base T took hold and networking speeds outstripped the speed that machines could take in data. Now we use networking based on 100 base T (fast ethernet) and 1000 base T (gigabit ethernet – 1 billion bits per second with one character requiring 10 bits) running on fiber optic or category 5 cable (cat5, cat5e, cat6); and, just for completeness, our modern networks are similar to the old star networks.

Up until recently, the new network speeds were significantly faster than anyone had a use for. Up until recently, most emails were very small (a few hundred up to a few thousand characters at most). Now we have several common technologies that require HUGE amounts of data; digital photographs can be made up of 3 million to 40 million bytes (8 bits in a byte) or more, videos may consume 3 billion or more bytes per hour of video and documents that once averaged 800 bytes per page can now (because they may include photos, graphs, drawings, videos, etc.) use more than 1 MB (mega byte, 1 million characters) per page. The result is that it is now possible for a small office to experience congestion on their network (like traffic at rush hour; everything slows down and may seem to come to a complete stop). To exacerbate this issue we also have a lot more devices that may be using the network and each device can have all kinds of helpful and cherished utilities running that depend on network and internet support.

It is this new tendency to consume great amounts of data and send it over the local network or out into the internet that is a primary cause of network congestion. What I see, all too often, is that most of this is unintended traffic; what I mean by this is that the folks using all of this stuff (bandwidth, or transmission potential) have no idea that they are consuming (demanding) all of this data or any data at all. At least the driver of a car who gets on a main arterial at rush hour has some understanding that they represent one small part of the traffic congestion; computer users who listen to internet radio on their phone (just one of hundreds of examples) while at work have no idea (most of them anyway) that they are using up a measurable percentage of the total internet bandwidth available to the office network (and they are adding to general network congestion on the local network also).

So, how does this affect you? I looked at a home network last week because the client complained of not being able to print on occasion and wanted me to fix the network connectivity. My first look revealed that all was well with the equipment, and that lot of data was being successfully moved by the network. After a few questions about what was included in the network, what it was supposed to do and so on, I realized that I was seeing way too much network traffic for those few pieces of equipment and the tasks that they were intended for. This can have several causes and I attempted to verify or rule out a few of the most common. A damaged network adapter or damaged router (the device that handles routing information from the internet to all devices on a network and between devices on a network) can cause this kind of extreme traffic buildup. After a couple tests and component replacements this was ruled out; so on to seeing if the traffic was intended traffic and just far greater than the client (or I) suspected; but I was able to rule that out with a few more tests. I then asked the router (to be truthful I started this early on but let it run for a while and then checked on it at this later stage) where the traffic was going and what was the nature of the traffic. It was at this point that we (the client and I) learned that several smart phones (in the house, innocently being used by household members) were responsible for 95% of the traffic on the network and were keeping the network at 95-100% of capacity. The solution in this specific case was simple and some were happy.
In another case, this week, I had a similar request and this time I found that a computer had been set to back itself up to the cloud, daily. Whenever this computer had some idle time it continued the process of backing itself up and the internet appeared to completely stop for everyone else in the office. Adjustments were made to the backup policies on that computer (part of many of the better on line backup services) and it was set to only backup things that changed and the problem disappeared.

When your internet performance suddenly changes for the worse (who complains when it suddenly gets better?), it can be an issue with your provider or it can be a change in your habits, it can be a sign of viral or malware activity, or it can be some unintended traffic plugging everything up. It can also be the result of interference with wireless transmissions, damage to a network cable or interface, etc.
What ever the cause or causes, it can be very frustrating and it may be one of those problems you look to a consultant or network professional for help with; this is another case where practice really speeds up the process of identifying and fixing the problem.

Hodge Podge from my desk

Ugh, a week spent servicing laptops. This reminds me of why I tell people to avoid certain brands of computers.

