Zombies are making a killing on TV (The Walking Dead), in movies (World War Z), and in books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). There’s even a zombie game/fitness app, Zombies, Run!
But zombies aren’t so entertaining if your computer becomes one.
In PC terms, a zombie is a computer that’s been taken over without the owner’s consent by a third party (or group of people). Once your computer is among the living dead, it often becomes part of a ‘botnet,’ or a network of other zombie computers. Rogue hackers control botnets to perform orchestrated denial of service (DOS) attacks and to widely spread email spam and malware, among other misdeeds.
Botnet attacks have been around for a long time but are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. So far this year, there have been several high-profile cases that illustrate the power of botnets. Through the global ‘Pony’ botnet attack, for instance, criminals stole about $220,000 in bitcoins and other digital currencies. And a large botnet recently infected Internet-connected home appliances —including refrigerators!—to send out more than 750,000 malicious emails.
Here’s the really scary part: Your computer could be part of a botnet, and you might not even be aware of it. And if your PC doesn’t have at the minimum, an antivirus and two-way firewall, you’ve just increased the chance that your PC could be a zombie. Here are 8 signs your computer might be a zombie, and what you can do to bring it back to the land of the living.
8 Signs Your PC Might Be a Zombie
1. Your computer’s performance is noticeably slower, even when you don’t have many applications open. Criminals want your computer to carry out illegal actions, and those actions require the use of your computer’s processor and network. So if your computer and/or your Internet connection speed have become sluggish, it may be because of a zombie.
2. You receive unexplained error messages.
3. Your computer crashes frequently.
4. You discover messages in your outgoing email folder that you didn’t send. A tip-off might be if you receive bounce-back notifications from people you don’t know or haven’t emailed.
5. It takes your computer longer to shut down and start up.
6. You discover an unexpected loss of hard disk (or flash storage) space.
7. Your Web browser frequently closes for no obvious reason.
8. Your access to computer security websites is blocked.
How to ‘Kill’ a Computer Zombie
If your PC has become a zombie, there may be ways to resurrect it.
• Update your antivirus and/or anti-spyware software and scan your computer’s hard drive to find and remove the malware. Keep in mind some types of malware will prevent your antivirus software from running. In that event, download additional antivirus software and try to run each one until you find a program that will get past the zombie’s self-defenses.
• Often, zombie/bot malware hides from security software scanners by installing a rootkit. A rootkit is a stealth piece of software that’s usually malicious. There are free rootkit detection software programs you can download.
• Set your computer’s personal firewall to its maximum-security level. This will require applications seeking access to the Internet to notify you, enabling you to track all incoming as well as outgoing traffic. In turn, this can help you identify repeated requests from the same application to access just a few destinations—a telltale sign the application is a zombie.
• If that’s the case, do a search of the application’s name to see if others have identified it as malware. Try to create a list of all files associated with the suspicious application and where they’re located on your storage drive. Remove the application and any related files immediately and restart your computer. You may have to do this several times, because one piece of malware may have several variants on the same computer.
• You’re not going to like this one, but here goes: If you’ve discovered your computer is a zombie and want to make sure you’re completely zombie-free, you should completely wipe the hard drive or flash drive and reinstall the operating system and applications. Make sure your important files are backed up first, of course.
• Once you’ve restored your computer’s storage drive, applications, and documents, run your security software again just to make sure nothing is amiss.
Better Safe Than Zombified
If your computer has become a zombie, it’s probably because you clicked on a malicious file attachment or installed an application you weren’t 100 percent sure about.
To reduce the risk of your computer being compromised again, keep your security software running and updated and your personal firewall at maximum level. Check emails with file attachments closely; you can often tell that the sender didn’t actually email it to you by the stilted language, improper spelling, or other signs. Delete spam email messages without opening them. Don’t download applications if you have any concerns about their safety.
If you take these preventative steps, you can spend less time worrying about your computer and more time watching The Walking Dead. That’s the kind of zombie we like.
Everything we’re told about digital security says that you should never let strangers roam your network without your permission. But if you’re a Comcast customer, that’s exactly what will happen as the company’s Xfinity WiFi service rolls out. Fortunately, there’s a way to bar the door.
With Xfinity WiFi, we’re all hotspots now
If you live in a major metropolitan area in the East Coast or in the Midwest, chances are Xfinity WiFi’s already operating in your area. The service takes advantage of the dual-band (2.5GHz/5GHz) Xfinity Wireless Gateway 2 modem (model DPC3939) it’s been distributing to customers for the past year. (Other modems Comcast uses also have the capability.) Comcast reserves one band and antenna for your own use, and one to serve as a public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot.
There’s an easy way to tell whether the public hotspot’s enabled on your modem: You should see an “xfinitywifi” public SSID broadcast from your own router. To access it, users will need a Comcast Xfinity login and password.
Comcast has already installed 1 million Xfinity WiFi hotspots across the nation, with plans to reach 8 million by the end of the year. Target metropolitan areas include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C., Comcast says.
Comcast customers at the “Performance” (25-Mbps) tier or above will be able to surf on any public Xfinity WiFi hotspot for an unlimited amount of time, for free. (If you’re a Comcast customer at a slower tier, or not a customer at all, you can try it free for two one-hour sessions, according to a Comcast spokesperson.)
To ensure your bandwidth isn’t monopolized, only five people will be able to sign onto an Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot at one time, the spokesperson added.
Is sharing safe?
The security questions are more difficult question to answer. According to Comcast, if someone logs on and begins downloading pornography, for example, such actions will be linked to that person’s account. You won’t be liable, the spokesman said.
But whether that person will be able to access other devices on your network, including your hard drive, is a separate question. And Comcast’s response isn’t reassuring.
Comcast encourages users to set strong passwords, and it supplies antivirus software to its customers. If the company does detect an unusual amount or source of traffic, such as a customer who may have been infected by a virus and turned into a zombie, or ‘bot,” that customer will be notified.
