Dropbox and BoxCryptor: The Dangers of Encrypting Your Digital Life

In my never ending quest to get organized, I’ve been forced to explore the world of encryption.  I set up Dropbox to use as my primary drive for all my digital document filing.  Because my Dropbox files are replicated to all my machines at home and work this has caused a security problem at work.  We’re not allowed to store sensitive data on our local drives, and my own files will set off their security scanner.  So I’m being forced to encrypt my own documents.  Normally Dropbox encrypts your files for transfer over the net and at their storage site, and I’ve considered that good enough security.  However, I started thinking what would happen if someone came into my office when I just had stepped out.  Before Windows times out and locks my machine, people could see my home files in Dropbox, so I felt it was the time to study encryption programs.

We’re being forced to use TrueCrypt and BitLocker at work, so I was having to learn about this topic anyway.  It’s a scary subject because if you’re not careful you’ll lock all your critical files into an encrypted volume and you won’t be able to open it again. 

At first I thought I just set up a TrueCrypt volume inside of Dropbox, but I read there were some issues with that.  Dropbox sees TrueCrypt as a single file, so if you have a gigabyte of data locked down, that’s a lot for Dropbox to handle over the internet.  Doing some Google research I discovered BoxCryptor.  BoxCryptor encrypts file by file, so the overhead for Dropbox is much lighter.

BoxCryptor

BoxCryptor is free for personal use as long as you only create one virtual drive.  BoxCryptor creates virtual drives.  Save something to its drives and it’s automatically encrypted.  It works with Dropbox, SkyDrive and other cloud drive services, as well as regular drives.   After you install BoxCryptor you mount the drive and use this access point to see the files unencrypted. If you don’t mount the drive and browse to the BoxCryptor folder within Dropbox you’ll see your files, but they won’t open.  And evidently, with the free version, you’ll see the filenames unencrypted, they just won’t open.  It appears if you buy the full version ($44.99), it will encrypt the filenames too, if you want.

Encrypting your files can be dangerous.  If you forget your password, kiss those precious documents goodbye.  Unless you’re a master NSA hacker, you’ll have no chance of ever opening them again.  Also, there’s a file listing in your BoxCryptor folder called .encfs6.xml.  Delete it and access to your files are long gone too.  Wow-wee – just thinking about all this makes me nervous.

Using encryption is not for the unfocused mind or scatterbrain user.

Here’s the thing.  We’re moving into an age where all our personal information is digital.  It’s our responsibility to back up our digital life.  Dropbox is a good way to do that, but Dropbox stores your files in the Cloud.  If you’re paranoid about who can see your files you’ll need to think about encryption. 

Encryption takes extra work, extra precautions and can be a very risky endeavor if you’re careless.

Some people encrypt files because they worry that Cloud storage sites might peak at the good bits in their private files.  Other people encrypt their documents because they’re afraid their computers will be stolen and bad guys will steal their identity.  Still other people encrypt files because they don’t want people at home or at the office to mess with their stuff.  Criminals encrypt files because they don’t want the police or FBI use them as evidence.  There are many reasons to encrypt files.  You have to decide if its worth the effort.

When you encrypted a folder with BoxCryptor or TrueCrypt you’ll have to create a strong password that you must not forget, and you’ll be required to save a configuration key file that you should backup carefully.   If something happens to your machine and you want to recover your files from a backup to a new machine, you’ll need that configuration key file.

If you encrypt your life its very important how you handle the password and configuration key.  If your documents are very important you might want to put your passwords and keys into your will.  If a husband encrypts all his financial records and then dies, his wife won’t be able to see them.  If you’re an author and you last manuscript is encrypted, it won’t get published unless you’ve made provisions for your heirs to unlock it.

And it’s important how you configure BoxCryptor.  If you want to just hide your files from Dropbox, just use the defaults.  If you want to hide files from people that can access to your computers (either at home, work or at the thieves hideout), then don’t configure the mount drive to automatically remember the passwords.

