Reading the fine print

Upon contemplation, blaming a time zone issue for the mail server problem just doesn’t seem right. Email works just fine across all the various time zones; why should it fail over something so simple?

When I “solved” the problem it was by updating the time zone, and bringing the server into proper sync with the client. But why would this be needed? As I made the change, I noticed something else unusual – there was a persistent connection to my mail server’s IMAP port, from the Amazon cloud. That struck me as odd, and potentially undesirable. So I closed the connection, and waited… and it reestablished itself within seconds. I put this down to being the tech-support diagnostic from the email client vendor, and then went about the business of kicking them off the server (write email to them, remove the extra account created for them, changing master passwords). As always, when I’ve opened a diagnostics port for outsiders, when it’s finished I go back and reset any master passwords which might have been [inadvertently] exposed – in this case, the password to my primary email – access to which had been the impetus for the whole exercise.

Changing the password on that email requires updating not just the mobile client on the phone, but also the mobile clients on the notebook computers, and the POP3 client on the administrative computer.  It’s an easy routine; pull up the client, stop the automatic message pull (which will fail as the password has changed), then make the change, do another message pull to validate, and we’re done.

Not so, this time. Instead, upon updating the password in the POP3 client, I get a “server closed connection” message. What? Did I type the password wrong? Let’s go try that again… get the same error… but that’s the wrong error for a password change. So it’s off to the mail server console to see what’s happened now – and the primary email account is now on ‘auto-ban’ status, meaning too many attempts were made with the wrong password in too short a time frame. I remove the account from auto-ban, do the POP3 pull from the client (works fine), then check the phone app.

It’s complaining it can’t connect. And that’s when it hits me – that persistent cloud connection was from the phone app. But why would it care? I’ve told the phone app to poll the server every 15 minutes… let’s fire up wireshark and do some packet analysis, see what’s happening. And sure enough, it’s the phone app, probing the mail server every 60 seconds for new email. Say what? And then I notice the section on the app menu, about privacy, and look in there. “Erase your data from our servers” – ahem. What data are you storing? Selecting Yes to “Erase data” tells me I may no longer use this app, and when I persist, it deletes the account from the app – resetting it back to the beginning.

Let’s go examine that app again… I should have been a bit more aware (read the fine print!) as to what was going on; how did a no-ads-install-for-free app have a dedicated tech-support team, without a visible source of revenue? Well, if you’re not paying, you’re the product, not the customer. In this case, the company providing the app is indeed reading the mail and making marketing trend analysis data available – to third-party [paying] clients. That’s how the app makes money.

I’d complain about deceptive advertising but… GMail is essentially the same. So Edison Email comes off the phone, and it’s time to find a better client.

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Leaving Facebook… the process.

I don’t intend (at least in the next year or so) to actually leave Facebook. It’s a nice way of keeping in touch with some people, and a good experimental platform for understanding the ways and wiles of tracking systems.

But there’s been a lot of chatter the last few days about how to leave Facebook, and the [obvious, if you think about it] algorithms used by Facebook for victim customer advertising target retention. Specifically, Facebook starts hitting the notifications hot and heavy, and eventually starts ignoring its own settings in the quest to keep you entertained on the hook.

The process you should follow (at least as of this writing)… 1) Start removing your content. Don’t do it all at once, but my approach is to slowly remove all photo “albums” with the exception of the auto-generated foursome (uploads, timeline, profile, cover).

2) Create an alternate identity email somewhere. Change your Facebook email over to this new account. Don’t use this email for any other purpose.

3) Remove ALL references to your primary email, web, phone, etc. from Facebook. Don’t use any identifier other than the alternate email address.

4) After a month or so, disconnect Facebook from your phone (if you ever gave it the number to start with)… watch as Facebook starts to fill your auxiliary email with notices.

5) On your fated day, sign in to Facebook, do the removal thing – it may take a number of attempts complete with various captchas and pleadings and confirmations and so on.

6) You may now walk away (figuratively speaking) from that alternate email, safe in the knowledge that Facebook can’t bug you any further.