That doesn’t answer the question of whether an elderly customer blissfully surfing away on an unprotected PC will be unduly exposed by Xfinity WiFi. Comcast recommends that customers use antivirus protection plus a firewall and take advantage of its gateway’s 128-bit WPA and WPA2 encryption. “If a consumer doesn’t put the in the necessary precautions, to at least take some of these steps, they’re not doing everything they can to protect their account,” the spokesman said.
Comcast says that users should have been notified of their router’s evolution into an Xfinity hotspot via email, mailers, and even a press release. If you don’t want Xfinity WiFi, however, you have to opt out. Here’s the process, as noted by Dwight Silverman:
Look for a heading on the page for “Service Address.” Below your address, click the link that reads “Manage Xfinity WiFi.”
Click the button for “Disable Xfinity Wifi Home Hotspot.”
You can also call Comcast and ask that they put the modem into “bridge mode.”
The answer: buy an approved third-party router
The easiest way, of course, is to simply ditch Comcast’s modem entirely. PCWorld contributor Eric Geier gets into the nuts and bolts. To its credit, Comcast makes the process simple from its end as well.
On the Comcast site, you’ll find prices as low as $70 (new from Amazon) for the Arris/Motorola SB6121 bare-bones modem. (On the low end, of course, you’ll need to supply a separate router.) Have a look at the specs, too: the SB6121 can transfer 172 Mbits/s down and upload up to 131 Mbits/s. That’s more than enough for most small families, especially if your service is only rated at, say, 16 Mbits/s. But if you’re thinking of upgrading to the Extreme 150 tier, for example, that might be pushing it a bit. The $90 Arris SB6141 downloads up to 343 Mbits/s at a time.
You can also pay more, if you wish, to buy a true gateway with integrated router capabilities, including the most recent 802.11ac technology for higher-bandwidth wireless streaming and MoCA capability for using your existing coax runs as wired networking cables.
It’s fairly certain the third-party gateways on the Comcast site won’t suddenly sprout Xfinity WiFi capabilities. Simply buy Comcast’s low-end recommended modem and attach your own router to it—either one you already own, or a new model.
The most annoying part of the process may be returning your existing router, and phoning in your new router’s MAC address to ensure it can be identified by your cable provider.
Eventually, of course, any new cable modem you purchase will itself become obsolete. That doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon, however. Last Halloween, CableLabs released the specifications for DOCSIS 3.1, which sets the stage for whopping 10-Gbit/s connections. As Light Reading notes, end-to-end deployment trials will likely begin in 2016. And most cable operators are thinking of DOCSIS 3.1 in the context of a world where video is passed entirely over IP streams, which may be far in the future.
So far, Comcast hasn’t given any indication that it will penalize users for not adopting its Xfinity WiFi router. In other words, you can opt out of supplying a public WiFi hotspot, and still take advantage of other Xfinity hotspots in airports and elsewhere. (Or Starbucks, for that matter.) And with 4G cellular plans becoming cheaper, there’s always the option of tethering to your phone, too.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: keyboard shortcuts will set you free.
Yes, they’re a pain to learn, and many of us are used to sticking with a mouse. Nevertheless, being familiar with even a handful of shortcuts will help you get around your system faster—plus it has the added benefit of making you feel like a power user.
Even if you’re a tried and true mouse-only user, I’ve got one old—yet little known—trick for you too. All of today’s shortcuts center around file management with File Explorer/Windows Explorer and will work with Windows 7 and up.
Alt-ernative keyboard shortcuts
These shortcuts only work once you’ve been navigating for a while in an open File Explorer window.
Going up one folder level
Let’s say you are looking at a group of folders such as Documents>Vacation Plans>2014>Summer. But now you need to get back up to the Vacation Plans folder, which is two levels up from where you are now.
Instead of clicking through with your mouse, you could just press Alt-Up Arrow (hitting the up arrow twice) to take you back to view the contents of the Vacation Plans folder.
Alt-Up Arrow: Move up the file tree by one level.
Back and forth
Now, let’s say you changed your mind and want to go back inside the 2014 folder. Just hit Alt-Left Arrow, which is just like hitting the back button in File Explorer. And that means, you guessed it, hitting Alt+Right Arrow is just like clicking the forward arrow in File Explorer.
Alt-Left Arrow: Go back.
Alt-Right Arrow: Go forward again.
Right-click hat trick
Your mouse also has a right-click trick to help you copy, move, and create new shortcuts for files. This trick works in Windows XP and up.
Let’s say you want to copy a file from the Desktop and move it to OneDrive. The standard way to do this is to right-click the file on the Desktop, select copy, open OneDrive, right-click again and select paste.
That’s an awful lot of steps so try this instead: Right-click the file on the desktop and drag it into OneDrive. Then release your mouse and a new contextual menu pops up with options to copy, move, or create a shortcut to your file in OneDrive. Select the option you want (in this case copy) and you’re all done.
These are pretty minor tricks, but learning them will make you just that little bit more efficient on the desktop.
Apple unveiled this week a major new update to its mobile operating system.
Each year Apple holds its WWDC keynote, where the Cupertino-based giant lifts the veil on new versions of its mobile and desktop operating systems. This year has been no different, and during the World Wide Developer Conference held earlier this week, Apple announced a new version of OS X called Yosemite, along with a new version of iOS – specifically iOS 8. What made this year’s WWDC more special than the previous keynotes is the fact that, in Apple’s vision, iOS 8 represents the biggest release since the launch of the App Store.
iOS 8 Overview
One of the biggest features implemented in iOS 8 which will definitely catch the interest of Mac users is Handoff. In essence, Handoff is an expansion of AirDrop, which allows iOS 8 devices to interact with the new version of OS X, dubbed Yosemite. Through Handoff, OS X and iOS users will have the ability to share numerous types of tasks and data between the iPhone and the Mac, including files, phone calls, messages and more.
