Do you need help using the Internet?

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coverI have a new book and it may just be the thing you have been looking for!  The name of the book is You’re Never Too Old to Surf:  A Senior’s Guide to Safe Internet Use. 

This book is for you if you have ever wanted to harness the power of the Internet, but haven’t been quite sure what that means or how to do it.  It is intended for the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who want to use the wide range of tools that are available today on the Internet, from simply surfing the web to buying online, using email, blogs and even social networking sites.  You may have sought guidance from your child or children  only to be annoyed at their exasperated response to your questions.  Or, you may have tried it on your own, and gotten frustrated with the tools, or had some problem result from that use (or know someone who did).  You may be using the Internet, but just not feel very confident in what you are doing.  If you fall into any of those categories, I wrote this book for YOU!  Of course, if you are the child or grandchild and are having trouble explaining things to your elders, this book could help you too.

The book is available from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.  Your local bookstore can order it too.  It is published through CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1506163857.

Please give it a try and let me know how you like it.

 

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Malware — DNS Change

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You may have heard the reports that something called DNSChanger is expected to hit on July 9, but not known what it was or what to do.

First, what is a “DNS” and why do you care if it gets changed?  First, DNS stands for Domain Name System and it is the directory system that allows computers to locate one another.  Your computer has no understanding of a web address such as  https://internetuseforseniors.wordpress.com.  So, after you type that into your web browser, the computer goes to the DNS and asks for the URL to be translated into something it understands.  That something is called an IP address.  Like your home address, an IP address is made up on multiple parts.  Your home address has a street number, a street, a city, state, country (perhaps) and some code, such as a zipcode.  Similarly, the IP address has a series of components that identify a specific computer uniquely.  These addresses are of the form 134.124.25.18, where the first number indicates your domain and the last number identifies a specific computer in the domain;  the intermediary numbers are further demarcations of the location.

Without a DNS server, we would all need to type in the specific IP address.  Clearly that is not practical. So, if the malware has infected your computer, then on Monday you will no longer be able to type in a URL and have your computer understand how to direct the browser.

How did that malware get put on people’s machines?  Like most malware, it infected people’s machines when they clicked on some advertising link that downloaded software to computers without the user knowing about it.  Since the software was not causing any problems, people do not know that it is on their machine — until July 9.  (Of course, with regular malware checks, this would probably have been detected.)

To avoid a problem, check your system now.  Some services, such as Comcast, has notified the users whose machines seem to be infected.  Similarly, Google and Facebook may be posting a warning if they detect your computer is infected.  To check, go to http://www.dcwg.org and follow the directions for checking and repairing your machine if necessary.  Do it today so you don’t have a problem on Monday!

ACTA, CISPA, and TPP

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There is more alphabet soup to concern us today — ACTA,  CISPA, and TPP.  While they are two entirely different things, they both potentially threaten our privacy on the Internet and that is bad.   Let me clearly state that I am a published author and I too worry about people stealing my intellectual property and making a profit from their own use of it.  However, I worry about rights being taken in the name of protecting intellectual property.

ACTA is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement signed by the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea, and expected to be signed by the European Union, Mexico, and Switzerland.  It is not “treaty” so it does not need to be approved by Congress. The goal of ACTA is to protect copyright and intellectual property, such as music and movies from pirating and counterfeiting.  I am not a lawyer and certainly not an international treaty expert, but the phrases, ” … including expeditious remedies to prevent infringements and remedies which constitute a deterrent to further infringements” and “authority to issue an order against a party to desist from an infringement, and inter alia, an order to that party or, where appropriate, to a third party over whom the relevant judicial authority exercises  jurisdiction, to prevent goods that involve the infringement of an intellectual property right from entering into the channels of commerce” sound like the government is asking ISP’s to watch over users — and such surveillance cannot be a good thing.  According to the EFF, “ACTA contains new potential obligations for Internet intermediaries, requiring them to police the Internet and their users, which in turn pose significant concerns for citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression, and fair use rights.”

TPP is the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.  It too is multinational and it attempts to protect intellectual property.  It states that any party that “manufactures, imports, distributes, offers to the public, provides, or otherwise traffics in devices, products, or components, or offers to the public or provides services, that: (A) are promoted, advertised, or marketed by that person, or by another person acting in concert with that person and with that person’s knowledge, for the purpose of circumvention of any  effective technological measure, (B) have only a limited commercially significant purpose or use other than to circumvent any effective technological measure, or (C) are primarily designed, produced, or performed for the purpose of enabling or facilitating the circumvention of any effective technological measure, shall be liable and subject to the remedies set out in Article [12.12].  That sounds a lot like ISPs will need to monitor all of our transmissions to be sure they are not in trouble.

