Irving Street Functionality

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posted 25 Apr, 2022

Casual security suggestions for friends

This was prepared for a close friend who works as an independent artist/craftsperson, and was interested in basic steps to prevent compromise of banking, social-media, and other accouts.

Hello _____;

As promised, some basics for personal cybersecurity.

There are two over-arching philosophies here: Control your attack surfaces, and have depth to your security. Most hacks these days have both a technical component and a social/personal component; by improving technical security you simultaneously remove yourself from the pool of low-hanging fruit and mitigate the danger of minor social-engineering slip-ups. Mitigation and remediation matter; with sufficiently “deep” security one no longer has to “be lucky every time” Thatcher-style.

1, 2, and 3 (below) are all theoretically equally important. I guess 3-1-2 might be the right order, but anyone who could say definitively would insist you need them all.

  1. Keep your devices/software up to date.
    • You’re probably already doing this. Anyway it’s really important. Getting every update the day it’s pushed isn’t important, but falling substantially behind would leave you vulnerable to a local compromise of the device or browser, which would render much of the below moot.
  2. Reduce your surface area. Basically, don’t expose yourself to vectors of attack unnecessarily.
    • Use an ad-blocker. Advertisements (and the many less visible marketing-adjacent stuff webpages include) are malware vectors. Finding an excellent strategy here is a big subject that I know only a little about. My setup:
    • uBlockOrigin : This is an aggressive block-list based ad-blocker. It’s a classic, it’s trusted and effective, and it’s the one I most often notice actually doing anything.
    • Firefox: Out-of-the-box, Firefox is pretty tight security-wise. It has a light ad-blocker built in, and a variety of other protections (https-everywhere, dns-over-https) are now just switches in the settings.
    • Privacy Badger : This is also an ad-blocker, but it works in a completely different way: it uses behavioral heuristics to guess what it should block. Mostly I only see it blocking embedded SoundCloud widgets. - Your phone is difficult. Supposedly Android-level ad-blockers exist, which would be nice because a lot of apps contain ads; I’ve never set one up. I don’t know what your options are for Chome on Android; switching to Firefox wouldprobably be good. (I mostly use “Firefox Focus”, I would not assume that’s what you want.) - Installing a new app, program, or plug-in is itself an opportunity to compromise your machine. It’s also a future vector: If the provider of that app ever gets compromised or bought out, they could push malicious updates to you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t install stuff, but you should hesitate. - Similarly, it makes sense to uninstall stuff you’re not using, but this is easy to forget. My basic strategy is to wipe my laptop/phone every couple years and re-install a fresh OS.
  3. Secure the accounts themselves
    • Use MFA.
    • If you’re not using a password manager, then this is probably your only strong layer of protection.
    • Set it up on any “important” account that will let you. This is not just stuff that would be expensive/bad to get compromised; it’s also any account that would help an adversary get access to other accounts (email!).
    • Text-message MFA is ok; it’s security vulnerabilities probably aren’t important for you or me. But app-based MFA is better; it’s more secure and it’s easier to use. I use LastPass Authenticator for everything I can (it uses a general-purpose protocol, lots of stuff works with it). For jobs/school I sometimes have to use Duo Mobile, which is fine. And my gmail account uses google’s integrated Android MFA. - Use a password manager.
    • This is a big step, and there are various usability considerations to think about, but once you get used to it it’s easier than traditional password use. (Also, without it, all passwords are weak to a resourced attacker. Either they’re too short, or they’re too similar to passwords you’re using on other sites.)
    • Obviously you’re committing to remembering one difficult-to-remember password. Keeping it written down someplace safe is ok!
    • Also, obviously, you’ll have MFA set up for your password manager. Considering how you want everything to overlap, and how you want all your fail-safes configured, probably sounds like a chore. You don’t have to do it all at once.
    • I use LastPass. I like them; some people don’t. Whoever you use will probably try to sell you a VPN and other services, whatever.
  4. Check for existing breaches.
    • This is not a very effective thing to do in general, but there’s some low-hanging items.
    • Dropping your emails and phone number into is generally considered safe to do. I think it just checks to see if you were included in any batches of hacked credentials that have been shared online.
    • Many platforms (Facebook and Google I know for sure) have a place in their settings where you can view and cancel any log-in sessions. This is most important when, for whatever reason, you’re changing your password; changing the password doesn’t do any good if someone is still logged in.

Hope you’re well; –Mako