Apple has also announced the new iCloud Drive, which will be available not only on OS X Yosemite, but also on iOS 8. In a nutshell, iCloud Drive allows users to sync application files across all compatible Apple devices. A more detailed explanation on how this feature works would be that the user can start an application, launch the iCloud Drive panel and open a file that is originally stored on a different app. Once the file has been edited/manipulated by the user, the file is then stored back to its original application/location. In other words, iCloud Drive is pretty much Apple’s response to DropBox and Google Drive.
Another very exciting addition to iOS 8 is widget support. Indeed, after many years of requests from iOS users, Apple has finally decided to implement widgets in iOS. However, unlike what you get on Android OS, the widgets in iOS will be implemented in the Notification center, not on the home screen.
Speaking of notifications, iOS 8 brings a handful of new features and improvements in this area. The new notification system now shows a pop-up at the top of the screen, which can be opened, ignored and/or replied to, without having to close the application that you’re currently running.
iMessage has also been revamped, and it now borrows a few pages from WhatsApp’s book. As such, iMessage now allows the user to send audio and video messages from within the application. The email client received a number of improvements as well, and users will now be able to easily discard a message with just a simple swiping gesture.
Moving on to the native keyboard, iOS 8 brings a number of improvements in this area as well, including better text and touch prediction, improved algorithms and (hold on to your hats!), support for third-party keyboard applications. As a result, we expect apps such as Swype and SwiftKey to be soon available on both the iPad and the iPhone.
Earlier this year there were a large number of rumors indicating that Apple will focus on its health application with iOS 8. Although the company has indeed expanded the health application’s functionality, the hype might have been overdone. Still, iOS 8 comes with what Apple calls HealthKit, basically an app that gathers all the data and information collected by the device’s health tracking apps into one place. In addition, Apple has also teamed up with Nike and the Mayo clinic, and according to the manufacturer, the HealthKit app will be capable of communicating with Mayo whenever the user’s vital signs are alarming. In turn, the clinic can contact the user in order to determine his or her health status, and whether or not the user is in need of medical assistance.
Interestingly, Apple has also promised a large number of changes in the App Store. As such, developers will be able to offer App Bundles, and they’ll also have the ability to demonstrate their products through videos, much like they can on the Google Play Store. More so, developers will be able to invite users to closed beta programs. Moreover, the new App Store will implement “Family Sharing” – a new feature that allows up to six family members to share iBooks and various iTunes and App Store purchases.
Since WWDC is a “developer conference” after all, it’s pretty obvious that Apple has shed more light on the new changes brought to the software developer kit. Perhaps one of the most intriguing changes is that the company has opened up the Touch ID to third-party developers, which should lead to a number of interesting applications in the future. In addition, Apple has introduced more than 4,000 new APIs, of which a considerable number will be associated with new technologies for game development.
Finally, we should talk about availability and launch dates. Long story short, iOS 8 will be officially released this fall on the iPad 2 and up, the iPhone 4S and its sequels, as well as on the iPod Touch 5. A developer beta was released earlier this week, so if you are part of the developer program then you can already take the new OS for a spin.
That’s when Microsoft plans to stop issuing security updates for the aging, but still popular XP version of its flagship Windows operating system, which by some estimates is still running on nearly one in three personal computers in homes and offices around the world, along with some bank ATMs and other commercial systems.
Security experts say those machines will become significantly more vulnerable to viruses, spyware and other malicious hacks once Microsoft withdraws its support. No one’s predicting a Mayan-style cataclysm, but if you’re still using XP, here are some things to consider.
Microsoft started selling XP back in 2001 — long before the much-maligned Vista and two subsequent versions known as Windows 7 and Windows 8. The company says it’s already overextended the natural life cycle of XP, while newer versions of Windows offer better security and performance, especially when it comes to newer Web services and touch-enabled programs.
Even so, many consumers, businesses and government agencies have seen no reason to replace XP on their desktop and laptop computers, according to research firm NetMarketShare, which says XP powers nearly 30 percent of all personal computers worldwide. Others estimate 200 million or more XP users.
“XP is a solid operating system. People are used to it. They’ve got other software that’s compatible with it. And all their stuff is on it,” said Kevin McGuire, who owns the Bay Area Computerman repair shop in West San Jose. “I still have computers running XP in my shop.”
While McGuire is skeptical of the more dire warnings about XP, other experts say there’s reason to be concerned. Several makers of antivirus programs and other security software say their products will continue to work with XP, but they may not provide full protection.
Security programs can detect and neutralize malware, but they don’t repair vulnerabilities in the underlying operating system, said Gerry Egan, senior director of product management at Symantec, which “strongly recommends” that XP users upgrade to a newer operating system.
Like most software companies, Microsoft issues regular security updates or “patches” for Windows, which it distributes through free downloads as new vulnerabilities are found. It plans to stop doing this for XP, while continuing to release updates for newer Windows versions.
That in itself could create a road map for hackers to attack XP, said Egan, because some vulnerabilities may affect more than one version of Windows. When Microsoft issues a patch for a later version, he predicted, hackers will check to see if they can exploit the same, unpatched weakness in XP.
Computers running XP “will be an easy target for hackers” and could even be taken over by bots, or automated programs that disguise their malicious nature to infect other PCs running newer operating systems, said Ondrej Vlcek, chief operations officer at antivirus maker Avast, in a recent blog post.
With the April 8 deadline looming, XP users have some options. One is to finally get a new version of Windows.
Microsoft, of course, hopes people will buy the latest version, although Windows 8 has a drastically revamped interface that longtime XP users may find confusing. It also requires more memory and processing power than some older computers can provide.