 

 

Keeping email private…

Whenever one of the market-anointed tech titans speaks, people start to pay attention to their privacy… or lack thereof. In this instance, the question received regarded email, asking about alternatives to Microsoft & Google offerings, as compared to a Swiss service ProtonMail. Get your beverage(s) ready, this is going to be a long one.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I did not sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night. This discussion is relative to my understanding of United States Laws and court decisions. Your mileage may vary. 

First – how much inconvenience are you willing to suffer to keep your email private? What are you willing to pay?

On the surface, ProtonMail (which prides itself on end-to-end-encryption, and being based in Switzerland) seems like the obvious winner, since there’s a free version. But there are issues here. First is the recently passed CLOUD Act (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, HR 4943, signed into law March 23, 2018) which allows for bilateral treaty-based exchange of overseas data between signatories. Note there is already such a treaty in existence with Switzerland. Proton’s off-stated “we only store encrypted data” claim is only good to the extent a user is not otherwise compelled to give up a password… or that the encryption is as described. Further, the only interface allowed to Proton is via web browser…

Gmail/Hotmail etc – “free” or “paid” – your email is going to be read by robots, mostly looking for advertising ‘bait’ or to build a better profile… (more on this later). Of course, these offerings win on convenience, and of course “free!”

Finally, there’s “roll-your-own” email. Invest in a server, configure your own email, have your own custom address pool, make your own filters and blocks, set auto-replies, run email lists… in simple terms, do everything the big boys can, but in your own way. All the mission-critical email for me has run on my own email server for more than twenty years. I use Gmail as a convenience, and am forced to use Outlook by various clients.

Now – let’s look at the legal implications on privacy, for the three offerings above. In the US, email privacy is governed by two major acts: the aforementioned CLOUD Act, and the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986). Most email communications falls under the [ancient] ECPA guidelines (assuming it is stored in the US).

The ECPA defines five types of communication for email. Three of those types require a warrant for access; two require a subpoena. Subpoenas are routinely issued by lawyers in the name of the court; penalties may be assessed for non-compliance. Warrants are issued by a judge, have stringent requirements for issuance, and are usually enforced by police agencies.

The ‘warrant required’ types of communications are: email in transit, email stored on a home computer, and email in remote storage, unopened, stored for 180 days or less.

The subpoena required types of communications are: email in remote storage, opened, and email in remote storage, unopened, stored for more than 180 days.

I run a combination server – it is IMAP when I’m away from home, and POP3 when I’m home. In simple terms – during a work day outside the house, or while travelling, I’m running the server in much the same mode as one does with any web-based system. The email is available via remote access (remote storage in ECPA terms). When I’m home, I have a POP3 client which downloads the email to a home computer, and erases that mail from the server.

In this mode, my critical email is always in the warrant-required states per the ECPA. Warrants are issued under standards more than 200 years old – it must be based on probable cause, describe the place or person to be searched, and for what evidence the search is being requested; all under oath or affirmation to a judge or magistrate. I feel reasonably secure.

Hope this helps the decision matrix.

ps – Gmail’s robots really kick in after about 200 emails are in the account. Want to baffle the builder? Set Gmail to operate in POP3 mode (delete after download) and watch the fun. (Running NoScript and disabling the Google Stats scripts also screws up the profile builder).

 

Ink-stained rant

One of the tasks tonight was printing out student work; it needs to be printed so I can grade it and hand it back. Nowadays most students won’t print their own work… usually, I think, from the cost involved.

The big cost is ink. My usual printer for everyday use is a worn Epson Stylus C-120. It uses four colors but five cartridges -doubling up on black – and if I were to use Epson-brand ink, the cost for one set of cartridges would be about  $60. Each cartridge holds 12 ml of ink – thus Epson ink costs $1,000 per liter, or a bit less than $4,000 to the gallon. And you thought gasoline was high-priced?

I don’t use Epson inks. I print way too much to go that route.

For the first couple of years I used a CISS – Continuous Ink Supply System. This is a set of 5 cartridges with tubing which loops outside the printer to a set of tanks holding bulk ink. The cost of the CISS was $35 – for 100 ml of ink in each tank! Re-inking costs were about $30 per 500ml – far less than name-brand.

