Use a VPN for security and privacy

In this third installment of my series on security, I’m going to explain what a VPN is and why you should use one every time you’re away from the home or office. You might even want to use one at home, too. If you don’t want to read everything here or you don’t feel like you understand it, here’s the take-home message: if you’re away from your home or office, always use a VPN when you connect to the internet. It’s easy and inexpensive.

Why use a VPN?

I’m sitting in the airport, getting ready to leave for the NAA’s Designation Academy in Las Vegas. I know many other auctioneers from around the country are doing the same thing. I also know that many of them will want to connect to the internet using their phones or computers while they’re away from home. Many, if not most, will do so without using a VPN, putting their accounts and data on their phones and computers at risk.

A VPN is a virtual private network. It’s an encrypted, private tunnel between computers over the internet. There are a few different examples for how useful such a private tunnel can be.

Remote access

Imagine a secure company network. Maybe at your office you have a username and password to login while you’re on the network to access your printers and your server or other computers. However, what if you wanted to access your printer or the files on your server while you weren’t at the building? A VPN would let you safely connect to your network at the office from your house or mobile hotspot. This type of VPN would be configured on your network and your computer and wouldn’t require a third party service, so it’s not really the type of VPN we’re interested in today.

Security and privacy

This is the use I’m focused on today. If you connect to public wifi at a coffee shop, hotel or convention center, much of the communication between your computer and the internet is unencrypted, or in the clear. This means anyone with common software can connect to the same network and watch not only what sites you go to but, in some cases, capture your account information.

Using a VPN when on public wifi would give you both security and privacy. You would connect to the public wifi, but instead of all your traffic going out on the internet from that location, all your traffic would go through the tunnel to the VPN provider before going out onto the internet. This is essentially a game of keep away from anyone else on that free wifi who would like to get at your data. Here’s a diagram from IPVanish showing how it works.

VPN diagram from IPVanish

Bypassing geo fencing

The websites you visit know where you are based on your IP address. If you want to see what those websites can see about you, take a look at infosniper.net. Geofencing is the practice by some streaming services wherein they provide different programming to people in different areas. Netflix, for example, has different content in Canada than they do in the US. ESPN will blackout ballgames for some users based on where they are. Since using a VPN changes your IP address, one common use for VPNs is bypassing this geofencing. Most VPN providers let you select which town or even country you want to appear to come from when using their services.

Using a VPN

It’s true that you could use your own router at home or work to allow you to connect back to your own network from anywhere on the internet to get the same security as one of the paid services, but it’s beyond the scope of this article. I’ll skip discussing the setup and configuration of a roll-your-own VPN setup and look at using a paid service from a VPN provider.

Computer

Your VPN service will have an app for your PC or Mac. When you connect to the public wifi, you simply tell that app to connect to the VPN. You can then browse safely and securely knowing that all your traffic is being transmitted to that VPN provider’s server before it goes out onto the internet.

Phone

Similarly, most VPN providers have apps for Android and iOS that make it just as easy to connect to the VPN. Now that unlimited data plans are becoming ubiquitous, it’s less important to connect to wifi with phones. If you do ever connect your phone to a free wifi network, it’s crucial that you use a VPN.

Selecting a VPN

The first rule when selecting a VPN provider is to never use a free service. There are a few exceptions in the case of reputable VPNs offering a free version that’s slower than using a paid premium account, but the general rule is that if you’re not paying for the VPN then it is making money from you by selling your browsing data.

Most VPNs are really inexpensive. The gold standard is a service called Private Internet Access and it costs under $4 per month if you pay for a couple years at a time. If you’re just wanting something inexpensive to keep you safe while you’re on public wifi, you can also run over to StackSocial and grab one of the lifetime subscriptions to one of the no-name VPNs. They’ll probably do a good job of protecting you from hackers and changing your IP address, but they might not be as reliable at protecting you as PIA if a company or government went to them and asked what you were doing when. A cheaper and less well-known VPN also might go out of business, rendering your lifetime subscription worthless.

If you’re looking for a reputable VPN that offers a free tier to try before you buy, ProXPN is a good option. It’s fast enough to check email and Facebook, but probably not fast enough to stream video.

If you want to learn more about the different VPNs available, TorrentFreak publishes a good question and answer set for myriad VPNs each year. Here’s their 2017 VPN comparison.