Windows 7 is a closer cousin to XP, but it was first sold in 2009 and is getting hard to find. Amazon, for example, only sells Windows 7 in a kit that must be installed on a new hard drive or one that’s been wiped completely clean — a tricky process beyond many consumers’ expertise.
More user-friendly installation kits may be available if you look. Stan Reynolds at On Balance, a Walnut Creek repair shop, said he can provide and install Windows 7 on an older PC, although it will cost several hundred dollars.
Given the cost and trouble of installing a new system, some XP users may opt to just buy a new PC, with modern hardware and software already on board. While many retailers promote the latest models running Windows 8, some stores still have machines with Windows 7. There are also desktops and laptops with rival operating systems from Apple and Google — or, for less money, a tablet or e-reader might suffice.
But for those who really want to keep using XP, experts offer this advice:
First, be sure to use an updated anti-malware program; some experts recommend using two, since one may find things the other misses. Microsoft Security Essentials is a free anti-malware program that you can download now; you won’t be able to download the XP version after April 8, although Microsoft says it will distribute updates for an unspecified time.
Second, switch to Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox for Web browsing. Both will continue to work with XP and have the latest browser security features. The two most recent versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer won’t work with XP, while older versions of Explorer don’t work as well with newer websites.
Finally, stick to trusted websites and avoid using an XP computer for online banking, shopping or anything involving sensitive information. Better still, disconnect from the Internet and just use the computer for word-processing, spread sheets or games that are already installed on your machine.
While those steps may reduce the risk, “our advice is to upgrade,” said Richard Yom, owner of the PC Clinic repair shop in San Jose. Still, he acknowledged, “some people will wait as long as they can.”
OPTIONS FOR XP USERS
If you must keep using XP: Make sure you’ve got updated anti-malware programs, use Chrome or Firefox to browse the Web, and don’t store or transmit sensitive information on your PC. Better still, disconnect from the Internet and only use software that’s already installed.
Consider upgrading to Windows 7 or 8, but be advised: Windows 7 is getting harder to find, and older computers may lack the memory and processing power to support Windows 8.
Maybe it’s time to buy a new computer: Check out the new Windows-based PCs, or maybe a Mac or Chromebook (which use operating systems from Apple and Google). For smaller budgets, consider a tablet.
The hack, as reported by ZDNet, fools Microsoft into thinking the system is running Windows Embedded POSReady 2009, a variant of XP that’s used by ATMs and cash registers. Those systems will keep getting security updates until 2019.
All XP users need to do is create a text file with the following contents:
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00
Then, change the file extension from “.txt” to “.reg,” and run the file in Windows Explorer. Opening Windows Update at this point should reveal several new security updates.
On the downside, the hack only works on 32-bit systems. There’s a workaround for 64-bit machines, but it involves manually downloading update files from Microsoft’s website and tweaking them so that Microsoft doesn’t block the installation. (Windows XP 64-bit is based on Windows Server 2003, which Microsoft is supporting until next year, and Microsoft checks to make sure XP users aren’t installing those Windows Server updates.)
There are, of course, other caveats: While the registry hack doesn’t seem to cause any issues, it may not provide the same level of protection as a newer operating system with proper security updates. And unsurprisingly, Microsoft is not amused.
“The security updates that could be installed are intended for Windows Embedded and Windows Server 2003 customers and do not fully protect Windows XP customers,” the company said in a statement to ZDNet. “Windows XP customers also run a significant risk of functionality issues with their machines if they install these updates, as they are not tested against Windows XP.”
Microsoft would prefer that users upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 instead, of course, though various Linux operating system variants are viable options as well. Even if you enable this registry hack, you’ll still want to take steps to keep your Windows XP PC as safe as possible and upgrade to a more modern—and officially supported—operating system as soon as possible.
Security is an extra-hot topic these days, as all sorts of government agencies short on letters but long on budgets keep getting accused of spying on their own citizens, and debates rage on whether what look like accidental bugs may actually turn out to be quite intentional.
In the midst of all the ruckus, Apple has updated its iOS Security whitepaper, a longstanding document outlining the thought processes and technologies that go into keeping its mobile platform as secure as possible. Here are just a few of the most interesting tidbits from this latest revision.
More keys than a hardware store
Remember how, back in June of last year, Apple published a statement in which it claimed that iMessage data is “protected by end-to-end encryption”? Well, it seems the company really meant it.
Like many Internet services, iMessage depends on public-key cryptography to function. This technology uses two very long numbers, based on cryptographically secure random data, that can each be used to decrypt information encrypted with the other. When you activate messaging on each of your devices, iOS generates a pair of keys and sends one of them—appropriately called a public key—to Apple, tucking the other one securely away in its local memory storage.
Now for the fun part: When someone wants to send you a message, they ask Apple for all the public keys that belong to all your devices, and then use each to encrypt a separate copy of the message, sending the encrypted messages to the company, which, in turn, forwards them to the appropriate device using iOS’s push notification system.
Crucially, each device’s private key, without which data encrypted using the corresponding public key cannot be decrypted, is never transmitted across the Internet, which means that the company really cannot read your messages, just as it claims.
Note, however, that this system is not absolutely secure. In theory, since Apple controls the directory of public keys used by all the devices, it could surreptitiously add—or be forced to add—its own set of public keys (for which it knows the corresponding private keys) and thus gain access to every last bit of information that is exchanged on its messaging network. Therefore, it would perhaps be fair to say that iMessage is secure as long as you trust Apple—just like your mail is secure as long as you trust that the mail service won’t photocopy it on the way to its recipient, or that your phone company isn’t rerouting your calls to someone who just pretends to be your mom.
There’s fruit in them cables
As long rumored by various outlets, Apple’s Lightning cables really do include a special authentication chip that iOS can use to verify that they were produced by an authorized manufacturer.
According to the security whitepaper, the chip is actually manufactured by Apple and contains a special digital certificate known only to the company. Manufacturers that participate in the Made for iPhone Program receive the chips directly from the Cupertino giant and incorporate them into their products during production.