Most Apples, portable Dells, and the ultrathin HP systems tend to have one thing in common; they are extremely difficult to service. Its not that they require special tools (Okay, some apples require special tools, and some sony laptops require a secure torx head), taking them apart without damaging the case is extremely difficult. Cudos to Toshiba, MSI, Sony, Compal, and Sager for designing laptops with servicing and upgrading in mind. If you are buying a disposable machine, you may choose based on any criteria meaningful to you and its purpose; but, if you are buying a tool to use for 3-6 years, be mindful that minimum repair costs for the Dell or Apple laptops will include a 30 minute labor charge to disassemble them in order to get to any components compared to 5 minutes or less for many of the others. While the new Lenovo machines require you to remove the entire back, that process goes fairly quickly and there is a simple procedure to get the back off without damaging it or any of the components. For some reason Apple and Dell laptops seem to not have been designed for easy tear down and access to commonly upgraded components. In the long run, this makes certain brands of computers artificially expensive to own; for a long time this has been one of the factors that made laptops more expensive to keep running that desktops. Improved designs by some manufacturers like those listed above has greatly reduced this difference between laptops and desktops. Naturally, gaming and other video intensive activities still favor desktops; but even that gulf is being reduced with some of the newer designs for gaming laptops and CADD intended laptops.
On another unrelated topic, the malware and virus cavalcade just keeps on building. No, your favorite website does not adequately screen the advertisements on its pages and yes, you can start the spiral into numerous pieces of malware taking over your computer with a single click. Even the very best of protection packages won’t protect you if you insist on installing that “free” screensaver or background photo thingy. Need a little utility to help you remember all your web passwords? Please choose something other than the one from the free advertisement. If something pops up and takes over your screen telling you that your computer has been infected, it is telling you the truth and it is one of the bugs itself. That weird phone call where some nice person tells you that you have been infected and they, from Microsoft or Symantec, will help you fix that for a nominal fee? Yeah the fee won’t be nominal and help like they will offer you don’t need (trust me Microsoft will never call you; Neither will any reputable firm unless you call them first). One last thing; think you are safe because you use an Android or OSX system? Nope, more new malware detected for those systems last month than for Windows systems.

A quick reminder, hard drives usually carry a warranty for 1 to 3 years; there is a good reason for this.  The manufacturers have studied, very carefully, how long this technology will reliably operate and 3 years is about the maximum you can count on.  After that, well, the odds are simply against you.  You can take several approaches to hedging your bets (and the safety of your data, documents, photos, or whatever); but good backups is what I recommend first.  Replacing drives that are more than four years old will usually improve speed as well as data reliability and is thus a good idea also.  Choosing a SSD (solid state disk drive) will improve system performance noticeably; but, they still only have a five year expected data retention life (longer, but not permanent).  

a small disk of clear material that can hold a terrabyte or more
The next thing in long term archival data storage? Maybe

Backup early and often, please.

Web Advertising part 3

Web Advertising Part 3.

In this installment I will try to describe what is perhaps the most important step you can take to get search engines to favor your web presence; keeping it alive and relevant in the electronic eyes of those search engines. This is important for numerous reasons but let us focus on this one aspect first. The search engines preview content continuously so they can instantly show you relevant responses to your queries; in doing so, they visit web pages (remember when we registered our page(s) with the search engines) to verify that the page is still relevant and to see if it has changed. A couple of impacts occur as a result; if nothing has changed, the score for the page is reduced based on, among other things, how long it has been since the page was changed. If it has changed, the search engine will re-score the page based on the new content and then on its over all content including words, tags, descriptions and so forth.

This score I am talking about is a measure of what sorts of things the content of the website is relevant to. The search engines are completely mechanical in their scoring; no human interference, no human intuition, simple brute force data collection and tabulation combined with a measure of how fresh that data is, and how well the website embodies certain measures of accessibility (does it optimize for different devices, does it provide alternate text for non-text items, does it contain multi-media content and other factors are valued). Now, each search engine is a little different, each one scores differently; but, the intent is the same. The search engines provide quick direction to websites that are most relevant for the search criteria provided by a user; in addition to websites that have paid to be included in searches for some or all of the search criteria. Exactly how important each aspect is varies with different search engines; but, that freshness is always an important factor. You don’t really want to be shown websites that haven’t changed in five years (is that company still operating if their website hasn’t changed?) and this is one part of the score we can influence easily.