CISPA is The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.  According to Demand Progress, CISPA “could let ISPs block your access to websites — or the whole Internet.  CISPA also encourages companies to share information about you with the government and other corporations.  That data could then be used for just about anything — from prosecuting crimes to ad placements.  And perhaps worst of all, CISPA supercedes all existing online privacy protections.”

None of these measures make clear how much authority the ISPs will have or what a citizen’s rights to argue will be.  That is the part that worries me most.  It seems perfectly possible in this era for this to be the first step to certain sites having more rights than others (such as movie sites or book publishers) because of these laws.  If they really are innocent protection of IP, then why have the discussions not been more transparent?  Why is the government determined to keep experts out of the discussion until after treaties have been signed.  Let us not allow anyone the right to evaluate the appropriateness of a site without oversight.

WiFi Tricks and Threats

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Last week the Huffington Post commented on how to avoid hackers, especially for celebrities.  It was an article full of useful information, but only if you know how to use it.  The fourth of these was to avoid WiFi networks.  Well, that’s nice, but what is it and how does one avoid it?

One can define WiFi as the technology that allows an electronic device, such as your smart phone, laptop or iPad, to connect to the Internet wirelessly (using radio waves).  In order to connect, you must be able to send information to a hotspot (or access point).  Such hotspots are limited inside because walls, furniture and other physical objects can block the signals, but have a greater range outside.  Wi-Fi allows cheaper deployment of local area networks, and  in spaces where cables cannot be run, such as outdoor areas and historical buildings.

You may well have used WiFi at your local Panera (or St. Louis Bread Company as it is known here) while eating.  Bookstores, restaurants and lobbies of hotels also generally provide WiFi coverage to their customers.  Most devices attach easily to WiFi, and may attach automatically (with no obvious signal to the user).  It is a convenient way to access your email, social networking, or web searches from your portable device.

But, it is also an easy way for others to access your email, social networking or web searches.  Most public WiFi networks have no security associated with them (as indicated by the fact that you have no password or other requirements to join the network).  Since there is no security on the network, anyone can attach any device to the network and do on it what they want.  Some people, then,  attach devices that can read any non-encrypted transmission over the network.  That includes your passwords, credit card numbers, confidential corporate information or your surfing history.  This is comparable to the person eavesdropping, except it is with the computer.   They may also be able to masquerade as another device and send requests for information (such as data or pictures) to your computer (which your computer thinks it should honor).  As I have said before, sometimes people do this for fun, or to learn what they can do.  Others engage in such behavior to find information that might be sold to magazines or used to blackmail people.  Still others engage in the behavior to steal confidential information (such as credit card numbers) that they use to steal money.

So, what do you do?  Of course, the normal precautions of having your security software up to date will prevent someone from unleashing a virus or malware on your computer.  But in addition, many security experts suggest you avoid such networks.  Or, if you do use them, set up a virtual private network (or VPN).  You may already be familiar with a VPN because you may use that to login to your company’s computer.   VPNs typically require remote users of the network to be authenticated, and often secure data with encryption technologies to prevent disclosure of private information to unauthorized parties.  This software prevents sniffing of the material sent over the network, ensures that communications come from the place they say and that information is not intercepted inappropriately.

A Mobile VPN gives a user the same level of security when using public WiFi networks.  Instead of requiring a stable location on a network like the traditional VPN, a mobile VPN maintains a virtual connection to the application instead.  It allows the computer to move among WiFi networks which changes the “address” of a computer, and handles the changes of the addresses transparently.  This kind of security has been used by police officers as they move among cell towers, and by hospital personnel as devices move with patients.  Both applications require absolute security.  Using a mVPN may involve additional hardware and will involve additional software provided by a third party.

It is, of course, an extra step.  But, if you do not want the world to know the data you process, then perhaps the extra step is necessary.

 

What is a Home Page?

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How do you know where “home” should be?  The home page (or homepage) is the point at which your browser will start each time it is opened.  If you have your own web page, as I do, that is probably your home page because it will have links to sources you visit often.  Most people do not have their own page though, and so they rely on another page.  This page should be something you read often, or that has links to other pages you like to read.