JWH – 2/3/13

Living in the Cloud: Google Music, Amazon Cloud and iTunes Match

I have over 18,000 songs ripped from CDs I’ve been buying since 1983 or 1984.  It was a big project to rip them, and I bought a couple external hard drives to back up my work.  One of those drives stopped working recently, and it’s a pain to keep master library and backups in sync, especially since I keep one drive off site.  In fact, I gave up on keeping my collection and backups in sync.  So when cloud music storage came out I thought wow, this is a great idea.

The first service I tried was Google Music since it was free.  It has an upload app that runs as a background service and I spent a couple weeks getting my collection online.  I mainly listen to music at my home office computer, my work office computer, and in the den with a HTPC hooked up to my stereo system.  I have an iPad and iPod touch, but I don’t like listening to music on those devices.   I just don’t like hearing music through earbuds.

I did test Google music out on my iPad and strangely enough the album listings look best on the iPad.  Google Music looks bad on large screen desktop monitors because I think the album thumbnail images are optimized for phones and tablets.  Their web player has basic controls for play/pause, next, previous, repeat and shuffle – nothing fancy but gets the job done.

Here is the album view.  You can blow up all images by clicking on them.

google-music

Here is what it looks like to play an album – the controls are along the bottom.

google-music-player

Then I uploaded my music to Amazon Cloud.  It also took a couple weeks, but it was a web app that kept crashing.  Also, Amazon’s upload app found all my audio books and uploaded them.  I really didn’t want it to do that, but it did.  I already had 20gb of storage at Amazon’s cloud because I had bought an album on promotion, and Amazon recently gave unlimited music upload space to anyone with 20gb of space or more.  When the renewal comes up, storing my music on Amazon Cloud will be $20 a year.  Here’s the album view for the Amazon Cloud player.

amazon.cloug

Notice the album covers are nicer looking.  Here’s what the album player looks like.  The same basic controls as Google Music.

amazon-cloud-player

iTunes Music Match works different.  It works through iTunes – which I hate.  I was hoping it would have a web client too, but it doesn’t.  So I can’t play music on my Linux machines.  Nor do I want to install iTunes on all my machines.  And for some strange reason iTunes in album view iTunes sorts by artist, so I couldn’t recreate the album images like I did with Google Music and Amazon Cloud.

itunes

Here’s the player view.

itunes-player

Because iTunes Music Match costs $25 a year, and it’s from Apple, which has a reputation for style and slickness, I thought I would like it best.  I didn’t.  I like it least because it’s tied to iTunes.  The music match feature worked beautifully, and within minutes 15,000 of my albums were online.  It took two days to upload 3,350 unmatched albums.  This is a more sophisticated way to get albums into the cloud, but playing them is limited to machines with iTunes.

Another strange thing about iTunes is it did the poorest job of finding album covers.  Apple is so visual that I found this disappointing.  I have spent a lot of extra time trying to find the covers and put them into iTunes so I can enjoy album flow viewing, but I gave up somewhere in the D’s.  Now there’s a company that fixes this problem with a program called Tune-Up.  However, it’s expensive.  $39.95 per year, or $49.95 for a lifetime license.  It annoys me so much not having the artwork that I am tempted to spend the money, but I’ve decided that I just don’t like iTunes Music Match if I have to use iTunes.

Finally, iTunes plays music differently.  Google and Amazon streams from the cloud.  No internet, no music.  iTunes lets you download songs from the cloud.  The others do too, but iTunes seems to emphasize download.  You can have up to 10 devices sharing your Music Match cloud library, but what appears to happen is the music gets downloaded to each new device.  You can tell your satellite devices to intentionally download the music so you can play it offline, and this will be a great feature for most people who use iPhones and iPads.  However, it will fill up your device with music.  I prefer streaming.

As far as I was concerned iTunes Music Match was $25 down the drain.  However, Mac users who own Mac, iPhone and iPad will always have iTunes and so Music Match will be worth it to them.  iTunes Music Match seems geared to iPhone, iPod touch and iPad users, to help on-the-go users get music down from the cloud.