Over time, what you provide or how much you charge for products and services may change; updating your website to reflect that is a great idea if only for this reason. Bonus, updating that website also creates new interest on the part of the search engine and serves to potentially increase your score simply because your website is showing life, growth, freshness! As time goes on, you may get new improved media items to replace old ones or think of better ways to describe your offerings; don’t be shy, this is all positive in terms of increasing the score of your website. If you join a new organization pertinent to your offerings, add a link to that organization, get them to link back to your page, add a post or a paragraph to your page describing how this relationship improves your offerings. All of this keeps your website alive and interesting to the search engines and consumers alike.

I wish to offer a cautionary note at this point; particularly if customers use your website regularly for reference or their commercial or personal activities. Changing the overall structure of your website, which may keep it fresh, may also cause some frustration for your customers. Adding and enhancing content is one thing (a positive thing); but, making major changes on a regular basis can prove frustrating to folks for whom your website is a regular resource. Keeping the navigation of the website consistent and the type of content consistent can go a long way to maintaining customer loyalty. If you are thinking about providing an entirely new type of content, this is a good place to create a new website and then provide a link to it (the new website) on your current website (remember to provide an obvious return link on the new website). A quick tip; most hosting plans allow for free subdomains which can be a great place to test new content, new business ideas, with only your time as an investment as far as web presence is concerned. If you need help with this concept, your hosting help line or favorite consultant is likely to be very familiar with this and related topics.

Keeping your website and other web offerings up to date is one of the easiest tasks you can undertake and it offers numerous advantages related to why you created a web presence in the first place. I recommend that you set aside time each month to review all of your web assets with an eye to making small improvements on a regular basis; and remember the web itself is constantly changing, growing, and adapting to the demands of a huge audience; you can grow with it and prosper.

Web Advertising Part 1

Web Advertising Part 1.

This will be a multi-part project from me; this week, in part 1, I will discuss building up the base or basic infrastructure. There are some assumptions I will make; some familiarity with web browsing, links, basic navigation on the web, and an understanding that web pages represent one form of inexpensive advertising. Many of the tools or features I will discuss are available at no charge or you can choose to pay fees to enhance their impact; I mostly recommend the “at no charge” part of these tools. I will leave it up to the user of such tools to calculate whether or not paid advertising is of positive value for them.

Step one (perhaps already done by most) acquire a name (domain or domain name) for your primary website and arrange for a place to host it. For a commercial website, this might entail registering a catchy name (benediktson.com for me) and buying web hosting (maybe $8.00 / month – perhaps less or at no charge). I prefer web hosting that includes email service so I can set up equally catchy named email addresses (help@benediktson.com, john@benediktson.com) that help with company recognition and simplify the whole branding part of advertising. A quick word about these names; my example is a ‘.com’ (top-level-domain) but many others exist for improved identification and name recognition. For example ‘.biz’ for a business, ‘.net’ for networking providers, ‘.org’ for organizations, or the very common ‘.com’ for commercial. If you are looking to avoid annual fees, you may choose a sub-domain provided “under” someone else’s name (john.computer4u.com, or john.mt.gov).

Step two is to identify services that already are providing websites or web-presence’s for you, or would if they knew you existed, and claim or take control of these sites or presences. This can require some research and some luck; but, trust me, it is worth the effort on your part. Google provides a contact page or website for every business (sort of); find yours and take ownership of it so you control the content on it and can link it to your website from “step one” above. Facebook, Yahoo, Bing, and a host of special interest groups and service providers also provide similar services. Yellowbook provides a range of services, many at no charge (in the hopes you will also buy some of their advertising products); this is one way to get your business phone number (assuming you have one and want it to be easy to find) published so that it appears in web searches. As much as possible, you want to add references from all of these back to your website and to each other (remember to try and put consistent information on each of these).