Many people select news sources for their home page.  Some of the common sites include: CNN’s site (http://www.cnn.com), the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com), CBS News (http://www.cbsnews.com), or BBC (http://www.bbc.com) because these sources provide headlines, links to articles and search capabilities.  Other people prefer news sources closer to home.  In Chicago, many people select the Chicago Tribune’s home page (http://www.chicagotribune.com) because it focuses on Chicago news and events, while people in Cleveland are more likely to select the page of the Plain Dealer (http://www.cleveland.com/plaindealer/), and people in San Jose are more likely to select the Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com) because they focus on events local to their communities.  Many sports fans start their web browsing at ESPN’s site (http://www.espn.com) so they can get information about their favorite teams and sporting events.

Other people select what are called “portals” for their home pages.  These portals may provide news, but they also provide links to a variety of other subjects that are of interest, such as movies, maps, weather, music, shopping, sports, health information, greeting cards, and even horoscopes and comics.  In addition, the portals give you access to email accounts, seach capabilities and other internet functions such as instant messaging and chat rooms.  Yahoo’s page (http://www.yahoo.com) is probably the most commonly selected portal.  But, Google (http://www.google.com/ig) and Microsoft (http://www.msn.com) each have one too.    In addition to the wide range of sources of information, most of these portals are customizable.   That is, you can edit the page and decide what information should be available in what spot on the page each time you open it.  So, I might weather forecasts both at my home, and where we intend to vacation so I can plan both what to wear today and what to pack for the vacation.  If I am active in maintaining my own portfolio, I might also locate a stock price window at the top of my page.  Instead, I might have the sports scores or technology news high on my page so I see them each time I go to my home page.    Some even allow you to adjust the colors on the page to make it seem more like your own.

Another source for a home page is that of organizations.  Some members of AARP (http://www.aarp.org/) use the AARP page as a home page in order to see information that is of importance to them.  Those who trade stocks and bonds might link to their broker, such as Ameritrade (http://www.tdameritrade.com/), or the New York Stock Exchange’s site (http://www.nyse.com/).  Others set their home page to the organization at which they work, or the one at which they study, or the one at which they worship.

There are specialized home pages based on interest.  Grandma Betty (http://grandmabetty.com/) provides a portal for “baby boomers and seniors.”  Ebay’s site (http://www.ebay.com) is selected by those who spend significant time with the online auction site.  The Sports Car Club of America (http://www.scca.com/) is a starting point for sports car enthusiasts, while collectors might start at the Collector’s Connection (http://www.collectorsconnection.com/) and knitters might start at http://www.patternworks.com/. What is the best home page?  There is no such thing as what is best.  Best is what provides the information and links that are of importance to you.

What is the Web?

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World Wide Web (frequently referred to just as “the Web”)  is similar to a library.  There are lots and lots of different kinds of documents sitting “out there” on computers around the world being maintained by different people.  All together they make up the Web.

Think about walking into your local library.  There are reference books, magazines, novels, nonfiction and more.  Some are well written, some are very good, and seem odd,and you wonder why your library bought them.  In addition, most libraries include a collection of newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, as well as videos/DVDs, music, and some government documents for citizens to browse.

All libraries have reference librarians, those magical people who expertly find just what you want, be it a particular book, references to some historical event, statistics, or your great grandfather’s birth certificate.  These people can help you find something specific, or teach you how to use the library, or provide summaries of information to help you investigate topics effectively.

Most libraries also have an announcements bulletin board and a place where local and not-for-profit organizations can place fliers so that people can learn about what is happening in their neighborhoods.  Sometimes people post “opinion statements” to share, or requests for help.

In addition, your library probably sponsors “book clubs.”  These groups select a genre of books, and select a particular book to discuss each month.  They meet at regular times, talk about the book and then decide what to discuss next time.

The library may sponsor other group discussions, such as young people’s groups, or people between jobs or whatever topic is of interest to the local community.  A quick look at my library’s offerings include sessions on Russian quilts, a career center workshop for job hunters, knitting and crocheting, introduction to genealogy, travelog Austria, tax assistance, and several needlework and crafting sessions.  All of the descriptions encourage citizens to bring a friend, or make new friends there.

The Web is all of this and more.  There are documents, periodicals, places to learn things, places to discuss things, places to voice your opinion, experts, clubs and more.  It is similar to a library – but it is very different from a library.  It is similar because there is a vast amount of information that is available to anyone – and most of it is available for free.  The Web, like a library, includes so much more than references.  It includes places for people to meet, ways of communicating, ways of sharing opinions, programs that accomplish some specific task and probably many things you may not yet have considered.

