Saturday, October 29, 2016

DOS attack reminds us to be prepared - October 28, 2016

I hate it when the world mocks a recent column. Two weeks ago I extolled the virtues of the Internet of Things devices. This week, they helped cripple large parts of the Internet for the better part of a day.

On Friday the 21st, users were unable to reach sites like Twitter, Pinterest, CNN and many others. These sites all used the DYN Corporation to manage their DNS services.

When you type in an Internet address, like, the request is first routed to a Digital Name Service server. There the name is found in a database, and a number is returned to your browser. That number tells your browser where to find the actual InsideNova web server on the net.

If that DNS server is down, then your browser will not find the content you are seeking. 

 DYN manages the DNS servers for the companies that became unreachable Friday. DYN was attacked by an unknown entity using a denial of service attack, or DOS for short.

In a DOS attack a site is flooded with traffic, overwhelming its servers so they cannot do their job. Think of a million mailmen all trying to put mail into your mailbox at the same time. Not all of them could stuff mail at the same time, and the little box would be overwhelmed.

Friday’s DOS came in two separate attacks from an astonishing tens of millions of Internet addresses. By attacking this one site, the attacker was able to hobble many sites instead of just the one they were attacking.

If just one computer tried to flood another in a DOS attack, it would be easy to know where the attack was coming from and block it. To avoid detection DOS attackers created botnets to infect PCs. They might trick you into opening an email attachment that would install the botnet or sneak it onto a PC another way.

A lot of times when your computer is infected by a virus, that virus did not harm your PC or even copy information from it to another PC. Instead it became partially under the control of a bad actor. When they wanted to mount a DOS attack, they could order their army of botnets on PCs like yours and mine all over the world to begin flooding the target site with traffic.  If you and I were alert, we might notice our outgoing internet traffic was higher than it ought to be, but few of us would notice.

This is where Internet of Things devices enter the picture. When we began adding home automation hubs, internet connected lights, thermostats, sensors etc., the manufacturers did not pay as much attention as they should have to the security of those devices.

And we users are often lazy and do not change the default passwords that come with the devices.  That made it easy for botnets to install themselves on the tiny devices in our home and, on command,  join an attack on a site.

Amazingly, the botnet software is available for free on the Internet. DYN announced they discovered it was the Mirai botnet software used against them. 

DOS attacks are not only easy to do but non-technical types can also purchase DOS attacks online for about $150 a week.  Does a business competing with yours take a lot of online orders on their website? For $150 you can cripple their order-taking for a week.

We ordinary users can help combat botnets enslaving our PCs and devices. For the PCs, install anti-virus software and keep it current. Download and check your system with MalwareBytes to find bad software.

If you have an Internet connected device, learn from its manual or the manufacturer’s website how to change its default password, and update the device’s firmware to the most recent version. Reboot the device and then as soon it comes back online, change its password.  It takes only a few minutes for the Mirai botnet to find devices new to the Internet and, using their default passwords, infect them.

This is especially critical for Internet connected video baby monitors and security cameras. There are sites where you can see other people’s video feeds if they have not changed their camera default password.

These attacks may have been just mischief. Or they could be a national enemy learning how to bring down parts of our infrastructure should they ever want to mount a larger attack. Other DOS attacks demand money to stop.  Anything we can do, by securing our home devices, helps thwart them.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Links for "DOS attack reminds us to be prepared" - October 28, 2016

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"DOS attack reminds us to be prepared" - October 28, 2016

This column will appear on this website October 29, 2016 at 9 AM.

There are no links for this week's column.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tech apps can make that commute just a bit easier - October 21, 2016