Step three is to contact organizations that provide recommendations or assistance in the field you provide service or products for. If you are an attorney, for instance, there will be numerous professional groups that you could join and many of them will assist you in being easier to find for those interested in your specific offerings. There are also a few commercial groups who provide lists of specialists, referral services, etc.; you may wish to exchange links with some or all that you can find. In each case, you want to get accurate information about you and what you offer (including your website address and email address maybe) in their listings.

Step four is to go to each of the major search engines and register your webpage with them. There are services that will do this for you (usually for a fee) or you can spend an hour some evening and learn about all the other services these engines can provide to you while you describe your offerings to them. These are designed to be used by non-technical people and should represent no unusual challenges. Okay, there is one challenge involved, you will need to think about your offerings and how your would-be clients view those offerings so you can tell the search engines which kinds of queries they should recommend you (your webpage) as a response.

With these four steps initiated, you should have several “pages” displaying your name, desired contact information, and information about services, products, or whatever that you offer. There may be opportunities to improve these as time and feedback suggest or add new ones as you become aware of additional services. As much as possible, all should link to your website and you may choose to link your website back to some; particularly if they provide additional information or incentive regarding you and your offerings.

In part 2 of this series, I hope to explain how to make your web presence more attractive to the search engines and help you advance up the list the search engines provide.

Web Advertising Part 2

Web Advertising Part 2.

I have been told that it is an arcane art getting your webpage selected for prominent display by the search engines (getting the first listing or on the first page) and that it requires the efforts of a highly paid professional. I reject this notion; my experience has shown that a few straightforward and common sense tactics can get any web page favored by the search engines. The various search engines are sufficiently open about what they “score” highly for selection. Recently, Google and Bing posted notes regarding changes to their scoring schemes; both now favor pages that include content for the vision challenged in addition to favoring “living” and “dynamic” pages.

This is good news all around. The web has become very visually oriented; to the extent that, until recently, the sight impaired, and those with limited motor control (and a vast array of other situations that create challenges to experiencing web content) experienced the web in an extremely reduced quality. Whatever the reason you are building a web presence, providing your message to the maximum audience is desirable. Being mindful of the newer guidelines for the search engines not only helps you get higher on the page but also allows you to include more of the potential audience. A marketing specialist can help you get a higher percentage of reached individuals to engage with your content, while building pages that the search engines favor helps you reach a larger audience; both factors are extremely important in forming a successful campaign.

There are simple things we (as builders of the website or blog) can do to achieve favor within these new guidelines. When posting a photograph, try fully describing both the photo and its association with the text or other materials surrounding it; often this can be entered as text in the “alternate text” field associated with the photo. Similarly, when embedding a video or a table of numbers, or a graph, fully describe it and how it applies to the material it is meant to enhance or exemplify. If you are using WordPress, media items (photos, videos, sound recordings, charts, etc.) can easily be annotated as you place them from the media library with a title, a caption (visible to all), alt text (used by screen readers, search engines, visible to those requesting text mode or whose browser settings prevent picture loading), a description (available to same group as alt text). All of these can assist in getting search engine favor and in helping to identify the importance of that media to both the search engines and all viewers. A quick hint for WordPress users; if you will use a media item multiple times and want different annotation, create multiple copies because the annotation stays with the library entry, not the “instance” on the page.