Interestingly, the authentication process is not limited to cables: Any authorized accessory that wants to communicate with iOS—including those that use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections—must incorporate it, or risk that the operating system will refuse to play nicely with it.
While this process undoubtedly allows Apple to keep a tight rein on its lucrative accessory licensing business, weeding out third-party manufacturers who produce sub-par hardware or refuse to pay up the necessary royalties to receive the company’s official blessing, the authentication chip also helps keep things secure by reducing the likelihood that malicious actors will be able to inject malware into our phones and tablets just because we want to recharge them.
Siri knows everything, but she ain’t talkin’
Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, also gets some time in the security spotlight. The company has laid out the steps that it takes to balance the service’s effectiveness with the privacy and security of its users.
As you can imagine, Siri is complex enough that much of its work takes place on Apple’s own servers rather than on each individual device. This allows the company to offload the most taxing aspects of the assistant’s functionality, such as turning audio into actionable text, and makes it possible for the service to be updated outside of iOS’s traditional upgrade cycle.
Clearly, this means that your device must send Apple a fair bit of information in order for Siri to work—starting with a full recording of your voice, which is transmitted alongside your name and rough geographical location whenever you request your digital assistant’s services.
In order to protect your privacy as much as possible, however, Apple uses a mechanism called progressive disclosure to limit the amount of information that reaches its server. For example, if you need to find a restaurant near you, Siri’s servers may ask your iPhone to send them a more accurate location; if you want the service to read your email or SMS message, the remote portion of the system will simply delegate the task to the device itself, so that your private data never has to leave the confines of your handset or tablet.
Apple also outlines what it does with your data once it gets hold of it: Information like transcriptions and locations are discarded after ten minutes, while recordings are kept for a period of up to two years—after six months, however, they are scrubbed of all digital data that could be used to identify their source. Presumably, the company uses them to help improve its voice recognition software, particularly when it comes to non-standard words like proper names and music or movie titles.
More than a pretty chip
The CPU that resides inside every iPhone 5s, dubbed the A7, contains all sorts of technological goodies. Among them is a special co-processor, dubbed the “secure enclave,” that is designed to help provide iOS with an extra-secure area of memory.
Each enclave is primed with a unique digital identifier when it’s manufactured. Not even Apple knows this number, which means that whatever information is stored in the enclave cannot be pried out of it without your explicit permission—even if a sophisticated hacker were to phisically steal your device.
The enclave also gets its own secure operating system, boots separately from the rest of the device, and uses a special technology to ensure that the software it is running was officially sanctioned by Apple. All communication with the enclave takes place in a securely encrypted area of memory, which is re-encrypted with a different key every time the device on which it resides boots.
All this paranoia is a good thing, because the enclave is used to store some of the most sensitive information that makes its way onto your device, such as the digital information required to unlock your iPhone with your fingerprints when you use Touch ID.
Keychain sync could probably withstand a nuclear attack
It seems that Apple designed iCloud Keychain so that it would be able to withstand just about everything short of nuclear winter—perhaps explaining why it took so long for the feature to return after it was discarded during the transition from MobileMe to iCloud. According to the whitepaper, you should be able to securely sync and recover your keys even if you reset your iCloud password, if your account is hacked, or if the iCloud system itself is compromised, either by an external entity or by an Apple employee.
To accomplish this feat, Apple uses a complex web of asymmetric digital keys and advanced elliptical encryption algorithms, coupled with manual controls (like activation codes that must be entered manually by the user on a device) to ensure that the company effectively never holds enough information to decrypt the contents of a keychain stored on its servers.
Interestingly, the engineers responsible for this feature have built a degree of selectivity into it, so that only data that is specially marked can actually be sent to the cloud. iOS makes use of this feature to keep some information that is device-specific, like VPN logins, out of the synchronization process, while other information, like website credentials and passwords, are allowed to go through.
All told, Apple’s whitepaper paints the picture of a company that is—at least publicly—deeply committed to the security and privacy of its customers.
Of course, the actual veracity of Apple’s claims depends to a large extent on the trust that its users place in the company, since we can’t just waltz into its server facilities and ask—nay, demand—that we be shown the source code. Even though practically everything that flows through iCloud and Siri is encrypted end-to-end, there is still a possibility that the folks from Cupertino may maliciously tweak its services (or even its operating systems themselves) in such a way as to silently compromise our every email, our every call, and our every text message.
It seems to me, however, that privacy and security are more than just a point of pride or marketing pitch for Apple: They are among the primary selling points of its products. As the company says in the first line of its whitepaper, “Apple designed the iOS platform with security at its core.” All the complex encryption mechanisms, digital key exchanges, software sandboxing, and hardware protection boil down to a simple message: Invest your money in our wares, and we’ll stay out of your life.
This stance places the company in sharp contrast to its rival Google’s insistence on collecting, collating, and distilling as much information on its users as possible. Any revelation that anyone from Apple’s management to its engineers aren’t taking this message to heart, even by omission, would damage its business in ways that would be very hard to recover from.
With the sluggish reception of Windows 8, the rumors (nothing official yet) are flying about Windows 9. (I suggested a few weeks ago that Microsoft needs to be working on Windows 9 now—although I felt that it should be a super Windows 7.) It appears that Microsoft has gotten part of the message from the consumers with the release of Windows 8.1, a planned Windows 8.1 update, and work on Windows 9—codename “Threshold.”
Since there has been no official Windows 9 announcement, people are dependent upon leaks. However, there is no shortage of speculation. Here is a look at some of the guesses about Windows 9, but first a look at the Windows 8.1 update which is due out soon.
Windows 8.1, Update 1
Microsoft isn’t giving up on Windows 8. Having just released Windows 8.1, it’s planning a major update for either March or April release. (I guess it will then be time for me to come out with a ninth edition of Misunderstanding Windows 8.) This time the concentration is on making the operating system and its Modern apps more mouse and keyboard friendly for PCs.