Other reasons to use a VPN

Even when you’re at home or using your cell phone’s data or hotspot, your internet provider or cell phone company is tracking your activity. Verizon made news a few years ago when they began adding tracking headers to the traffic of all of their users, allowing websites to track Verizon customers around the web. Users could opt out of this tracking, but I’m guessing a very small percentage of their customers actually did. Some less-than-reputable internet providers also intercept traffic and inject or swap out ads on the pages you visit. Using a VPN would ensure that your traffic isn’t intercepted, monitored or altered by your internet provider.

Downside of a VPN

The only downside of using a VPN, other than the small cost, is speed. Because you’re routing all your traffic through a third-party service, it’s never going to be as fast as directly connecting to the internet. VPN providers are getting better, and reputable VPN services are so fast that the speed difference is usually negligible, but there can be significant differences in performance from one provider to another.

Summary

Don’t connect to the internet away from home without using a VPN. As it looks like we might lose the fight over net neutrality, finding a good and reliable VPN will become an even more imporant part of using the internet safely wherever you are and however you connect.

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The LG V30 on Verizon

The V30 is Verizon’s latest offering from LG and LG’s third phone in its V-series. It’s a large phone with great cameras, high quality audio features and a screen with slightly curved edges. I’ve been excited about the V-series since the V10 and currently carry the V20 as my primary phone. When my friends at Verizon offered to let me spend a few weeks carrying the V30, I jumped at the chance. I found the V30 to be really fast and well built, while at the same time missing a couple of the features that made the V20 such a compelling purchase.

LG V30 review

Just as LG’s G6 gave up some of the features of previous iterations of the G-series, the V30 gives up the expandable battery and second screen found on the V20 while featuring the return of wireless charging and adding a curved OLED screen and glass back. It’s a phone that feels geared for wider adoption from the general public rather than the smaller set of enthusiasts that appreciated the larger feature sets of the V10 and V20.

Hardware

With 4 GB of memory and the same processor found in other current flagship phones such as the Google Pixel 2, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, the V30 is really fast. I never noticed any lag or stuttering during normal use. It comes with 64GB of storage and features an SD card slot so you never have to worry about running out of space. It’s water resistant and durable, rated at IP68 for water and dirt. LG is the only manufacturer to place the power button on the back of the phone, which is a much better place for it in my opinion. The V30’s power button doubles as the fingerprint sensor which is perfectly placed, unlike the sensor on the Galaxy S8.

The screen is a large, 6″ OLED panel that, like other recent phones, is taller than phones of the past. This 18:9 aspect ratio makes it possible to fit a larger screen on a smaller phone. Indeed, the V30 is noticeably smaller than the V20 with a screen that’s significantly bigger. The screen is curved on the edges. I don’t like curved screens, personally, but they’re quite popular and the V30’s makes it feel much thinner than the G6 even though it’s actually slightly thicker.

Audio

One of the selling points of the V-series is an attention to audio quality. In addition to a real headphone jack, the V30 boasts what LG calls a “32-bit QuadDAC” which creates a much better signal to wired headphones or speakers. While it’s a noticeable improvement for streaming music, I found the experience listening to flac music with studio reference headphones to be absolutely wonderful.

Not only can the V30 reproduce music better than any other phone I’ve heard, it also records sound extremely well. The HD Audio Recorder captures sound in extremely high quality and saves it as a flac file. We recently had our third son by cesarean and were prohibited from recording video in the operating room. With the V30, I was able to capture my son’s first sounds in high resolution.

Camera

Like other recent LG phones, the V30 has a wide-angle front-facing camera and dual rear-facing cameras, a 16 MP standard-angle lens and a 13 MP wide-angle lens. I’m a huge proponent of the wide-angle lens and I still don’t know why other manufacturers don’t follow LG’s lead.

The cameras themselves are significant upgrades from the V20, as you can see in these comparison shots. The V30 standard angle lens seems much more vivid.

The wide-angle lens on the V30 is higher resolution and also seems more vivid.

As always, I’ll have a selection of example pictures I took with the V30 at the end of this post.

The V30 captures great video and, unlike the V20, doesn’t have a problem recording long UHD clips. My V20 gets hot and stops recording after 5 or 10 minutes. In my tests, the V30 captures full 3840×2160 video at 30FPS in 4 GB files until it fills the available space on the phone.

Battery

V30 real world battery life

Battery life is really good. I got just over 7 hours in the Geekbench 4 full-discharge battery test, scoring a 4260, and my real-world testing yielded about 12 hours of usable battery. I’d still prefer the upgradeable battery found on the V20, but the fast charging makes the battery on the V30 definitely usable for all but the most demanding users.