As you format the “page” remember that we want the page to be dynamic; in this case I refer to the ability of WordPress and other page layout products to format the page differently to optimize its appearance and function for various kinds of viewing devices (smart phone, tablet, PC, Mac, etc.). This can involve choosing larger fonts (14pt and above recommended for the small displays and the visually impaired); avoiding hard to read fonts (artsy but more difficult to read for all), and good white-space balance (this is many things but it amounts to adding white space to make paragraphs easier to spot, photos, tables, and graphs easily identified with the text they enliven but not jammed into, and more). Understanding that the page will be reformatted based on the viewer’s device might lead to using larger or smaller elements (media or text); but, generally the use of a moderate sized and easy to read font for all text will go a long way here. Breaking up parts of the page to separate different thoughts you are expressing may also assist the reader (particularly after the dynamic page layout engine shapes it for small displays).

In addition, you want to include “tags”; this is your chance to give the search engines words or phrases that you think your content explains or is the answer to. If someone was searching for “this tag” I want my page provided at the top of the list or prominently in the list. This makes “tags” an important consideration and a powerful tool to get your page presented to those searching for your offerings. Depending on what tools you use to create your pages, “tags” will be available in different ways; in WordPress, each post and each page has a field that you can paste your tags into. A quick step back; when we were filling in the alternate text and description fields for media earlier, we would like to include (smoothly, artfully) those same tags in the descriptive text for those media. Back to “tags”; these are not sentences, the search engines are looking to match a key word or 2, maybe, 3 word phrase and the “tags” themselves are primarily here for the search engines. It is extremely rare for a viewer of a page to dig in deep enough to ever see the tags associated with it.

Now that we have some content on our webpage, hopefully very attractive to reader and search engine alike, it will help to go to the various search engines and “register” our page. In this step the search engine is, once again, informed of the “tags” for our intended content and audience and you may choose to pay for higher placement or for advertising space. Some of the engines will allow you to enter a description or even a lengthy briefing designed to grab attention to your link(s) and provide business and or personal information (address, hours, phone numbers, email address, etc.). This is a process you can do or have a service or even an app do for you; I prefer doing it myself as it often gives me hints about what the search engine is looking for and what other entities are doing that might be in competition with me.

In part 3, I hope to discuss keeping your page alive; strategies and the need for updating the content on your page.

Newer laptops or Tablets w/ keyboards reviewed

               Delightfully, I have had the opportunity to work with a few new models of laptop this month and thought I would pass on some of my delights and gripes. I’ll break this up into 2 groups; the tablets with keyboard, and the more classic full-size laptops. In all cases I am looking at inexpensive models; $150-$300 for the tablets, $275 – $450 for the laptops.

acer aspire switch 10
Acer Aspire Switch 10

               I played with a couple of the, now, 6 month old models of convertible laptops or tablets. In this field the Microsoft Surface machines are defining the standard; but I tried some of their competition. At the top of the list for me are the Acer switch series tablets (10, 11, and 12 inch); imagine a tablet that has a detachable keyboard for the times when you are actually doing some typing. The keyboard with the Acer has a surprisingly good feel though it is a tad small compared to a “standard” sized keyboard and is not backlit (I am not aware of their being a backlit option for this); it is also rigid so it works well in the lap, in the air or wherever you find comfy. I ordered my sample Acer with 4gb RAM, 64gb storage (solid state drive) and in the 10” size (weight vs size vs price favored this one for me).         I noted that the resellers have the 10” model with the newer Intel Atom z8 series processor which seems a bit faster than the Z3’s common this winter and still in all the 11” and 12” models (the 12” can also be found with an i3 or i5 but at significant increases in price).   The machine performed flawlessly allowing me to install a wide variety of windows software (office, WordPerfect suite, Lotus 1-2-3, Delorme mapping, various recipe apps, and various system testing and maintenance apps). As is my habit, I removed much of the free stuff along with McAfee antivirus, allowing Microsoft’s Defender to take over A/V chores and adding Malwarebytes to assist in the fight. Machine 2 was a Nextbook 11”; similarly, it has a nice keyboard that detaches, but its keyboard is also backlit (I found this quite helpful).  There was a tad of flex to the keyboard which I found distracting but still very usable. The larger screen came with a bit of added weight (an issue to my thinking as it is harder to hold as a tablet for long periods).  Similarly priced to the 10” Acer, it came with the Intel Atom Z3 processor and only 2gb RAM, 32gb solid state storage. Software compatibility was identical to that of the Acer (Windows 10 Home, also available in Android) but performance was slightly less impressive; quite adequate for a home or school machine.   All machines (MS surface, Acer switch, Nextbook) function as true tablets with multi-touch, tilt sense (landscape and portrait display), built-in speakers, etc. Whereas the Surface and Surface pro 3 both would NOT support a USB DVD burner without auxiliary power (had to add USB power to the cable – very complicated), The Acer and Nextbook both support the DVD I use with no fuss and at half the price or less.