In particular, it looks like it will be possible to pin Modern apps to the Desktop Taskbar (see Figure 1). This is consider a step toward Windows 9 where the speculation is that it will finally be possible to run the Modern apps in a window on the Desktop thereby eliminating the need for the annoying full screen views.
These images are from WZor, a Russian leaker of early Windows builds considered reliable by many and thought to have contacts inside Microsoft.
Figure 1. This leaked image of Window 8.1 Update 1 shows a Modern app pinned to the Windows Taskbar.
For those of us who habitually click the right mouse button when exploring, a right-click menu is being added to the Modern interface. See Figure 2. This is an important step toward making Windows 8 Windows-like again.
Figure 2. This leaked image of Window 8.1 Update 1 shows the right-click menu in the Modern interface.
Other changes include easier access to search and shutdown of Modern apps with an X in the upper right-hand corner of the apps. These are interim steps toward Windows 9 which may represent a move toward a little more separation between the Desktop and Modern interface for the different Windows platforms: smartphones, tablets, Xbox, and the PC.
Windows 9 Rumors
Microsoft is not abandoning the combined tablet/PC model nor touch technology, but it may be tailoring Windows 9 more for each type of operating systems. All versions will continue with the same underlying Windows NT core. This produces compatibility between the different products making it possible to produce apps which will run o\in all Windows systems. The Windows store will continue to be a prominent part of the systems for delivering new apps.
It looks like there may be three versions of Windows 9, one for Windows phones and devices, another for Xbox, and the last for computers.
Give Me Back My Start Menu!
Probably the most hoped for change in Windows 9 might be a greater de-emphasis of the Modern interface with the return of a functional Start Menu. While Windows 8.1 has added a Start button to the Desktop Taskbar, it is far from a true Start Menu. Now people who are heavily dependent upon the Start Menu and replacing it with utilities such as Stardock’s tools or Pokkie Start Menu you won’t need to add a third-party Start Menu to the Windows 8 Desktop. (I personally don’t use an add-on Start Menu, because I’ve found it more convenient to use my QuickLinks AutoHotkey app tailored for my personal use. I use it on all of my various Windows computers. But that’s just me.) If Microsoft brings back the Start Menu in Windows 9, then the business market may be convinced to give it a try.
Right now it is businesses, even more so than individual users, who are resisting Windows 8. What may seem like a minor adjustment to many computer users is a major obstacle for a business looking to upgrade a multitude of machines. The learning curve that comes with the Modern interface may seem enormous to any enterprise which would need to retrain virtually everyone—especially when you consider that many corporations have no use for the Modern apps. Those apps only represent an annoyance. If businesses upgrade at all, they are likely to stick with Windows 7 which will run their old reliable Windows software without distractions caused by the Windows 8 the Modern interface. If Microsoft produces a Windows 9 which eliminates the bulk of the current Windows 8 learning curve, then they will likely have a winner with businesses.
Modern Apps Running in a Window on the Desktop
The other major change leaked which could provide more separation between Windows 8 and the PC version of Windows 9 is running Modern apps in windows which can float on the Desktop. This could completely eliminate the need for (or at least the forced use of) the current Modern interface which is the major source of irritation for Windows users. Suddenly, there would be a newly branded version of Windows which sheds the difficulties of Windows 8 while including its improvements. Learning to work with the Modern interface would become an option in Windows 9, rather than mandatory as it is currently in Windows 8.
Windows 9 April 2015
The word is that Windows 9 will be released to the general public in April of 2015 (although there are reports that it could be as early as October of this year). There is no word on whether there will be pre-release versions such as those for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, but I suspect that Microsoft may want the mass beta testing. A preview of Windows 9 is expected in April of this year at Microsoft’s developer’s conference.
Who Wants New Coke?
This Windows 8 scenario reminds me of the fiasco caused by the introduction of New Coke in 1985. The top brass at Coca Cola who felt that the brand was stagnating encouraged both innovation and risk taking within the organization. One project was to reinvent the Coke formula based upon taste tests of hundreds of thousands of people. After the tests were completed New Coke was introduced as a replacement.
The uproar was unbelievable. People rushed to the store clearing the shelves of the old Coke. Coca Cola was inundated with complaints. People cried, “If I wanted something that tastes like Pepsi, I would buy Pepsi.” The corporate staff received numerous letters which included many comments about their personal lack of intelligence. Eventually, the old Coke was brought back as Coca Cola Classic. Today, New Coke is nowhere to be found.
Ironically, the whole ordeal turned out to be a marketing coup for Coca Cola. The excitement and media attention pushed the Coke image and business to a new level which never would have occurred through an advertising campaign. When asked if that was actually the plan along, the CEO responded with “We’re not that smart.” or something to that effect.
Although they are also not that smart, ironically Microsoft may benefit in similar fashion to Coca Cola. Whether people like it or not, Windows 8 is an innovation in the operating system market. But people want their old Windows back. My guess is that’s exactly what Microsoft will deliver in Windows 9, only with many of the good things (performance) which have come from Windows 8. Windows 8 may be another throwaway operating system (although it’s not all that bad) which will pave the way for the best of all worlds in Windows 9—an operating systems that works like “real” Windows, plus access to a library of optional tablet-like apps.
What Should I Do?
The answer to the question, “What should I do?” depends a lot on your situation. If you own a business with a number of computers which need upgrading, then I would seriously consider installing Windows 7 on those machines. While there are some speed and performance advantages to Windows 8, the problem of teaching everyone in the company how to use Windows 8 will be more daunting than migrating the users to Windows 7 from an earlier version. While some people take to Windows 8 and love it, there are others who just won’t comprehend the change. Of course you can set up a Windows 8.1 computer to boot directly to the Desktop and use tools such as AutoHotkey (which works in all versions of Windows including Windows 8) to make the working environment for your business easy, but changing to Windows 7 from Windows XP or Vista is much smoother than jumping to Windows 8 and the Modern Start screen.