Software

While I’ve never been a huge fan of LG’s software, it’s comparable to what you’ll find on Samsung and HTC phones. The Android experience isn’t clean like a Pixel or pure like a Nexus, but it’s quite usable. You’ll want to replace the home screen with Action Launcher and the keyboard with Gboard. The hotspot doesn’t time out like some other phones and the preinstalled apps from Verizon and LG are unobtrusive and easy to disable.

Case

Knowing that I was in the middle of fall harvest, Verizon sent me their Shell Holster Combo case for the V30. It’s a shell that snaps on the back of the phone that slides into the belt clip. The case is a tight fit and has a kickstand on the back. Unfortunately, even though the phone was in the case the entire time I was testing it, I ended up with a small crack along the top of the screen. If you’re in an industrial environment, you may want to opt for something more durable. If all you’re after is a case that makes the V30 easier to hold on to, the Shell Holster Combo should do the trick.

LG V30 review summary

The LG V30 is one of the best phones on Verizon. It’s fast and the cameras are excellent. It’s hands-down the best phone for anyone who loves to listen to or capture high quality audio. Great battery life and wireless charging mitigate the lack of a removable battery. If you’re looking for a beautiful phone with a curved screen, Verizon’s LG V30 makes an excellent choice.

LG G30 camera examples

These images are unedited and from a variety of lighting conditions and subject types.

As with all my #vzreview reviews for Verizon, I wasn’t paid or otherwise compensated and my views are my own.

Posted in Android, gadgets, reviews | Tagged , , |

Backup and encryption

This article was the subject of Fast Talking Podcast episode 190 and appeared in the Colorado Auctioneers Association‘s quarterly newsletter.

It was 2007. NAA Conference and Show was in San Diego. My bags were packed in my truck. I swung by the office to grab my computer and other electronics that I’d need for the week in California. As I walked out the door for my two hour drive from Manhattan, Kansas, to the Kansas City airport, I realized I’d forgotten something. I sat my computer bag on the ground next to my pickup’s passenger door and went back inside. When I returned, I got in my truck, cranked the wheel to the left and backed out, only to realize that my front tire just rolled over my laptop bag. My computer — and my mood — was crushed. I had unfinished work for upcoming auctions that I’d planned to do on the plane and I had no time before my flight to prep another computer. It made for an interesting and uncomfortable trip.

Broken hardware is one thing, but what if I’d lost the computer? What if instead of picking up pieces off the ground, I was instead unsure of where it was? Had it fallen into malicious hands? Were all the accounts that I’d logged in to now at risk of being compromised? It’s always better to know a computer is destroyed than to wonder if someone is combing through the data.

The scenario is simple — at any time, you can suddenly lose your laptop. In order to make sure that the only cost to you is the value of the hardware, it’s crucial that your computer is encrypted and backed up properly.

Encryption

Computer encryption can get very technical very quickly, but for our purposes it simply means a way of scrambling the data on the computer’s hard drive so it can’t be read by anyone who doesn’t have the password. The password to login to Windows isn’t enough, as it’s fairly trivial to bypass. The correct solution is called full disk encryption, where everything on the computer is encrypted for everyone who doesn’t have the password.

For many years, the right answer for encryption was a product called TrueCrypt. It was free software and the encryption was bulletproof. A few years ago, the TrueCrypt project closed down. Luckily it’s successor, called VeraCrypt, is also free and based on much of the same code base as TrueCrypt. Since it’s open source, third parties have been able to audit the software to make sure there aren’t backdoors or other ways for criminals or governments to bypass the encryption.

Operating systems have their own versions of encryption. Windows has BitLocker and Apple has FileVault. While I’ll always prefer a free and open source solution over one from an operating system provider, these solutions may be a good fit in some situations.

Many modern laptops also provide built-in encryption options on the hardware level. Many of these might work as well as VeraCrypt, though there’s no way to guarantee there isn’t a backdoor. Sometimes, a laptop’s password simply prevents the laptop from booting up and doesn’t actually encrypt the data. This means someone could simply remove the hard drive and put it in another computer to access your files. Make sure if you’re using a built-in password function on your laptop that it’s actually encrypting the data.

Only by using full disk encryption can you rest assured that if your computer falls into the wrong hands, all your data about your auctions, customers, clients and personal accounts won’t be at risk. Entering a password every time you boot your computer is a small price to pay for that peace of mind.

