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The Safety and Security of your Personal Information

With all the headlines these days about data breaches, hackers, and spyware it is understandable that the safety of your information in cyberspace is on everyone’s mind these days. When we hear about companies such as TJ Maxx, Target and, most recently, TurboTax (hmm…companies that begin with the letter “t”…) getting hacked and potentially losing critical customer information, it can make consumers hesitant to use a lot of this brilliant new technology.

Here are a few ways Apple ensures the safety of your information and a few tips on how to protect your information:

Passwords, passwords, passwords…they can be the bane of our existence and are so hard to remember: “What password did I use for this site?? Is it case sensitive?? Did I use letters or numbers?? Holy cow that’s a lot to remember. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!?!? That’s the same combination I have on my luggage!!!”

The strength of your password goes a long way towards protecting your information. As you might imagine, a password like “password1234” is not a very strong password. As time goes by, the requirements for passwords have become stricter and stricter as criminals devise more and more ingenious ways to steal your information. I personally recommend using a name and a year to begin with. This ensures its an easy password to remember, but not easy for someone to guess. Make certain it’s at least 8 characters. Add a capital letter and a special character to your password to make it even stronger! For example “Jenny5309!” is an example of a strong password. It has more than 8 characters, a combination of letters and numbers, a capital letter and a special character. It would be difficult for anyone to guess (unless they happen to have a family member named Jenny who was born in September of 1953.) It’s easy for you to remember because you do!

Oh and FYI, nobody at Apple, or Small Dog Electronics has access to your passwords. If anyone ever calls or emails and asks you to give them your passwords, please feel free to refuse that information to ANYONE. That goes for any other password you use, whether it be for your email or your bank account.

Ahh, the iCloud, is it up in the sky? Where exactly IS this cloud and will it follow me around dropping rain on me wherever I go??

Here’s a great source of information on iCloud.

Our main concern here is the security of your information. The iCloud uses a minimum of 128-bit encryption and as much as 256-bit to safeguard your information. What is encryption you ask? In the simplest of terms, your computer uses your password like a key to unlock your information. In the case of 128-bit encryption, your computer has THE single key to unlock ONE lock out of a possibility of 6 trillion locks. That’s trillion with a T! As you can imagine, that is a great number of locks to try to pick. Major financial institutions, the government and the military also use between 128 and 256-bit encryption.

One of the major benefits of owning an Apple computer rather than a PC has always been they are less susceptible to viruses, trojans, malware, and other nasty bugs out there. This is still true, however some still slip through. These programs can wreak havoc on your system and cause general headaches all around.

“Lets be careful out there.” This applies to the internet as well as the mean streets. Use strong privacy settings on social media sites. Use caution when entering financial information online. Look for a tiny picture of a padlock in the bottom right hand corner of the page you are on. Another way to tell if a site is secure is the web address. Sites with a web address that begins with https let you know the site is secure. Make sure your operating system stays up to date and your firewall is active.

If you start to get pop ups, advertisements, and other annoyances don’t fret; there is an easy fix. Follow these steps to rid your computer of theses hooligans by following these steps to the letter.

Woof, arf, woof! (Don’t forget to have fun!)

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Keeping Tabs on Friends & Family

Sometimes it’s important for loved ones and friends to know your location. Whether it is for safety reasons or just because you just like knowing where they might be while running errands, iOS 8 and your iPhone make it super-simple. There are two ways to let your friends know where you are at any given time with iOS 8 and an app you use every day: Messages.

Simply launch the Messages app on your iPhone and tap into a conversation or create a new one. Once there, tap on the Details button in the upper right. Once you’re on the Details screen, you can send or share your location with the two blue buttons.

  • Send your location immediately:

Tapping “send my current location” will immediately send a map image with your location pinpointed by a red pin. The location will show up on your friend’s iPhone right away, just like any other photo message.

  • Share your location details with people over a prescribed amount of time:

If you’d like to give your friend rights to see your location over a select period of time, choose “Share My Location”. You’ll be prompted to select from the following options: Share…

1.) for One Hour
2.) Until End of Day
3.) Indefinitely

Once chosen, your friend will have permission to see where you are for that period of time. Now you’ll be able to “bump” into your best friend while out and about. I use this feature when traveling long distances so my hosts know when to expect me without having to send a text saying “be there in 5 min”. Super-easy and no more effort than using your Messages app. Hooray for not needing to install another app!

