Apple or Bust

My Linux experience seems to match that of Darryl Daugherty (@DarrylDaugherty) who is an IT start-up survivor turned commercial investigator and OSINT operator in Bangkok, Thailand. Like Darryl, with Linux, I spent too much time configuring and patching while never knowing what will break. The Apple is easier to live with–set it up once, harden it, and get to work.

I have been learning how to use the Apple computers for IIR. Thanks to many friends like Darryl who have used them for years, I feel like I am in good hands.

To avoid expensive errors while learning, I’m starting with a refurbished Mini made after 2010. These older models will upgrade to current versions of OS X (El Capitan) and they continue to enjoy Apple Software Updates.

You may ask, why a refurbished machine? The answer is simple, if I buy from Apple, then I get a full warranty on the machine. If I make a horrendous mistake in some security settings and modifications and permanently lock myself out of the machine (like not having the recovery key in FileVault2), then it won’t cost so much to start over.

Escaping Windows–Mac OS X

As you can see, I no longer trust MS Windows to keep my data private.

One alternative is OS X, which is a series of Unix-based graphical interface operating systems (OS) developed by Apple Inc. It is designed to run on Macintosh computers. It has been pre-installed on all Macs since 2002. This is a proven and reliable performer. Unfortunately, the switch to Apple can be expensive as it really does require Apple hardware for optimum performance.

The advantage of OS X is that it runs MS Office and that keeps the natives calm, even if they have to hunt and peck through the GUI to find things. The open source LibreOffice and Open Office are different enough from Word (and Excel) to drive the writers in your organisation, me included, absolutely mad. There really is a steep learning curve for a new word processor and spreadsheet software. Keeping MS Office also allows you to keep your templates intact. However, even on OS X, MS Office creates its own threat surface.

If you must harden MS Office by eliminating all macro’s, portable templates, and most of it’s network and workgroup features, then that is the point where LibreOffice or Open Office becomes a better option.

There is little risk of a serious malware infection of OS X itself, especially if you use Little Snitch.  OS X is easier to configure for online security as most of the work has been done for you. This isn’t the case with most versions of Linux.

Hunchly & Casefile

As I move away from Windows due to privacy and security issues, I have been looking for new software for Investigative Internet Research (IIR). Taking Casefile from one OS to another has not created any problems.

I have been watching the development of Hunchly and have tried it on Windows, Mac, and the recent Linux release with success and it works well with Casefile. Browser-based tool Hunchly  creates local copies of every page visited during a session, and organises them into a searchable database for future reference. Hunchly is a Google Chrome extension. I have some privacy and security concerns about using Chrome, but the IIR world isn’t a perfect place.

Hunchly permits the use of “selectors,” such as a name or phone number that save you from manually searching each page for the terms. In my opinion, this feature alone is worth the purchase price. The other useful features include:

  • being able to add notes to what you find
  • you can download notes as a Word document
  • all collected data is stored, tracked and accessed on your local machine–no security or privacy concerns about cloud use
  • you can export Hunchly data to a Casefile or Maltego graph.

Hunchly isn’t a replacement for Maltego, but it is a good tool for smaller IIR tasks that might later require the use of Maltego. The ability to export to Casefile or Maltego can help with further research and reporting the linkages within the collected data.

Disabling the WIN 10 Upgrade Nagging

In June 2016, this nagging became much more intrusive. MS began squatting on your machine with the Win 10 install files. They then began installing Win 10 without warning on unsuspecting users.

Given the privacy and security concerns with Win 10, you may not  want to be nagged to update, here’s how to stop the Windows 10 upgrade notifications and run Windows 7 or 8 forever.

There are a few methods which worked in the past but no longer stop the nagging and surreptitious install of Win 10. Never10 is the current tool that most easily disables the upgrade.

Windows 10 as Spyware

Current users of Windows 7 or 8 have been offered free upgrades to Windows 10. This would be tempting except for the liability that this may create. As we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Many experts deem lots of the new so-called features to be spyware. It is one thing to find an application misbehaving; it is entirely different to use an OS designed to allow Microsoft (MS) to monetize your data and squat on your computer hard drive. Built into the Windows 10 OS are spying and data-mining features that deliver data to MS which MS then uses to generate profits.