Backup

Encryption prevents the bad guys from getting your data, but what about losing your work? If you drive over your laptop with the front wheel of a diesel pickup, how do you get your files off of a hard drive that’s in pieces on the ground? In addition to the possibility of losing your computer, new viruses called ransomware actually encrypt your files and make you pay a ransom before giving you the key to decrypt them. A good backup solution can mitigate a ransomware infection by allowing you to restore the unencrypted versions of your files.

There is a frequently recited rule of backup called 3-2-1. You need three copies of your data, on two different mediums and one needs to be offsite. Simply buying an external hard drive and copying your files there is better than nothing, but it’s also grossly insufficient and inefficient. A good backup solution will run continually in the background, copying versions of your files offsite as you create them, so you don’t notice it until you need it.

In much the way that TrueCrypt was the best answer for encryption, there was also a best answer for backup called Crashplan. Crashplan allowed users to backup to friends for free. I wrote in 2012 how this was a perfect backup solution that didn’t have a monthly fee like most of the backup services. Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, Crashplan announced that it’s discontinuing its free version in October 2018. While I’ve been hunting for a replacement, it’s unlikely that anything will be as simple as Crashplan to use without a monthly fee.

There are still myriad subscription backup services. Some of the best known are Carbonite, Backblaze and Mozy, and each has a different pricing plan based on the amount of data to store and how many computers will be using the service. As you shop around for the best deal, pay attention to the cost to get your data back. In 2011, I lost 2 terabytes of data that was backed up with Mozy. Only then did I learn that they charged $.50 per gigabyte to restore the data, and I had to come up with the $1000 within 30 days before my files were deleted.

In the auction business, like any business, time is money. Some backup solution is better than nothing. In my search for a Crashplan replacement, I’ve found a lot of negative comments about Carbonite and a lot of positive comments about Backblaze, so if I were looking for a simple turn-key subscription backup service, I’d probably start with Backblaze.

Backup and encryption

In summary, disaster happens when we least expect it. We need to take steps now to ensure that when, not if, we lose a computer, it might cost us money to replace the device but it doesn’t cost us time to recreate all our work or, worse, cost us sleep worrying about who might have our data and what he or she might be doing with it.

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The MediaPad M3 is a fast, modern Android tablet

I’ve found that auctioneers are always excited about finding ways to be more efficient. Indeed, some of the best ideas I absorbed in Columbus last month revolved around doing more in less time. I’m a firm believer in the importance of the right tool for the job, and when it comes to reading news, checking email, reviewing PDFs and performing other information consumption tasks, nothing works better than a mid-sized Android tablet.

I was a huge fan of the Nexus 7. It was Google’s first tablet, released in 2012, and the first Android tablet that I felt got it right. I’d used the Acer Iconia and Toshiba Thrive and Samsung Galaxy Tab and nothing seemed to work right until the Nexus 7. It was the perfect size and ran pure Android. The second generation Nexus 7, released in 2013, was even better and with a sleeker, more modern shape.

Huawei MediaPad M3

Huawei MediaPad M3

Over the next few years, I bought the Nexus 10 and Nexus 9. Each had problems, mainly that they were quite slow and sluggish. I actually bought a second Nexus 9 when my first one broke because I needed a tablet to control my drone and my Behringer XR-18 mixer for my band. The second Nexus 9 seemed to slow down faster than the first, even after factory resets.

A few months ago, I’d finally had enough of the unreliability of the Nexus 9 and began searching for a replacement tablet. I looked at the Samsung options, but wanted something with an IPS screen and a smaller screen than the Tab S3 offered. I took a chance on the Huawei MediaPad M3 and have been quite impressed.

I’ve never used a Huawei device before, and I was a little nervous placing the order. I knew that it was a premium tablet, even though the name sounds like one of those $50 tablets you can find at your local Quick Trip. Even though I knew that Huawei makes huge numbers of device around the world, their comparatively smaller market share in the US gave me pause. I’m glad I placed the order.

The reason the Nexus 7 was such a great size was that it split the difference between a phone and a full size tablet. As phones got gradually bigger, there wasn’t much of a difference anymore between a 7″ tablet and the 6″ Nexus 6. At 8.4″, the MediaPad feels again like the perfect balance of a larger screen yet not cumbersome like a 10″ tablet. It’s really thin and difficult to hold, though, so I grabbed a kwmobile Crystal Case TPU silicone protective cover and Mr. Shield tempered glass screen protector since I knew I’d be using it on the farm. It’s easier to hold now and I can use the tablet without fear of dropping it or damaging the screen.