Now I have to decide between Google and Amazon.  Because I’m a dedicated Chrome user I’m partial to Google.  Because I’m a dedicated Amazon customer, I’m equally partial to Amazon.  I’m leaning towards the Amazon cloud because the player looks better.  However, it will cost me $20 a year.  I’m going to maintain both for now, or until I see what Google charges.  I’m an Amazon Prime user, so I wish they’d made unlimited music storage free for Prime members.

My next project is to thin out my collection.  I’m not sure how well Google and Amazon update their clouds.  I want to make one perfect copy of my library in Windows Media Player and hopefully Amazon and Google will keep this master library in sync.  Another test will be to download my collection to my work machine to see how well these clouds can be used as backup to restore my collection.  But these are for future reports because it will take months to do all this.

JWH – 2/12/12

Living in the Cloud: Chrome

I wish I had committed to Chrome years ago and studied its features.  Extensions make Chrome so much more powerful, offering a quantum leap in browsing features, especially when you use cloud sites like Evernote and Instapaper.  If only I had taken the time to play with Chrome years ago I would have found browser nirvana sooner.  Extensions are like apps for the iPhone.

What finally got me started was the Reader button in Safari.

You can click on any of these images to see a larger view.

Below is a web page in Chrome.

chrome

Here’s the same page in Safari after pressing the Reader button (the purple button at the top center).

safari-reader

However, I don’t like Safari, so I found Readability Redux extension in Chrome for online reading.  Readability Redux offers many layout, printing and email options. It’s icon is at the upper right, the R inside a blue square.  Readability Redux creates an ebook-like view for reading on the computer screen.  I prefer a medium font, a narrow scan line, and wide margins, but it’s all up to you.

readability-redux

Here’s my extension bar within Chrome.  The elephant head green icon is Evernote, a cloud based, free-form database.  I’ve created a notebook in Evernote called Books to Read.  By clicking on the Evernote extension the page I’m reading is saved on Evernote cloud server.

extension-bar

And here’s what it looks like in Evernote on my PC once that apps sync’s to Evernote’s cloud.  I can also read my Evernote clippings on my Mac, iPod touch or iPad, all of which have Evernote apps, or from the web.  Think of Evernote as a scrapbook for notes, pictures and PDFs with a search button.

evernote

The orange K icon is the Send to Kindle extension for sending a web article to my Kindle.  Sometimes I want to read the web from my La-Z-Boy – I’m just that lazy.

The white I icon sends a web page link to Instapaper for later reading and archiving page into subjects.  I’m all the time thinking, “Where did I read X?”  Instapaper helps me remember by tracking web pages I think are significant.  Anytime I see a  web page I don’t have time to read I press the I icon and visit Instapaper later.

The icon of an envelope, Email this Page, loads my email program, creates a new message containing a link of the web page I’m reading.  I’m big on sharing cool sites with my friends and this is a quick way to do it.  Of course I wonder how they feel about me pestering them with cool pages.

Chrome has a “sign into” Google feature that syncs my extensions, bookmarks and settings.  Anything I do at one Chrome location, on any of my five machines at work and home are all synchronized to the others.   If I add an extension while using one machine and go use another machine, I’ll see it there automatically.  If I save a bookmark on my work PC and go home that bookmark will be on my home machines.  Too cool daddy-o.

JWH – 1/30/12

Living in the Cloud: A File Structure for Life

I’ve been messing with microcomputers since 1979, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that I realized I was creating data I didn’t ever want to lose.  By the mid-00s with digital music, video and photography it’s obvious to everyone that we had invisible possessions we’d want to keep for life.  This presents a number of problems.  How long can I preserve photos like this of my great grandparents?