The long-winded Microsoft Services Agreement runs to 40,000 words of impenetrable legalese and you must agree to everything in it to get your new OS. Unfortunately, or is it predictably, the agreement appears to grant Microsoft the right to read, save, and share anything stored on or accessed using any computer running MS Windows as well as any computer using MS products or services. By default, all of this snooping is turned on and I have serious concerns that it may be impossible to entirely prevent this snooping.

Portions of Microsoft’s privacy policy, which is part of the services agreement, indicates that the MS may use a keylogger to collect users’ data. This means, if you open a file and type, MS has access to what you type, and the file containing the what you type. This may also apply to voice information from speech processing software. Of course, MS offers a way to shut-off all this logging, but you have to believe that it actually works and stays off.

If you are careful in planning your upgrade to Windows 10, and if you have the technical knowledge, then you can probably upgrade the OS while preserving your professional obligation to protect client confidentiality and privacy, at least initially.

To maintain privacy and confidentiality you should use Microsoft’s Media Creation tool. This gives you a copy of the OS installation files. You’ll need at least a 6 GB USB drive. You can use it on multiple PCs. During an upgrade, the installation will look to see if you already have a product key. To do a clean install you may need to have your Windows 7 or 8 product key. You should tape it on your PC. Keep the USB since there’s no other way to get back to Windows 10 if anything unexpected happens. Doing the installation otherwise may allow MS to scrape data from your computer.

By clicking on “Express Settings” during installation you give away your contacts, calendar details, text and touch input, location data, and a whole lot more. It is clear that MS wants to monetize the confidential information on your computer. This creates a serious liability for Canadian private investigators who maintain personal identifiers and other confidential information on Windows 10 machines. Under Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PEPIDA), by accepting the terms of the Microsoft Services Agreement you have chosen to share this information and in most cases that may be illegal. Accepting this agreement may also put private investigators in contravention of their licencing statutes.

If you click on the small “Customise settings” button at installation, you must toggle many settings on two pages to ‘off’. Don’t forget to include Wi-Fi Sense. Using the Privacy App to turn-off the data stream to MS for those who have already installed the OS using “Express Settings” will be even more confusing to the average user. After doing all the above, Windows 10 continues to send confidential data to MS unless you dig into the registry and group policy editor. Stopping the snooping will disable many features like the digital assistant Cortana that MS is marketing as a reason to upgrade to Windows 10. However, what I am describing here only describes what we can see. Without conducting packet-level analysis, we you don’t really know what data is being sent back to Microsoft, and by which service.

You will also need to go into Windows Firewall and turn-off the rules that allowed a whole slew of Microsoft applications to transmit information.

Windows 10 Home comes with full-disk BitLocker encryption. To enable it, you must use a Microsoft account and the recovery key needed to decrypt your drive resides on Microsoft’s servers. Doing this violates your professional obligations. However, Windows 10 Pro doesn’t have this restriction: you can use BitLocker with a local account and keep your key out of the cloud. Most investigators would use Windows 10 Home and theoretically, a third party could decrypt their drives remotely.

The data stream from your PC to MS is bad enough, but somebody will learn to intercept this data stream and this will leave you open to a targeted attack. If the hacker releases the stolen data and it is tracked back to you or your computer, then your career is likely over. You can expect some form of action under PEPIDA and/or prosecution under your licencing statute. This data breach will almost certainly result in a civil suit and adverse publicity. Who would hire a PI or researcher like that?

Another concern is how updates are delivered. Like Bittorrent, Win 10 updates will be distributed from other Win 10 PCs  This presents an extreme risk, as you don’t know where the update is really coming from. You have to know enough to choose how your updates are delivered.

Privacy & the PI

Let’s address this situation realistically from the perspective of the PI or researcher determined to use Windows 10.

Let’s assume that you are a trusting individual. You trust MS government officials, litigants, lawyers, and everybody else to not understand or care that you accepted the Microsoft Service agreement that grants MS access to all your confidential data and the right to save and share it. You must also trust that your own technical expertise is up to the task of properly installing Windows 10 to circumvent all the efforts of MS to access your data.

At the outset, you pay extra for the Pro version to set-up disk encryption with a local account because you are security conscious.