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Keychain Access, an Essential Tool

I have been doing more onsite installations and lessons down here in Key West. So many times as I start to help a customer we run into the password roadblock. I was at a customer’s home yesterday and needed to set up her email and iCloud account. I asked for the administrator password for her Mac and she went to a little pile of sticky notes and tried to find the right one and the scene was repeated for each password we needed. I then proceeded to show her Keychain Access and I could see the light bulb hovering above her head as she understood the value of this app from Apple.

Mac OS X supports what are known as keychains: secure storage lockers for certificates, passwords, or any small bits of information to be kept private. The primary purpose of a keychain is to remember passwords for various applications and accounts such as mail and ftp servers, web sites, or encrypted disk images. The basic idea is that a single password, the keychain password, is used to unlock access to all passwords stored in that keychain.

I keep Keychain Access in my dock and use it all the time to find passwords, banking information, or secure notes. To find Keychain Access you follow this path: Finder > Applications > Utilities > Keychain Access. I do recommend that once you find it that you drag it to your dock, because once you start using it, you will wonder how you ever lived without it.

With the advent of iCloud and OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple made Keychain even more valuable as iCloud Keychain lets you share your Keychain in the iCloud so you can access it from all of your devices. I wish there was an app like Keychain Access on your iOS devices but still, it is awful handy to have your device automatically remember your password for websites, etc.

When you launch Keychain Access you will see that the window is divided into three panes. The top-left pane lists keychains accessible to you. Below this is the Category pane. Here you can choose to view specific kinds of things stored in the keychain: passwords, secure notes, certificates associated with your account, encryption keys, and certificates used by your Mac. The largest pane, to the right, displays the contents of selected category items—for example, all of the items that have a password associated with them. Except in the case of certificates, you can double-click on one of these items to open a window where you can view the item’s attributes: name, kind, associated account, location (a website or network address), as well as its access control.

Keychain Access can do a lot of useful things. For example, if you’ve forgotten a password and would like to recover it, Keychain Access is the place to go. To learn the identity of a password, select All Items or Passwords in the Category pane, then find the the item you want the password for and double-click it. In the resulting window, enable the Show Password option. You will be prompted for the password for the login keychain which is either your login password or the administrator password (which will be the same if you are an admin user on your machine). Enter that and click Allow, and the password will be revealed in the Password field.

I have just scratched the surface of this great utility, perhaps we will go into some more technical detail in our sister eNewsletter, Tech Tails or in a future issue of Kibbles & Bytes. But if you are not using Keychain to its full potential, I suggest dragging it to your dock and checking it out!


App Review: Tetris Blitz

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the most important technological development of all time: Tetris. There are probably many of you out there that will insist that the Macintosh computer was the most important tech release of 1984, and I will grant that it is a close second, but I am still standing behind the classic tile-matching puzzle video game.

For those of you who don’t know, Tetris is a very simple game in which any of seven different blocks, which are every possible combination of four smaller square blocks that have adjoining sides, fall from above and your job is to move them side-to-side and/or rotate them in order to complete horizontal lines which disappear when completed. The ultimate move is to leave only one vertical line incomplete and drop the “line” piece in to complete four horizontal lines at once. This is a Tetris and you will be rewarded with big points, flashing graphics, sound effects, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Tetris was originally developed by Alexey Pajitnov in the Soviet Union, and was the first video game exported from the USSR to the US. Its popularity skyrocketed when a version was released for the Nintendo GameBoy in 1989, and versions have since been released for just about every console, operating system, personal electronic device, and has even been played by using the windows in a large building as the blocks.

While the 8-bit NES version will always be my favorite, I have been playing a new version on my iPhone: Tetris Blitz by Electronic Arts. This version takes the classic gameplay and condenses it into a two-minute speed round in which the goal is to score maximum points. They have added a number of power-up blocks which trigger different actions, such as lasers that burn up several lines for you or masses of blocks that drop all at once. You can play in single player mode, head-to-head against strangers or your Facebook friends, as well as in special tournaments which often have different rules or game mechanics for added variety. This app is free, but employs what has come to be known as the freemium model, which means that there are a fair number of in-app ads and in-app purchases that are available. If you can learn to ignore these, this app is a fun addition to the Tetris family and only wastes uses two minutes at a time.