tablet with hands for size perspective
Acer Aspire switch 10

                I also had the opportunity to setup and work with 2 of Lenovo’s low priced ultra thin laptops; The Lenovo B50 15” series (approx. $300 as ordered) is available with a wide range of processors, RAM, and hard drives; the one I ordered had no DVD, 4gb RAM, and 500gb 5400 rpm hard drive. The screen was quite bright and very crisp and easy to read, the keyboard has a decent touch and nice spacing; performance with the AMD A6 6300 quad core cpu was quite adequate (and would have been much better had I sprung for the SSD instead of the hard drive).  The weight and feel of this machine are excellent; at 4.5 pounds it is light in your lap and is proving to be an excellent office computer (it runs MS office reliably and with no pauses or hesitation; but, this is not a gaming machine).   I have also been working with the 17” G70 (similar machine 17” screen version) which I ordered with a slightly bigger cpu (quad core A8) and replaced the hard drive with an SSD (solid state drive). With the hard drive it performed much like its 15” brother; but, with the SSD replacing the hard drive it became a fantastically quick and responsive computer. The key spacing is a tad more to my liking and the larger screen is also a bonus but this all added 2 pounds to the weight. Still not a machine for gaming, it resumes instantly, cold boots in 8 seconds or less.  For the Intel only customers you can also choose these machines with i3’s, i5’s and a few i7’s at a premium price. Having compared the A8 version with a machine sporting a quad core i7 I recommend choosing an SSD instead of spending gobs of cash on an i7. The AMD A8 system was twice as fast loading programs, booting up, switching apps, and even shutting down as a similar machine with an i7 and a 1Tb 7200 rpm hard drive (the latter cost $1200 compared to the AMD equipped model at $450).

                Any of these machines should be available at your favorite retailer or on the web through Amazon, Tiger, Best Buy, Walmart, etc.  Often you can find them with free shipping . I found that the best priced suppliers made me wait a week or more for shipping; while others could ship same day but at a higher price. One significant advantage to the laptops over the tablets is that they can be upgraded; when buying a tablet be sure and buy it configured as you are going to use it.  All of these run the same programs and all of them do so quite adequately with the SSD equipped units being a fair bit quicker responding; if the small screen sizes are an issue, consider connecting one of these or one of the ultra-micro machines to a television of whatever size works for you.

Wifi Signal issues

For those of you who have wifi that works perfectly all the time; Lucky you!  For the rest of us, I have done some research and wish to share some of what I have learned.

Simply enough wifi is wireless internet via radio signal; as such, it works great if you are in direct sight of the signal source and less well otherwise.  Wireless a,b,g,n (standard wifi) all operate at 2.4ghz radio frequency; so do cordless phones, microwave ovens, some remote controls, bluetooth devices, and IOT (internet of things) devices.  Wireless Dual Band and wireless ac wifi (the newer standards for wifi) operate at 5ghz and 2.4ghz or (under user control) at just 5ghz; some cordless phones (expensive, new) and broken microwave ovens can emit 5ghz signal (if your microwave significantly interferes with your wifi, it would be a good idea to consider replacing that microwave – it can mean its radiation shielding is breaking down).  In the future I expect to see a lot more devices using 5ghz transmission; but, not in the narrow band used for wifi.  As a rule of thumb. A given quality of signal (speed and reliability of wifi) requires half as much power at 5ghz as it does at 2.4ghz; radio signals at these frequencies do not bend, do not go around corners (thus my earlier comment about being in direct sight); but, they do bounce off some materials and will penetrate with some loss others.