The scope of this library is enormous.  There are over 600 billion items on the Web today.  That’s over 100 items per person alive.  And, the number of web pages available is growing exponentially.  At your computer, you can access an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the world, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers, and more.   So, the Web is a very large library!

But, there are a few very important differences.  The first of these is that anyone can post whatever they want on the web and no one will stop them (usually).  This differs from what we see in books, newspapers and magazines, where an editor decides if the substance of the content is credible, well written and worthy of sharing.  On the Web, there generally is no editing, no overview and no one who decides that something is bad to include.  Readers need to consider things with a grain of salt, until they know of the writer’s credibility and credentials.

Second, the Web is alive.  What was available yesterday may not be available today, or if it is, it may have changed.  Documents are not like much-loved novels that read the same way today as hundreds of years ago.  People can, and do, update documents daily (or even more often), or replace them with something different.  So, it may be difficult to find items that you have seen before, even if you remember where you have seen them.

Third, in many ways, the Web is anonymous.  People need not identify themselves when posting pages (or as we shall see later, sending email or talking in a chat room).  People can, and do, disguise themselves both for reasonable purposes as well as for nefarious ones.  The user needs to have the same concerns for safety on the Web as they would in the “real world” and perhaps more.

CAPTCHA’s and RECAPTCHA’s

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CAPTCHA’s, reCAPTCHA’s and their cousins have become common  anywhere you respond to something on a website.  You may not know the name, but you probably have seen something that looks like the image below (taken from the CAPTCHA site).

A CAPTCHA is a computer generated distortion of words (such as you see above) that allows the computer to ensure that the responder is actually a person.  Humans clearly can understand the two words above are “overlooks” and “inquiry,” but a computer that is trying to do word recognition would have trouble identifying the words because they are distorted both by the waves and background images.  (All CAPTCHA’s have an audio option for those who are visually impaired.)

According to the official website,

The term CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University.

Over 200 million CAPTCHA’s are solved every day.  You tend to see the CAPTCHA’s on sites where you are registering (such as creating an email account) or voting  (such as answering a poll).  The goal is to prevent users from writing a program that could do actions automatically and thus overwhelm the system or bias the results.  The CAPTCHA is used, for example, on sites that provide free email addresses to ensure that it was actually a human applying for that email address.  Many people with questionable purposes were applying for those accounts, and using them to send spam or break into applications.  While it is still possible to open an email account for those purposes, the existence of the CAPTCHA requires a person to be involved, and thus slows down the bad guys.

The CAPTCHA’s are also used for any kind of online poll.  So, for example, suppose your municipality wants to vote on the best location for a festival.  In order to avoid computer-generated voting (to bias the results), they might include a CAPTCHA to be sure there is a person casting the vote.    Sometimes blog sites include a CAPTCHA to ensure the comments on posts are not just spam.

The CAPTCHA is an interesting use of the technology, but the reCAPTCHA does more.  Early on we saw only one word used in a CAPTCHA, but usually you now see two as in the image above.  When there are two words involved, it is called a reCAPTCHA.  These puzzles not only prevent bots and spams from causing problems, they help to digitize books, newspapers and old time radio shows.

Think about how long it would take to type in the content of an old book.  Even if you use scanning software and text recognition software, it will take a long time because the original is old, yellowed, perhaps torn and for other reasons hard to read;  the results of the scan and text recognition are not very reliable.  An example of a scanned bit of text (taken from the CAPTCHA site) is shown below.  You can see the errors in the interpretation.

The results of a scan of an old text

It would be useful to find a group of people who would help identify and correct mistakes from the scanning of the old documents.  As stated before, there are over 200 million CAPTCHA’s solved each day, each taking about 10 seconds to do.  If you could get the people using the websites to check the words, that would give you over 150,000 hours of work each day — FREE!

But, you ask, how do you know if the person is entering the data correctly?  The reCAPTCHA provides two words, one you know and one which is taken from one of these old books or magazines.  When the person enters the two words, the software checks the first word (the one that is known) and if that word correctly matches, then we can assume the second word is correct too.  If we have multiple people who receive the second word (the one from the old document), and they all agree on the word, we have more confidence that we have gotten the correct word.

So, every time you enter a reCAPTCHA, you are not only preventing SPAM, but also helping to digitalize an old document!  The CAPTCHA folks have other projects that we will address at another time.

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