The best part? Tetris is good for you! According to research, playing half-an-hour a day for three months boosts general cognitive functions such as critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing and increases cerebral cortex thickness. It has also been shown to be a potential therapy for preventing PTSD as well as a way to help quit smoking. See here for more information.

Download Tetris Blitz for iOS FREE here!

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Diagnosing & Treating Bash "Shellshock"

OS X is a descendant of a long lineage of UNIX operating systems, from which it inherits its incredible stability and enhanced security. However, the past two weeks have uncovered numerous bugs in a core piece of software relied on by many UNIX operating systems, OS X included: bash (Bourne-again shell). It turns out that these bugs have been very long standing and can be exploited in numerous ways to provide unchecked access to a computer (in some cases remotely) with an afflicted version of bash installed. Due to the surprise and scope of this vulnerability, many have dubbed it “Shellshock”, in reference to the combat fatigue experienced by soldiers, but it’s really not a fair comparison to the effects of war.

A “shell” is a program that interprets and acts on textual commands either entered directly by a user at a terminal (or using a virtual terminal like the Terminal app found in /Applications/Utilities on OS X) or from a file containing one or more commands to be run automatically (sort of like a player piano, if that’s even a useful analogy anymore.) Bash is a very common shell program and is the default on many UNIX operating systems, including OS X (as of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther). If you’ve ever opened up the Terminal app and run a command in the last decade, you’ve used bash.

I personally write a fair number of scripts in the bash language to automate various processes on my computers and servers, primarily because it so ubiquitous. It may be partly because I’m a bit of a masochist, but—as a server admin—I also find it helps me perform tasks more efficiently when working in Terminal since it is the default. Needless to say I immediately started investigating the bugs, the attacks, and testing OS X workstations and servers.

Fortunately, without very specific custom configuration, OS X is not vulnerable to remote attacks through the afflicted version of bash, as echoed in the following statement from Apple (given to Jim Dalrymple of The Loop):

The vast majority of OS X users are not at risk to recently reported bash vulnerabilities. […] With OS X, systems are safe by default and not exposed to remote exploits of bash unless users configure advanced UNIX services.

None of the OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard through OS X 10.9 Mavericks systems I tested were vulnerable to remote attacks, however, all versions were susceptible to local attacks. The bugs are such that malicious commands can be inserted into “environment variables” (just what they sound like, data that exists in the environment in which individual shell scripts are run and therefore can be accessed by many scripts) and will be automatically executed upon any bash command or script being run. Not good. Since there are multiple bugs, there are different ways to test for each, but I find running the ‘bashcheck’ script to be very convenient way to test for all of them at once.

The bash developers and community have worked feverishly to investigate and fix these bugs. Apple has released “OS X bash Update 1.0” which includes fixes for the initial pair of bugs, but it unfortunately does not address subsequent bugs. As a further inconvenience, Apple does not provide this update via Software Update or the App Store, so you must download & install the appropriate update for your version of OS X:

OS X bash Update 1.0 – OS X Lion (10.7)
OS X bash Update 1.0 – OS X Mountain Lion (10.8)
OS X bash Update 1.0 – OS X Mavericks (10.9)

For those of you running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger through 10.6 Snow Leopard on much older Macs, the developers of TenFourFox (an open-source version of the Firefox web browser specifically for older PPC & Intel Macs), provide a download along with detailed instructions to install a version of bash that fixes all the known vulnerabilities at this time. It does require command line experience, so is not for the faint of heart. The updated version provided by the TenFourFox team can also be used on OS X 10.7 Lion through 10.9 Mavericks and actually installs the very latest 4.3.x version of bash as opposed to the older 3.2.x version that Apple includes by default (and provided the partial fix for). This newer version of bash also has some benefits that programmers might enjoy, but it comes at the risk of possibly being downgraded by a future OS X update from Apple.

If you never use the Terminal app, I’d suggest you at least apply the appropriate version of “OS X bash Update 1.0” and any future updates that Apple might release to fix the additional vulnerabilities. For those of you who use Terminal with any frequency, you’ll want to proceed with caution and weigh the pros & cons of relying on Apple’s partial update or manually updating to the latest version of bash for your particular use.

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