First, you try to install the OS without it being connected to the Internet to ensure it doesn’t scrape data from your PC. This doesn’t work, as it needs connectivity to complete the installation. You discover that you must use the clean install method (using Microsoft’s Media Creation tool) described above to isolate your PC from the Internet to ensure that MS doesn’t scrape data from you computer during the installation. There are reports of Win 10 install files being placed on your computer on Patch Tuesday to use your PC to further distribute the OS installation files. You must learn how to get your patches from only a trusted source and to prevent MS from using your PC to distribute the OS.

Second, upon ensuring that it will not scrape data from your PC during installation, you toggle two pages of settings to ‘off’ and lose many of the new features.

Third, you edit registry and group policies to staunch the continuing flow of data to MS. Doesn’t everybody know how to do this without damaging the usability of the OS?

Fourth, in Windows Firewall, you turn-off the rules that allow MS applications to transmit information to MS.

Fifth, you then choose how your updates are delivered to prevent updates from untrusted sites. You ensure that updates come from trusted computers in your own network.

Sixth, you conduct packet-level analysis and shut-off any service that continues to send data to MS. Doesn’t everybody know how to do this and have the time to do it?

Finally, with every update and patch, you do a packet-level analysis to make sure your privacy and security is intact.

Of course, sending all this private and confidential data to MS is not necessary to have a functioning OS and applications. It is only necessary for MS profits and probably some government snooping.

Next, how to stop the Win 10 install nagging.

JonDo

For anonymous web surfing, at a minimum, two components are required: a proxy and a browser that doesn’t identify you. At the office, I have both and much more to protect my privacy and provide anonymity. If I have to use a Windows computer at a client’s offices, then temporary measures have to be undertaken.

The simplest solution for this, without using an anonymous VPN, is the JonDo Proxy program that will hide your IP address (Java application) and JonDoFox, a Firefox profile optimized for anonymous and secure web surfing. Using the USB doesn’t leave any traces on the computer for some snoop at the client’s office to uncover. This need Windows as the OS.

For more privacy and anonymity, you can use JonDo/Tor-Secure-Live-DVD, a secure, pre-configured environment for anonymous surfing and more. This has its own OS based on the Debian GNU/Linux OS. The live system contains proxy clients for JonDonym, Tor Onion Router and Mixmaster remailer and much more.

The advantage of the live system is that it is on a DVD, which prevents any other system from writing something dangerous to the DVD.

Using these do not make it impossible to uncover individual users, as there is no such thing as a 100% security, but for most users, this will be adequate for most situations. If you are concerned about this, I suggest you read the surveillance reports on the law enforcement page.

Privacy Settings for Firefox–History

By default, Firefox remembers your browsing history to make it easier to return to a visited site.

Select Options and then Privacy in the left hand navigation panel. Under History, open the drop-down menu labeled “Firefox will:”and tell the browser to never remember your history or use custom settings.

Selecting “Always use private browsing mode,” is for hardcore privacy, but you need to understand the implications of private browsing mode. See the Mozilla’s support pages for more information on this.

Here are the History settings that I suggest.

Uncheck the box for remembering your browsing and download history, un-check remembering search and form history, and leave the box checked for “Accept cookies from sites.” Then under “Accept third-party cookies” set it as Never, but change “Keep until:” I close Firefox. Finally check the box that says “Clear history when Firefox closes.”

This combination of settings allows Firefox to behave normally, but erases most of your activity upon closing the browser. These settings provide some measure of privacy without sacrificing functionality.

Privacy Settings for Firefox–Tracking

Firefox is the best browser for protecting your data. However, Firefox does require several setting adjustments to avoid intrusive tactics like ad tracking.

Select Options and then Privacy in the left hand navigation panel.

By default, Firefox does not enable the do-not-track feature. Turn it on by selecting “Request that sites not track you.” Also select “Use Tracking Protection in Private Windows”, which enables tracking protection that blocks ads and other online trackers when you’re in private browsing mode. However, few sites honor this request.

To enforce your do-not-track intentions, you need to use an add-on such as Ghostery, Disconnect, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger. We have found that some sites do not to allow access to content with add-ons like these enabled.

Little Snitch

Just to be different, I started using a Mac to do some IIR. One of my quick fixes for security was  Little Snitch, a firewall for OSX. It monitors outgoing network traffic and alerts you if a program you’re running is trying to contact a strange server. This could be a shell or a program that snaps photos using your webcam or one that takes screenshots and sends them to an outside server.