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

File Formats

My first efforts of writing fiction was on a Commodore 64 – and even if I had any of its floppies, I couldn’t read the discs, nor would I have a word processing program to read the files.  When I got a PC I bought Word Perfect, but that was many PCs ago, and I’ve since converted those files to Word.  If I live to be 100 (1951) will I still be able to read those files?  If by a miracle I do live a century I’m pretty sure I’ll be a sentimental old slob who cries over his ancient snapshots.  Will I be able to find the ones I want and still view them?  Is it .jpg forever?  I’ve been buying audiobooks from Audible.com since 2002, will I still have my audiobook library to play in 2051?  Or all the Kindle books I’m buying now?

Standard file formats are critical to long-term preservation of data.  How long will Amazon maintain the DRM copy protection on my Kindle books and Audible audiobooks?

Data Migration

I’ve lost count how many computers I’ve own after eleven.  Every time I get a new computer I need to move all my files over and that’s a pain.  I’m always making a new folder and throwing stuff in it, so the number of files I’m saving constantly grows, and every few years I try to clean things out and it’s a big job.  Usually when I get a new computer I just copy everything in My Documents to the new My Documents folder.  But what if I got a Mac?  Or what if in 2022 they come out with some far out new computer system?

File Organization

If you start with one folder, and organize your digital life into sub-folders, what is the best structure?  I sure wished that iTunes hadn’t put ripped audio books into My Music years ago, because that’s causing problems moving my music to the cloud.   Is there a way to plan for future snafus?

Is there an optimal structure that will stand the test of time.  By structure, I mean folder organization.

\Jim Harris

\Audio Books

\Data

\Ebooks

\Mind Maps

\Music

\Numbers

\PDF

\Photos

\Words

\Essays

\Fiction

\Videos

Let’s imagine a future where we have federally regulated data banks like we have money banks and we can trust them implicitly.  In this future, data bank replicates our data in layers of backups, that for anything short of Armageddon, will be completely secure.  Should we put all our data in one place?  In the above chart I could remove \Music because I have my music stored at Google, Amazon and Apple.  I could also remove \Photos because of Picasaweb.  I could also remove \Audio Books and \Ebooks because of Amazon.

Because we don’t have data banks and because my cloud storage is limited at Dropbox and SkyDrive, I will let those other companies maintain my media files.  But if we did have trustworthy data banks, I’d probably want all my content in one location, which means precise organization is important if I’m collecting files for life.

Data Inheritance

There is another thing to consider – what happens when we die?  When our parents die we inherit their papers, books, records, photos and so on.  Won’t we do the same things with digital files?  When I die I want my file structure copied over to my wife’s data bank, and if I wanted, I’d like to give copies to all interested relatives and friends too.  Having a well organize file structure would make it easier for people to go through my digital processions.

Cloud of the Future

Someday we will have data banks.  We might even have laws that require our data to be saved for historians.  Can you imagine scholars from 2782 AD trying to research our times?  I saw a wonderful show on Nova last night, “Mysteries of a Masterpiece” about art historians working to validate a work of art as Leonardo da Vinci.  The scientists had lots of physical artifacts to examine.  If our world goes digital, what will future researchers have to figure out how we lived?

Moving to the cloud is the first step towards this future where we have data banks and preserving digital data for all time.

JWH – 1/26/12

Living in the Cloud: Going Google with iGoogle

I’ve been using Google for years.  Then Google gave us Gmail.  It’s not my main email client, but I use it.  Then Google gave us Picasa, Chrome, YouTube, Music, Picnik, Maps, Earth, Reader, Google+, and over time I’ve become Googlefied.

I started storing content on the net with Gopher and began developing web pages when Mosaic came out.  I’ve always kept my favorite bookmarks on a file I coded in HTML and used it as my home page in all my browsers.  I had set up iGoogle years ago but never really committed to it because I loved my own homely home page.

This morning I started playing iGoogle again and decided to make it my home page for Chrome.  Chrome is my default browser at home, but I also use IE 9, FireFox and on rare occasions Safari.

We’re all moving to the cloud.  Some people might not know it yet, but we’re all moving to the cloud.  Any device with a IP address is on the Internet.  Programs and content stored on devices you own are local.  If you store you primary copy of data off your local device you’re living in the cloud.  Most people find that scary.  I do too, although I’m willing to give it a try, so I’m moving my data to the cloud but I’m keeping backups local.  Think of me as a belt and suspenders man, at least for now.

