Security and hacking nightmare

Wired Magazine journalist Mat Honan had his life hacked over the weekend. Hackers exploited security weaknesses in Amazon and Apple’s iCloud service to take over his Twitter account and Google account. They used the Twitter account to post all sort of racist and homophobic messages. That’s embarrassing, but it’s also minor compared to what else he went through.

In a nutshell, the hackers were able to disable his iPhone, disable his iPad, and wipe his MacBook. As in erase everything, including the last year or two of photographs of his young daughter. (Foolishly, Mat did not have a backup, and he accepts that if he had one, certain irreplaceable things wouldn’t be probably lost forever.)

If you are at all concerned about having someone take over your digital life, you need to read that article in full. Right. Freakin’. Now. You need to understand just how easy it was for these hackers to bypass the security measures at Amazon and Apple. Once the hackers got through those, everything else was even easier.

Don’t think for a minute that Mat Honan set himself up as a target for hackers. They did it for a very simple reason that had nothing to do with him. You can’t assume that since you’re a “nobody” online that hackers wouldn’t target you.

There are lessons to be learned here:

  • Back up your data. All of it. In multiple places. On my work laptop, I use an external hard drive divided into two partitions. One partition uses Apple’s Time Machine backup. The other partition is a clone of the hard drive that gets updated each night. I also use CrashPlan so I have an off-site backup as well. I figure three layers of backup, with one being off site, is a good level of protection. I duplicate this arrangement with the home laptop. With CrashPlan, I can back up unlimited data from as many computers as I want for one reasonable annual fee. They don’t advertise as much as, say, Carbonite, but I think CrashPlan is the best of the online backup options.
  • Don’t use one email address and one password for everything. I’ve written about passwords before, and if you reuse passwords you’re a fool. I hate to be so blunt and insulting, but it’s a fact. Don’t reuse passwords. Period. Not even once.
  • Use smart passwords.
  • Turn on two-factor authentication on Google accounts. This takes a couple minutes to set up, but basically it requires anyone signing into your Google account to have your password and your phone. When you sign in, you’ll have to also type in a code from your phone.

Mat Honan’s story is an important one to read. I consider myself to be reasonably cautious about my online security practices, but I have to admit it: what happened to Mat scared the hell out of me. I’ve already gone and turned on Google’s two-factor authentication and taken other steps based on what happened to Mat Honan. (Needless to say, “Find my Mac” is now turned off.) We all know people who have skipped simple things and paid a price later. Don’t be one of those who stand amid the wreckage of their digital lives and say, “I should have…”

This is one big problem with cloud computing

Cloud computing offers a number of advantages: access your data from anywhere, off site backups—just to name two. What happens, though, when real clouds produce storms? Is your cloud computing safe?

On Friday of last week, a lot of Internet users found out the answer the hard way when Amazon’s web servers went down due to a power outage. Amazon offers web servers as a service, and big names like Netflix and Instagram use them. Could you imagine the stress of a lawyer who has a brief due in a federal court of appeals and whose cloud computing provider uses Amazon’s—or anyone else’s—servers if those servers go “bloop” and stop responding? Better get that motion for leave to file instanter prepared… In all fairness, this incident was probably one of those “one in a million” events. Still, it happened.

This unfortunate event at Amazon is a good lesson in choosing a cloud computing provider wisely. Does the provider’s server system have co-location, so that if the power goes out at one server farm, other server farms are still up and running? Be sure to ask your cloud computing provider this question. Disaster at a server farm never strikes at a good time, but when it happens at a bad time you don’t need that kind of stress.

Kindle Fire: quick thoughts

Amzon introduced the Kindle Fire today, a color tablet device with a multi-touch screen. It’s about 7.5 x 5 inches, making it smaller than the iPad yet larger than a smartphone. It will let users read Kindle books (of course), watch video, listen to music, surf the web, play games, etc.

At first blush, some may see this as an iPad killer. I’m not so sure about that. First, I think the size of the iPad is just right. It balances the desire for a larger screen against the need to have something portable. The Kindle Fire is significantly smaller. I really didn’t realize how small until I saw the photo showing a person’s hand and finger against the Fire’s screen. 

Second, the Kindle Fire comes with “only” 8 GB of storage. (I still recall the days when we computer nerds thought 800K 3.5″ disks were a huge leap forward—it’s amazing that I now think of 8 GB as being on the small side.) According to Amazon, that’s enough room for 80 apps, plus 10 movies, 800 songs, or 6,500 books. When you consider that the smallest iPad comes with 16 GB of storage you realize how much more you can put on an iPad.

Admittedly, I’m an Apple fanboy. There’s a part of me that wants to see the Kindle Fire flop, along with every Blackberry and Android phone. But that’s just silly competitiveness. Looking at the Kindle Fire, I can see a lot of potential for this. For one, some users just don’t need the power of an iPad. They are quite happy with their Kindle devices, and if they can upgrade to a book reader that also lets them surf the web, watch movies and listen to music, it will be a big improvement for them. Another group I could see using this device is younger children. While I’m amazed at my two-year-old’s ability to navigate the iPad, I think it’s more than he should have. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think children need $500+ devices in their lives. When I upgrade from my original iPad to a newer model, I don’t think I’ll give the old iPad to my son. For a child a few or several years older than my son, the Kindle Fire might be just the right device. Children’s books, movies, etc. on a Fire would do wonders on many road trips.

Of course, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. I’ve long thought that one of the Kindle’s marketing challenges is that you couldn’t go into a store, pick one up, and play with it. You bought it from Amazon, had it shipped to you, and then if you ended up not liking it, you had the hassle of shipping it back. The Kindle Fire will face the same challenge. How well it works will be the ultimate test—stability, speed, and availability of apps will be factors for consumers to deliberate. Many people bashed the now-dead HP TouchPad as being slow and choppy. Until we get a few Kindle Fires out into the wild, we won’t know for certain.

Overall, I’m impressed by the Kindle Fire. I don’t see it as a replacement or competitor for the iPad, but it definitely will fit into a niche where the iPad is just a little “more” than the user wants. Apple’s concern here should probably be whether the Kindle Fire might become the iPod touch killer. Right now it lacks some of the features of the iPod touch, but that bigger display will appeal to many. The Fire may be too big to fit in a shirt pocket, but it will fit nicely in a student’s backpack.

Based on what I’ve seen, kudos to Amazon for what appears to be a smart product. Let’s hope it works as well as it should.