A few weeks ago I mentioned I had a new car. The new car was for a new job, and a daily commute to the Reston/Herndon area.  For the first time in 14 years I have a more or less typical commute for this area.
I’ve come to see my car as yet another piece of digital technology. And while my physical life may not be the best organized, my digital life is efficiently optimized. So I set out to find the best suite of tools to make my commute more efficient, while not distracting from driving safely.
Since a big part of any job is to arrive on time, my commute efforts begin upon waking. Google Now on my Android phone tells me as soon as I turn off my alarm how long my commute will take on my normal route. This gives me an idea of the urgency needed in getting ready for work.
The last part of my morning preparation has me at my computer checking personal email and dealing with column and blog issues. One of my open browser tabs is Google Maps. It shows my route to work along Fairfax County Parkway and two alternatives along Va. 28 and I-495. I can easily see if the estimate Google Now gave me on waking is still accurate, and how the alternative ways are faring.
Once in the car, I start the pertinent apps and place my phone in a dashboard mount. I am careful to plug in the power--the mapping app takes a lot of power as it keeps the GPS and screen running constantly.
I’d tried Google’s Waze navigation program a few times and have not been impressed. However, after our trip to Israel in March, I saw how enamored every cab driver and tour guide was with the Israeli developed app, so I gave it another try.
Why use a navigation system for the commute you do every day?  Waze is actually a social networking tool. People who precede me on the route can enter traffic jams, accidents, road hazards and other issues with their voice or gestures.  If an issue arises, Waze will immediately plot a route around it.  It also keeps me up-to-date about the probable time I will arrive.
Alone time in the car is a good time to listen to podcasts or audiobooks. Audio books are available from the county library or from Amazon Audible's monthly subscriptions.
Podcasts are popular today with content from all the major media outlets as well as a multitude of private sources. I listen to ones on technology and a West Wing podcast with actor Joshua Malina, who often interviews series creator Aaron Sorkin and stars of the show. TED talks are also available as podcasts. There are far more choices than time to listen.
Your phone’s app store will have many players to help you discover awesome podcasts and make sure the most recent shows are downloaded to your phone.
If your car has Bluetooth, then the podcast will play through your speakers. When the navigation app has a direction for you, it pauses the podcast while giving you the direction, and then resumes the podcast.  Incoming phone calls work the same way.
The third tool in my commute arsenal is Google Now on my Android, or Siri if I had an iPhone. The voice command tools let me make a call without having to dial, and even let me send a text message. It is worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the commands your system supports. In this week’s Link post at, I’ve linked to help pages for both Google Now and Siri.
The last tool I want in my in-car suite of apps is still under investigation. There are apps that do many of the functions of Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto. I am still trying to find the perfect one.
The feature I want most is for it to read me an incoming text and ask if I want to respond. It should let me dictate the response, read back to me what it heard and, once I confirm the message is correct, send the text. I’ve found a couple that do this but have not settled on one.  This will likely be the topic of a future column.Siri

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Links for "Tech apps can make that commute just a bit easier" - October 21, 2016

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"Tech apps can make that commute just a bit easier" - October 21, 2016

This column will appear on this website October 22, 2016 at 9 AM.

Siri Commands

Google Now Commands



Saturday, October 15, 2016

Internet of Things is already here - October 14, 2016

It used to be the only thing in our homes hooked to the Internet were our PCs. In a short amount of time, we added phones and tablets. Now, there are a multitude of things we can connect to the net, in our home and in the outside world.

This concept is called the Internet of Things, or IoT for short. The Internet of Things will dramatically change the world and, if we choose, our homes.

IoT in the world can be sensors along the roadside that report traffic flow. It can be power meters already in many homes that automatically report meter readings to utility vehicles that pass your street.

IoT can be sensors monitoring pipelines, medical equipment monitoring patients as they go about their day, buoys at sea watching for tsunamis, remote seismometers, and new uses every day.

IoT may already be in your home. There are home automation lights you can control from your phone, the Harmony remote control system for controlling TVs and other home entertainment, the Ring doorbell or any of the multitude of connected home automation devices.

The Amazon Echo, and Google’s just announced Home, let you ask questions, receive answers and command some home automation products. The Echo makes it easy to order from Amazon simply by asking for a product.

The Ring doorbell is mounted by your front door. When someone touches the button, thinking it is your doorbell, you are alerted on your phone. You can see them and have a conversation with them. They do not know you might not be in the house. Burglars often ring the doorbell first to see if anyone is at home before entering a house.

If the person is someone you trust--maybe your child coming home from school who has forgotten their key--you can activate your electronic lock on the front door and let them in or open the garage door with an opener controlled from your phone.

All these devices use your WiFi access point to connect to the net.

That garage door opener could be linked to your phone so that when your phone’s location sensor realizes you are approaching home, the phone sends a signal to open the garage door as you drive into your driveway.

You can place water and freeze sensors in your home. These are really handy if you need to monitor a vacation home or an elderly parent's home.

Smart thermostats like the Nest can help learn how you live, and adjust your heating and cooling so you are comfortable, and save you money.

Home security systems now almost always use IoT capabilities to report security status to your phone. Small WiFi capable security cameras can monitor the outside of your home or wherever you choose to place them.

The Ring doorbell has a motion sensor that is used to grab a photo of anyone passing near. It can alert you when a package is delivered or what time your teen came home last night after you were asleep.

The Internet of Things can monitor your health through devices like the Fitbit, WiFi connected treadmills and even bathroom scales that Tweet out your weight. That last one oddly didn’t do well in the marketplace.

There are sleep monitors, blood pressure and body temperature monitors all talking to apps on your phone.