Web Proxies & User Agents

A web proxy provides an easy way to change your IP address while surfing the Internet. They don’t require software or modification to your networking settings.  You just enter a website address and the sites you visit through the proxy see an IP address belonging to the proxy rather than your IP address.

I am very cautious about using web proxies as you never know who actually operates it and what data they might collect as you use it. You also don’t know  to whom they might give that data. On the other hand, I have found one that has a useful feature.

nroxy offers all the usual web proxy features plus something interesting–it offers the ability to change the user agent.  For example, some web sites cannot be viewed properly using Firefox. Sometimes it is an old site that requires MS Internet Explorer (IE) or it may be a site designed for mobile devices. This proxy offers user agents typical of 5 mobile devices and a long list of browsers.

To get the information I need I am finding it necessary to switch user agents more often. Usually, I use the User Agent Switcher extension that adds a menu and a toolbar button to switch the user agent of a browser. It allows you to chose from three versions of IE or an iPhone. Selecting the iPhone user agent often reveals additional  functionality on the site. The extension is available for Firefox and will run on any platform that this browser supports including Windows, OS X and Linux.

Now I have another option when I need to change the user agent and I get the additional proxy features as well.

The Darknet & Freenet

Freenet is like BitTorrent with web sites. Freenet is an anonymous peer-to-peer data-sharing network where uploaded data is assigned a unique key then broken-up into small, encrypted chunks which are then scattered across multiple computers on the network.

When someone wants a document, photograph or some other data, they “fetch” it from the network using the unique key assigned to that data. The fetch requests get routed through intermediary computers that don’t house the requested data, This ensures that no single computer on the network knows the contents of any individual data file.

With the Freenet client running on your PC, you can use most Web browsers to browse files and websites (AKA freesites) on the Freenet. The client allows you to access the Freenet welcome page (http://127.0.0.1:8888/) using your normal browser. From this welcome page, you can move on to browse Freenet, chat on Freenet forums, and communicate with other Freenet users.

Freenet has a darknet mode (AKA friends-only mode) for maximum privacy. In darknet mode, you connect to Freenet through trusted associates with whom you exchange encryption keys, which makes it difficult for anyone to track your movements on Freenet or even that you’re using Freenet. Of course, funneling your Freenet access through a handful of trusted associates may create a traffic bottleneck that slows response times. To avoid this, get five or ten friends to join up with you so you can fetch Freenet websites and files at greater speed.

Don’t expect this to provide total anonymity if you are doing something that is illegal or a risk to national security. Freenet has been infiltrated by police agencies that have created their own Freenet nodes to deanonymize users. You can be certain that national intelligence agencies have done the same.

Finding a Secure Workspace

Recently, when working at a client sites, I’ve taken to occasionally using Windows to Go. This is Microsoft’s little-used secure workspace feature for Windows. It allows you to boot into a secure workspace located entirely on a USB key. This enables you to use Windows without relying on the operating system, applications, or storage on the host device. It creates a secure workspace on any machine that can boot from a USB drive without trusting the host machine. I have even devised a way to use a Virtual Machine (VM) in this workspace. Because the workspace doesn’t rely on the host operating system, the workspace on the USB drive isn’t at risk of compromise from a host machine and the VM protects the USB workspace. This saves me from constant use of my ‘Safe Mode on steroids’ or reinstalling Windows from a drive image on a client’s machine. However, it is too slow and requires too much effort to maintain. A similar live Linux USB seems to offer faster performance and it is easier to maintain the VM.

Defence Against the Dark Arts

I wander through the nether regions of the Internet and Dark Net looking for data to support my clients’ causes. This exposes me to severe risks from the nasty creativity of Beelzebub’s demonic gangsters and hackers.

It seems that a Windows system only lasts about 1/2 hour before getting infected without some form of anti-virus (AV). I regularly boot a clean live Linux USB, and then scan for viruses. This is like Safe Mode on steroids. In most instances, I find something malicious missed by the typical AV programs. However, this is only a temporary measure.

I am migrating to Linux for Investigative Internet Research because very little Linux malware exists in the wild. I only need AV on the Linux file server (or an email server if I had one). I do this because an infected Windows computer may upload infected files or an uninfected one might access infected files on the Linux machine, which then allows it to infect other Windows systems. AV on the file server isn’t protecting the Linux system–it’s protecting the Windows computers from themselves. I recommend the paid version of ESET Antivirus and Security Software as it doesn’t try to upsell you on other services.