What will wifi signals bounce off? Most metal surfaces, some types of rock (generally with metallic content), foil backed insulation, aluminum foil, tin cans and similar objects.  What will wifi signals go through? Most wood surfaces and structures, craft-backed insulation, plastic encapsulated insulation, bare fiberglass, rockwool, paper based insulation, and, to a lesser extent, gypsum board (sheetrock).  What will simply block wifi signal? Brick, tile, adobe, rock, cinder block and similar materials are excellent at blocking most radio signals including wifi.  Of interest is that 5ghz will penetrate materials somewhat more readily than 2.4ghz and can work even after going through a 6″ adobe wall but with greatly reduced speed and reliability.

What do I do if I can’t get my wifi to cover the entire area where I want it?  First, look at relocating the source (usually your wifi router); often you can get better coverage by moving it to a more central location.  Second, try getting it up higher; on the floor all wifi behaves poorly. (I know I hate the trial and error method too; it takes time and effort).  Next, you can try reorienting the antenna(s) on the router and, possibly, increasing the transmit power of the router (many routers have variable output settings -high,medium, low), or adding better antennas to your router.  If you still don’t have what you want for coverage, you can use network over AC wiring devices (plug one device in next to your router and run a cable to it, then plug another one in near the device you want to have internet access and connect it by a cable from the plug-in device), or you can use one of the newer wifi range extender devices; these come in a wide variety in order to deal with most any situation.  Sometimes it will take a combination of devices to cover a large building or area.

If you have a lovely southwestern adobe house, rejoice!  You are pretty well protected from stray radio emissions, but your internal wifi area may be restricted to one or two rooms unless you are quite creative and go to some effort to expand your wifi area.  In large homes it is often necessary to run network cable and use multiple routers to get good signal throughout; this is where a network or cabling professional can come in handy.

Flavors of MalWare

The focus of malware has changed over time.  Originally, there were “free” screen savers and “free” background photography that carried minor reporting functions for advertisers.  Then came the background information gatherers that would collect and report to the cloud on anything the computer had done or seen.  Later yet came Keyloggers that would capture every keystroke and report that to hidden servers out on the internet.  Then came the scams; programs that stated they would remove any of the prior but actually brought in more malware and then held you hostage for anywhere from $20-$800 dollars to get all the crap removed from your system.  Recently there have been viruses and malware that encrypt data on your computer and hold you hostage; offering to give you your data back if you pay a ransom.  When combined with hacking efforts that add porn to your computer and then open it up as a server any of these become more than just annoying.  Oh yeah, I left out the harvesters; malware that harvests all of your mailing lists and then sets your machine up to spam disgusting material out to the mailing lists it has harvested.

Somewhere in the middle of this were corporate supported advertising campaigns where large sales interests pushed seemingly safe and free software out to get research software onto millions of computers to collect information for advertisers without the knowledge of the computer owners (yes, the fine print in the disclosure document did, in most cases, refer to the additional activities of the software being offered; but, the average user had no chance of understanding what that meant).  Companies like American Express, and Aurora Group were two that I encountered involving themselves in this behavior; but, I am sure others were involved also.

Today, skilled programmers write “kits” that hackers or unscrupulous entrepreneurs can include in some lovely tidbit of an app or useful add on for your electronic device that turn it into malware or into a trojan horse that will invite oodles of malware onto your device.  These kits give the rank and file (average skilled) author the kind of apparent skills that only a rare few have developed and make the whole malware industry flow; much to our expense.