I’m going to write a series of posts about living in the cloud and review programs and services that I find worthwhile.  My first step is exploring Google’s cloud offerings.  I’ve already put my songs in Google Music.  I can play them on my PCs, Mac and Linux boxes at work and home, and on my iPod touch and iPad.  I’ve also started uploading my photos to Picasa’s online storage.

The thing about moving to the cloud is committing to a company that hosts the servers.  The big choices now are Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon.  The first three also have their own browsers.  (Maybe Amazon should align itself with FireFox.)  I have content with all four companies, and moving to the cloud implies I expect these companies to stay in business for the rest of my life.  I’m not sure which company will become my primary cloud home, but I’m going to test them all.

I’m starting with Google, and to show my commitment I’m setting iGoogle as my default home page.  It allows me to customize my home page extensively with a variety of widgets.  Here’s my first effort.

iGoogle

Because Google is pushing Google+, it’s revamped it’s many separate tools into a toolbar that Googlifies everything. 

From this home page I can search Google and Wikipedia, click on links to my favorite sites, see Gmail, RSS feeds, weather info, do math, get driving directions, search YouTube, and every thirty seconds be visually reminded of a different moment of the past.  Plus, I have a pull-down menu to a vast array of other Google features.  If I click on the photo it takes me to Picasa web, where I can click on a photo edit button that brings up the wonders of Picnik photo editing.   All the companies that Google has bought over the years is finally coming together in one command center. 

Oddly enough, there’s no widget for Google Music.  Google needs to add a Google Music Player widget.  If I kept my Chrome window opened to full-screen I could even use 4 columns of widgets.  iGoogle provides very flexible screen layout options and colorful themes. 

iGoogle is a cloud portal tool, a feature that Microsoft, Amazon and Apple don’t have, and puts them at a disadvantage.  This matters a lot if you’re using multiple computers, and too a lesser degree if you’re using smartphones and tablets.  I have a PC, HTPC and Linux workstation at home, and a PC, Mac and Linux workstation at work, plus I have two mobile devices, an iPod touch and iPad.  This provides a tremendous incentive to put my digital possessions  in the cloud.  My photos and music are available to all my devices at any location.

I have Microsoft Office on my PCs and Mac, and have a nice Outlook client on my iPod and iPad, and hope to have Office apps on my iPad soon.  I’m very Microsoft centric when it comes to productivity programs, and Microsoft offers various Live apps that are starting to compete with Google’s cloud tools, but it doesn’t have a portal like iGoogle.  I can store photos on SkyDrive but it’s not the same.  Microsoft has no cloud music like Amazon and Apple does.  But it is obvious that Microsoft is getting serious about the cloud.

Amazon and Apple are really lacking when it comes to furnishing a cloud home base.  They are more like mini-storage rental sites, where they will keep all my junk.  Amazon’s portal is it’s front page, and Apple’s portal is iCloud, but it’s home page is very limited compared to iGoogle.  (How did Apple let Google have the i-name?)  Apple assumes people live on their iPhone, iPad and iMac, and everything else doesn’t matter, but I’m not ready to ditch Windows, Linux and Android.

iGoogle isn’t slick like Apple products.  It’s not even as slick as Microsoft programming.  I’m hoping some of the technology they bought with Picnik might jazz up Google’s cloud apps in the future.  iGoogle is good for people who want to work over the widest range of platforms.  If you’re a Apple true believer, it won’t matter.  If you’re totally devoted to Amazon and Kindle, it might not matter.  But if you live in a world of PC, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android, then it’s well worth a look.

Not only does living in the cloud offer cross-platform sharing of data, it also backs up data.  If your house burns down, your digital belongings are in the cloud.  Eventually I want to replicate my data across two or more cloud servers to have even more protection, in case one company goes out of business or suffers a prolong outage.  Switching to iGoogle is just the start.

JWH – 1/22/12

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