There are even IoT devices for your pets. There are dog collars that use GPS to report your dog's location, even being able to sound an alarm if they leave a designated area. The collar can even tell you when your dog is too hot or too cold.

Your phone is itself an IoT device. It reports your presence on highways, and your speed, so that Google Map’s traffic data is useful. Search and rescue teams have saved lives by pinging the phone of lost hikers and others to find out their location.

All of these devices are not without concerns. Security is one. Potentially, someone could hack your electronic door lock for easy access. Easier still though is to break a window and climb in.

There are also concerns about interoperability. Your WiFi-controlled light bulbs need one phone app and its own hub, while your doorbell, door lock and water sensor may need different hubs and apps. Hopefully that will get better soon.

And there is a risk of abandonment. The makers of the Nest Smart Thermostat purchased a company called Resolv before Nest was acquired by Google. Eventually, they noticed that not many people were actually using the Resolv hub, so they discontinued its cloud-based services the hub was dependent on.

If you buy a IoT device and the company chooses to stop supporting it, your device may become useless.

When you hear of the Internet of Things, you now realize it is your phone and items in your home, as well as a multitude of sensors and controls out in the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Links for "Internet of Things is already here" - October 14, 2016

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"Internet of Things is already here" - October 14, 2016

Ring Door Bell

Home Automation : Door Locks     Garage Door Controllers     Sensors  (Amazon Links)


Dog Collar

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Be sure to ensure the kids’ safety online - September 30, 2016

My brother’s granddaughter called her grandmother four times Friday after school.  When an 8-year-old can place a video call for free, cross country, from her own tablet, it struck me again just how easy kids can communicate these days.

Therein lies the great benefit, and the profound risk of online life.

The 8-year-old can communicate with friends--hopefully ones she knows in real life--but also ones she has met online.  How do you teach a child that not everyone is good, not everyone is really 8 when they say they are, and the other cautions they need to learn sooner than later?

And it is not only children who need to be taught to be safe online. We can all fall prey to bad actors online. And we need to help our senior citizens understand the dangers online as they are often the target for financial scams.

Thankfully there are some powerful resources out there to help parents, kids and seniors.

Our county schools teach from materials found at Parents should review the materials there.  There are sections for kids of various ages: teens, tweens and younger children. There are also sections for parents. Material is available as articles, presentations and videos.

The teen sections have real life stories of the consequences of being unsafe online.

Larry Magid of CBS News is the power behind  It has a contract families can agree to for safe surfing. They also have resources on how to stop cyberbullying, how to prevent sexting and how to recognize when your child is being groomed by a predator.

Cyberbullying is especially worrying. It used to be your child could only be bullied in the presence of the bully: at school.  The home was a safe place from bullying, and after school hours could be peaceful respites from bullying.

With cyber bullying, the bullying can follow the child into the home, and long into the evening.  It is best to require that electronic devices not be in the bedroom at night, so that a young person is not tempted to monitor online conversations among their group late into the night to see what people are saying about them.

For a phone or tablet, it is a simple matter to make them surrender the devices at bedtime. But what if they have a computer in their bedroom, say a desktop, that can’t be moved.  

Your wireless router should have settings to let you block particular devices during specified hours. Check with your ISP to see how to set that up.

A sister site of is This site has articles for the elderly who want to be safer online.  There is an article, noted in this week’s link post, discussing safe banking, expressing views online, and finding new friends and online romantic partners online.

These guides also have advice on creating powerful passwords.  One popular and fairly secure method is to come up with a sentence that amuses you.  For example “Great Danes are lovers not fighters and amuse me.”  

That long phrase is not the password, instead you use the first letter from each word.  So your password becomes "gdalnfaam.” 

That is a fairly strong password as it is not a word or phrase that might be deduced. Many password systems require a special character and number to be part of the password.  You could choose to replace a specific letter with a special character.  Perhaps all Ss become $. Or all As become @.  Then that password becomes “gdainf@@m”.  

You can append a number at the beginning, end or elsewhere in the password.  Maybe the person’s age or street address, something they will remember.  So your password can become a very strong “gdainf@@m900”

All the user has to retain is the sentence, the letter to replace with a symbol and the number.

Special attention should also be paid to articles on Facebook security.  How much of your private information you do not mind your friends seeing on the public portion of your profile is available online? Spend some time reading up about this and choosing your security settings carefully.  

It used to be that making our child street smart was enough before they ventured out into the world.  Today, our child needs cyber smarts before they go into the online world.  There are  many benefits of being online — school research, social life and exploring the real world virtually — and we cannot realistically ban them from online adventures. We can make it safer for all of us.