If you’re getting a computer for yourself, then the decisions depends upon how you see yourself. If you’re a quick learner and like a little adventure, then I would probably recommend Windows 8. (That’s what I would do for myself.) It is a good operating system—just different. However, if it took you a good while to get to your current level of computer literacy while learning your current version of Windows—and you like it—then you might be better off sticking with Windows 7.
If you’re currently using Windows 7 (or even Windows XP) and feel no compelling reason to upgrade right now, stand pat and wait to see how Windows 9 turns out. Since Microsoft generally gets every other Windows version right, Windows 9 should be next up in the queue.
Windows XP is so old, it predates 9/11. The software first landed on personal computers sold to consumers and businesses way back in August 2001. Yet more than 12 years later, a substantial number of PCs with Windows XP as their operating system are still in use.
According to consultant Net Applications, XP machines represented a 29.23% market share last month, ahead of all the PC operating systems that came after it except for Windows 7, which has a 47.49% share. Microsoft’s more recent operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, come in with modest 6.63% and 3.95% market shares, respectively, suggesting an area of concern for new CEO Satya Nadella.
The many folks who still rely on Windows XP will have their own major concern to deal with in a few weeks. On April 8, XP reaches the end of the line. No, your XP computer won’t suddenly blow up on that date. But it does mean that official support from Microsoft ceases. Microsoft will no longer issue patches or system updates to protect the machine against viruses, spyware and other malware that could result in crashes, or worse, the theft of personal information. If you run into any other kinds of snags, you won’t be able to call Microsoft for technical assistance.
“There is a risk,” cautions Microsoft spokesman Tom Murphy. “How big a risk we can’t quantify.” But Murphy is unequivocal in advising consumers to part ways with the operating system that many have loyally stuck by all these years. “We’re really black and white about that,” he says.
Though some third-party anti-virus software may provide some protection post-April 8, Microsoft still considers the computer system vulnerable.
The April deadline shouldn’t come as a rude awakening. Microsoft announced the date that XP support would end as far back as 2007, but a number of people haven’t paid close attention.
IS UPGRADING AN OPTION?
What measures should you take? One option, but only available to a relatively few XP owners, is to upgrade your current machine. You can download Windows 8.1 for $119.99 or 8.1 Pro for $199.99. But make sure your PC meets the minimum system requirements: a 1-GHz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM (for a 32-bit system) or 2 gigs (for 64-bit) and 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit) of storage. If your PC meets the requirements, make sure you install the proper Windows 8.1 software, either the 32-bit or 64-bit installation disc. (This bit about bits refers to how the PC processor handles information). (One way to find the specs on your old XP machine: right-click My Computer and click Properties.)
Another thing to consider is screen resolution, especially on netbooks — remember those? Microsoft points out that many Windows XP-based (or even Windows Vista) netbooks had a screen resolution of 800 x 600. You’ll need a resolution of at least 1024 x 768 to take full advantage of the modern Windows interface.
Critical point: Whether you’re going to update your current computer or move to a new one, don’t forget to back up all your data onto an external hard drive, USB drive, CD or to one of the myriad online storage services.
Even if your older PC can actually run Windows 8, don’t count on any kind of screaming fast performance. And keep in mind that software from outside publishers may also run poorly on Windows 8, if such programs run at all. Microsoft provides a tool available at www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/CompatCenter/Home that may help you determine which of your programs will work work with Windows 8.1.
Microsoft, of course, would prefer that most of you spring for a spanking new computer, presumably one of the latest models with the 8.1 upgrade, though Windows 7 PCs can still be had. The PC business has been steadily losing ground to smartphones and tablets, so every sale helps. (Windows 8 is designed for both tablet and PC duty).
BUYING A NEW MACHINE
There are surely benefits to modern hardware: The computers are more robust, more secure and better able to exploit the latest networking tools, certainly compared with the XP machine you’re about to retire. You’re unlikely to get much (if anything) trading in your old XP clunker, but there are deals to be found.
If you’re not a serious gamer or plan on engaging in heavy-duty video editing, you can find halfway decent Windows laptops typically starting in the $300 range, though of course, you can spend a lot more for a system equipped with high-resolution touch-screens and state-of-the-art specs. As always, you get more bang for the buck with a desktop PC system, but lose out on the mobility that a portable provides.
If you’re feeling bold — that is, you’re ready to join the cloud computing age and are willing to eschew Windows altogether — you might consider an entry-level Google Chromebook such as Acer’s $299 C720P-2600.
Moving to a Mac is an option, too, but after all your years with Windows XP, that might strike you as particularly radical move. It’s certainly more expensive. Apple’s MacBook Air laptop, for example, starts at $999.
You may not even remain in your comfort zone sticking with Windows. Windows 8 might make the XP loyalist feel as if he’s landed on another planet. The touch-friendly tile-based interface is very different than the standard desktop view in XP and for that matter, other versions of Windows that you’ve gotten chummy with all this time.
There has also been some scuttlebutt concerning what happens to all the ATMs out there that still run a version of XP, upwards of 95% of the machines, according to Robert Johnston of NCR. Johnston told me he isn’t overly worried. Banks have had time to prepare, and protective measures are in place. He says the consumer shouldn’t notice any negative impact. “The world is not going to collapse on April 9 from the ATM point of view,” he says. That said, Johnston is planning to upgrade the XP system he still has at home.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON XP
Am I at risk by doing nothing with my XP PC after April 8? Microsoft says you are. You won’t get any system updates for XP or be able to call tech support.
Should you retire your current XP computer and buy a new computer or upgrade it? It depends. You can upgrade your current machine if it meets the requirements. Even if it does, don’t expect screaming fast performance.