CISS systems expect to be used, a lot. Daily works best. Otherwise the inks slowly draw back down the supply lines into the tank. If the time between use is too great, the inks may clot up a bit at the feed end of the tanks… at which point it’s easier to pull the system out and replace it rather than fix it. Been there, done that. These inks are dye-based and not particularly stable, but work just fine for daily print work (mostly text).

For now, I’m using generic dye-filled cartridges bought on Amazon – the vendor name changes with each purchase, but on average I’m paying $1.25 per cartridge… everything is working fine, except the ‘status’ messages from the Epson printer driver software.

Epson’s printer drivers give a visual depiction of remaining ink; and a warning pop-up when the capacity is ‘low.’ What I’m finding out is that ‘low’ is… a marketing ploy as opposed to any sort of reality. Two days ago I got the pop-up, urging me to buy ink as I was ‘low’ on black. Earlier tonight when I started to print, the indicator was at the bottom, indicating imminent emptiness – or so it seemed. Two hundred and four pages later, the indicator is still at the bottom… and the black ink is still printing nice and strong.

Tsk tsk tsk.

Crossing the line…

Here I go again, messing up the lines. Crossing over from professor to student; twice a week changing which side of the room I’m on. It’s time to learn!

This time it’s a refresher class – CISY 225 Web Page Development I.

From reading the syllabus I gather I’ll be working up several websites over the next six weeks:

  • A personal site. In this case, it will be the renaissance of njrr.net – a project started years ago which never advanced. This time round I hope to make the site into a template set which can then be fed by PHP/MySQL code – otherwise I was facing the Brobdingnagian task of maintaining 200 or more individual pages (not as involved as njchurchscape but still…).
  • A commercial site – think this will be the [long overdue] facelift for woodall.com. Seventeen years with the same design is perhaps a bit long in the tooth.
  • An e-commerce site – hmm… think I smell a honeypot in my future.

Should be an interesting ride.

Carolina [cable] hospitality

One of the tasks to carry out during my three week sojourn in NC this spring was to fix up the problems with TV/Telephone/Internet Access at the beach house.

Our family beach house is a condominium – ostensibly the complex provides cable TV and Internet, but the Internet is shared-access wifi with the rest of the complex, and we prefer dedicated access. For years that meant dealing with CenturyLink – a telephone company so bad it changes its name every few years in a futile attempt to regain credibility.

Of late, though, the incumbent cable carrier has made a play for business, and thus my parents decided to change over to Time Warner Cable (Eastern Carolina division). They ordered the service while they were in temporary quarters (the condo was being repaired from 2011 hurricane damage).

The telephone port worked fine… they had no idea how to work the set-top box… and the goofball contract installer couldn’t leave well  enough alone on the router and reset it back to factory default.

And by the time I arrived, while it was working, we had not seen an invoice for service.

So I initially went on-line to figure out where the issues were, and ran into a problem – I couldn’t get in, because the billing system is separate from all the other systems – and it needed the account number, which I didn’t have (no invoice yet!) and wanted the phone number. I put in the phone number for the unit – no dice. Put in the NJ home phone. No go. Put in my personal and then business line numbers. Still nothing (we’ve had all these numbers at least 15 years). Finally tried the phone number from the temporary quarters – and that worked!

So I got in that far, but couldn’t change the phone number… and found security was based on “last 4 digits of the subscriber SSN” – which didn’t match either parent’s SSN, apparently. And of course  TWC also wanted a “customer code” which was on the missing invoice.

Thus it meant heading off to Newport to the cable office.

…and after a 30-minute drive, finding a line to stand in, and eventually getting to two agents who worked diligently for about 40 minutes to fix all the problems in the billing. Turns out the contract installer decided to “correct” the information in the work order and screw things up. (Somewhere,  a village is missing its idiot.)

Now we know the account number; have set up payment methods, turned off pay-per-view and international calling for the summer rental crowd (no more calls to India or Singapore), and even negotiated a better rate for the service.

The office agents were competent and thorough – far superior to telephone and online agents. At least cable systems have actual staffed offices where you can get things done; the supposedly superior telephone companies do not (union labor made that too expensive years ago).

I reset the router back to our normal setup, after booting off the leeches… and finally all is well.

And two days later it was time to pack up and come home (to NJ).

Wonder if any of it will work properly in the fall.