Huawei MediaPad M3 with Crystal Case

Huawei MediaPad M3 with Crystal Case

The MediaPad is fast, with specs on par with modern phones. It’s so nice to have a tablet that’s not frustratingly slow. While a new Nexus 9 or 10 feels fast, it doesn’t take long for it to seem slow. I’ve used the MediaPad M3 for the last couple months and it feels as fast as it was when I got it.

The screen is an IPS panel that’s bright and beautiful but not polarized like the Nexus 7 so I don’t have to take my prescription sunglasses off when using it in landscape orientation. The bezels are small enough that, even at 8.4″, the tablet is easy to grab with one hand.

Battery life has been quite sufficient. I don’t carry it everywhere I go, so it’s easy to leave on a charger when not in use.

The front facing fingerprint reader doubles as a multifunction button. Touching it functions like a back button. A long touch is like pressing the home key. Swiping horizontally brings up the recent apps display and swiping up triggers search. There’s also a setting to enable soft keys like a standard Android experience, but I noticed some random bugs so I keep them off. I also quickly became frustrated at how easy the search function is to trigger — luckily there’s an app called SwipeLaunch Disabler that disables the search triggering.

Huawei MediaPad M3

Huawei MediaPad M3

The software on the MediaPad initially sucked. A lot. It runs Huawei’s EMUI, which was every bit as bad as Samsung’s TouchWiz. A few weeks ago, the tablet upgraded to Android 7 and EMUI 5, and brought with it a new notification shade design that makes it very similar to Android devices from other manufacturers. It’s quite usable now, especially with Action Launcher and Gboard.

The MediaPad M3 isn’t without flaws. I really wish it came in a color other than “Moonlight Silver” [read:white] and that it used a USB Type-C port instead of the Micro-USB port. There’s also an issue with the Wi-Fi only working on 2.4 GHz in the US, so it won’t connect to any 5 GHz access points.

Overall, I’m really happy with the Huawei MediaPad M3. I don’t use it to take pictures and I don’t use it to type, though I did type over half of this review on the tablet before finishing up on my Chromebook. It works great with my drone and my mixer for my band and is much more pleasant to read than my phones. Fast, modern Android tablets are harder and harder to find. If you’re looking for a simple, fast Android tablet that’s easy to hold and fun to use, get the Huawei MediaPad M3.

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Your call to action is on fire, and your brand is burning

I’ve had it with marketers — even though I suppose I am one, by process of elimination. But I’m sick of emails with hail-Mary subject lines, yellow AUCTION TODAY signs and websites with all-caps, bold and flashing text saying, essentially, “BID NOW, DAMMIT!”

Maybe that’s your niche. Maybe you you decided that your company’s brand strategy is to compete on price and your slogan is “we sell things at auction at bargain-basement prices!” You’re willing to do anything you can to catch someone’s eye, even if it means using emoji in the subject of your bulk emails.

Emoji subject line

Maybe you read an article or have first-hand experience that yellow is the best color to catch someone’s eye, so all your flyers and signs are on a yellow background. You don’t care that yellow also means cheap, because your job is to do the best job for the seller you’re working for to the exclusion of all other priorities — including your and your company’s dignity.

This race to the bottom, in the long run, hurts your company’s brand. Worse yet, it hurts our industry. If our customers see that every call to action we use has the volume knob turned to 11, then they’re likely to lump our content into the same bucket as other similarly faux-important, hair-on-fire materials they receive — spam.

My friend Ryan George frequently says, “If everything is bold, nothing is.” He’s usually talking about flyer design, but the saying perfectly summarizes the challenge that we auctioneers face. Each auction deserves our best effort, so why shouldn’t we try to convey to our prospective bidders that it’s the most relevant-to-them event we’ve ever conducted?

Because they’re not stupid. They know that every auction we have can’t be our most important sale. They know that we’re in the business of finding repeat business, and they can see through our smoke and mirrors. They lose respect for a furniture store that has more than one going-out-of-business sale per year, so why do we think we can convince them that every sale we have is the opportunity of a lifetime?

We should know that the harder we try to iterate on the most eye-catching, routine-disturbing subject line or post title, the more our content looks like spam. We should know that success is built on establishing a company brand that’s respected for quality of service, not our willingness to busk or feign phony plumage.

I’m not saying we should sandbag our marketing efforts and underrepresent the items in our auctions. By the same token, I don’t want to work in an industry where everything is superlative. I believe that the best way to retain the customers we want is to treat them — and their attention — with respect.

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