How much will a new Windows PC cost? Deals can be had with prices on laptops starting in the $300 range, even less in some cases. Of course, you can spend a lot more. You get more bang for the buck (but lose the mobility) with a desktop PC.
Is there a learning curve to Windows 8? In a word, yes. The live tile-based Windows 8.1 interface will look unfamiliar to folks schooled on the old Windows desktop environment, though for some purposes, you can still summon screens in the new Windows that look like the old interface.
Is it time for you to dump Windows XP, or maybe to abandon Windows altogether? Windows 8 has improved significantly with the 8.1 upgrade. Nevertheless, for many users, Windows 8’s modern-style interface—incorporating major changes like Live Tiles and the removal of the Start menu—remains an object of scorn. And security has always been a bigger headache for Windows than for other platforms.
If you’re still running Windows XP, making the switch to Windows 8.1—or to Windows 7, if you can find it—will probably involve replacing more than just the operating system. Your current hardware may not be able to handle a newer Windows OS; and even if it can, you’ll likely need to replace software and peripheral devices, as well.
If you’re going to invest money and time in making the transition to a new OS, you might as well consider all your options. Microsoft’s stranglehold on the desktop market has loosened over the past few years. Mac OS X, Linux, and even Chrome OS are sophisticated operating systems and are enjoying growing mainstream adoption. Here’s what to expect if you embrace one of these alternatives.
Mac OS X
There’s a reason people (and not just Apple marketers) say “once you go Mac, you’ll never go back.” Apple defined the GUI we know today and set the bar for user-friendly computing. Macs have a reputation for being expensive, but that’s not entirely accurate these days. You can certainly find cheaper Windows-based desktop and laptop options, but in bang-for-the-buck terms, Macs are on a par with—and sometimes cheaper than—similarly equipped Windows machines.
OS X’s most obvious advantage is that it raises far fewer security concerns than Windows. One disadvantage of being the dominant OS is that you have the biggest target on your back. Macs aren’t immune to malware attacks, but using one significantly reduces your security risk.
OS X also has the edge in cost. The full version of Windows 8.1 will set you back $120. For the past several years, OS X upgrades have run just $20 to $30, and the latest version, Mavericks, is free. OS X also comes with its own productivity suite (iWorks), and boasts proficient email, note-taking, calendaring, media-playing, image-editing, and instant messaging applications.
With a Mac OS X system, you can continue to run Windows—either in a dual-boot configuration, or as a virtual machine using a program like Parallels. You would still need a legally licensed copy of Windows, however, and you would still need patch and update whatever version of Windows you ran. The system would also be susceptible to the same security vulnerabilities as a stand-alone Windows PC, but you could continue using legacy Windows software for applications that you can’t discard.
Unless you decide to run a virtual version of Windows, switching to OS X will require you to replace all your software. Popular products like Microsoft Office (if you choose not to use iWorks) and Adobe Creative Suite have Mac versions, but for other applications you’ll have to find suitable alternatives. Either scenario will increase the cost of switching and slow the learning curve for getting used to the new applications. Of course, you may face similar challenges if you upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 8.1.
If you want to install a new OS on your existing hardware, Linux is the obvious alternative. The open-source operating system has many variants, one of the most widely used of which is Ubuntu Linux. Generally speaking, Linux has less-demanding hardware requirements and is much more forgiving of older PCs. Laptops are available from Acer, Asus, and Dell that run some version of Linux.
The biggest benefit of choosing Linux is cost. Most Linux distributions are free, as are the applications available to run on it.
Linux tends to be less of a resource hog than other platforms, and it can perform admirably on older processors and with less RAM or hard-drive storage than Windows or OS X. You can choose from various user interface desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME, and if you like you can install or create a desktop environment that is virtually identical to Windows XP.
Like Mac OS X, Linux can run Windows in dual-boot or virtual-machine form. Tools like WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) can run Windows software natively within Linux. (Note: WINE is a compatibility layer that converts Windows “calls” rather than emulating them; hence its name.)
You’ll have to replace all the applications you use, and you’ll have to hunt down software and drivers for your printer, wireless network adapter, and other peripheral devices—or replace them with Linux-compatible equivalents.
The fact that Linux is open-source can be a double-edged sword with regard to support and troubleshooting. In most cases, you simply download software from an open-source project, and there’s no “parent company” to turn to for support. Some Linux variants do offer support options that you can buy. The upside is that everything you need to know is available online—and plenty of forums exist, populated by Linux experts who are willing to lend a hand.
Chrome OS, developed by Google, is the new kid on the block. It’s a Web-centric platform that basically makes the browser itself the operating system.
With a Chrome OS machine, you have far fewer security concerns than with a Windows PC—in part because of the relative obscurity of Chrome OS, and in part because in most cases the operating system isn’t designed to run locally installed software or store data on the PC itself, so there’s far less to exploit or attack.
If you’re already invested in the Google ecosystem, the Chrome OS may be a perfect match. It revolves around Google services, and it integrates nicely with Android smartphones and tablets to give you access to the same email, stored data, and other information.
On the flip-side, if you don’t use Google services, Chrome OS probably won’t work for you. You can use Office 365 and SkyDrive, and other cloud-based services from a Chrome OS machine, but it’s a bit like paddling upstream, or trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Because most of Chrome OS’s capabilities are tied to cloud-based services and resources, the functionality of Chrome OS is severely limited if you lack an Internet connection. Google recently rolled out Chrome Apps that can run offline, but they’re not the full-featured software you’d find on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux.
As the saying goes when the bar is closing, “You ain’t gotta go home, but you gotta get the hell outta here.” In this case, you don’t have to upgrade to Windows 8.1, or even to Windows 7, but you do need to dump Windows XP and move on to something else. Change can be painful—but if you’re going through it anyway, it makes sense to consider all your options.