MalWare – not our friend

Malware is rampant on the internet; should you be concerned? How well are you protected?
First, why should you be concerned? Malware is a general term for non-virus applications that are unintended parasites of various types on a computer. Some collect sales research, some collect passwords and other access information, some collect contact information or financial information, yet others are helpful to the user, and some are both. All of them consume resources (disk space, memory, clock cycles, etc.). It is this last item that usually tips off the user; the system gets slower. Are you still at risk if you run Linux, Unix, IOS, Mac OS, Android, or ChromeOS? Yes, while more “kits” for building malware seem to exist for Windows, there are plenty out there aimed at each kind of OS and the associated machines. The damage that can be done ranges from a simple slow down of your equipment to the deletion of important data, exposure of important data to criminals, to completely disabling your equipment and creating financial ruin.
How well are you protected? Malware may be invited on to your computer when you add some new feature, or accidentally click on an advertisement, or when a hacked webpage is viewed, or when a virus or trojan horse (virus or non-virus in nature) gets loose on your computer. Good anti-virus software should and will stop most of this if it is up to date and fully operational ; good anti-malware software will stop some of what the anti-virus isn’t capable of recognizing. Standard installations of windows 8 and 10 include Windows Defender which has both of these elements. If you install a 3rd party protection package, these elements are disabled in favor of the third party package’s protection. Further protection is available in the form of appliances physically installed between you and the internet at large; some are called firewalls but many are far more than just a firewall; providing protection against a wide range of threats.
What steps can you take to protect yourself and your equipment? Keep your anti-virus and anti-malware up to date and a firewall in place, regularly run a scan of your equipment, keep good and regular backups, and verify that your anti products are working (I am amazed by how many computers I am asked to fix that have the firewall turned off and / or the anti-virus turned off). When you browse, browse intelligently; if it looks suspicious, avoid it; if it looks too good to be true, avoid it (Really? do you have a long lost Uncle who was a billionaire?). When reading email, do not open emails you have no reason to expect (do you seriously expect to win a lottery you never entered? of course not), do not open attachments you aren’t expecting and , AND if you get a popup asking you to approve installing something when you weren’t intending installing, do not approve changing your computer or installing some new “thing”. Often exiting the offending popup is possible and adequate (scan your machine immediately in any case); if not, try canceling it with the task manager (from windows, ctrl-alt-delete will make windows task manager available), if that fails, a reboot may be appropriate. One more thing; if some purchased program insists that you disable anti-virus in order to install it, never disable the anti-virus. I am aware of no commercial programs that won’t install with good anti-virus and anti-malware products active: none!
The short of it, browse and read safely, make backups of anything important, and weekly or more often scan for both viruses and malware. Scan with appropriate software; I can recommend products from Microsoft, Trend Micro, Sophos, Malwarebytes, LavaSoft, SpybotSD, Auslogics, and Piriform. Choose appropriate products to protect against viruses and malware along with performing regular maintenance to keep your equipment performing as intended. Have questions? Ask your IT professional before you have trouble.

Data Centers are not perfect

I recently had the experience of having to run down the cause of a few clients not being able to access their email systems.  I quickly learned that the servers which hosted those email systems had been taken down by the hosting company.  Further checking revealed that the issue was a failure of a large multiply redundant array.  This was not the failure of a single drive nor even that of a single array; but, rather, it was a simultaneous failure of two synchronized arrays.  The likelihood of such a failure would seem to be astronomically rare; but, it was the second such failure in this particular data center in just over 2 years.  Because of the size and complexity of the arrays, it took over 8 hours to get a full backup and then another 16 hours to build a replacement array and restore the data before the servers could start to be brought back online (and the hosted email systems to become accessible once again).

This event highlights an important point about trusting the cloud to securely protect your personal or business data.  The cloud does represent a far more reliable storage technique than your hard drive in your computer but it is not perfect; failures can and do happen.  As a result, I continue to recommend that all users of electronic devices personally backup their data and store the media in a cool, dry, safe location.  Backup often (any time you have worked an amount that you do not want to have to repeat) using appropriate media (CD’s, DVD’s, USB sticks, button drives, etc.).