Start with Facebook

With attacks on our privacy coming from every direction, it’s tough to know where to start. I’d say the best place to begin is Facebook. While the best way to protect your privacy is to not have an account, it’s not always realistic. There’s a way to use Facebook that’s a lot closer to not having an account than to logging on using public Wi-Fi with Internet Explorer. Let’s look at ways to protect your privacy while using the most interesting, if maybe also the most depressing, social network.

Mobile app

One thing is certain: don’t use the official Facebook app or install Facebook Messenger. I’ve never installed Facebook Messenger. I’ve installed the official Facebook app in the past, but have since learned better. There are many alternative Facebook apps, most of which allow advanced, privacy-focused features that include ad blocking. They also have user-interface enhancements including the ability show the most recent posts first instead of whatever Facebook thinks you should see first.

Friendly for Facebook

The best alternative Facebook app that I’ve found is Friendly for Facebook. It ticks all the boxes including the ability to send and receive Facebook messages without needing to install the Facebook Messenger app, the ability to block ads, the ability to hide posts by keyword and the option to display Facebook in a dark mode.

Blocking Facebook ads is table stakes. Any Facebook app should offer the ability to block ads and the couple of bucks to unlock this feature is well worth it.

Facebook Messenger is a disaster of a user experience and a privacy nightmare. I’ve never installed it out of principal, and it’s great that Friendly lets me send and receive Facebook messages to and from the rubes who use it so that I don’t have to install the Facebook Messenger app.

Blocking posts by keyword is the ultimate Facebook customization experience. My current block list includes any post that has the words cats, chiefs, auction or sponsor. My feed went from depressing and uninteresting to useful overnight.

Night mode is also a great option. White text on a black background is a much better experience. You should try it. The official Facebook app doesn’t allow it, but Friendly does. Your mileage may vary.

Browser

Facebook has been in the news for the last several years for the ways it tracks users around the web. This pernicious behavior is easily stopped by using browsers that respect user privacy and support user preferences. The best browser for user privacy is Brave. It’s built on the same code base as Google’s popular Chrome browser but doesn’t include the Google hooks that privacy advocates are worried about. What’s more is that it actively blocks the tracking that ad companies like Facebook and Google use. If you want the easiest way to a tracking-free web experience, switching to Brave is the best thing to do.

Extensions

Brave is great. But there are benefits to Firefox that include better extensions and a commitment to extensions that simply aren’t available on Chromium-based browsers. For those of us who love Firefox, there’s an amazing Facebook extension called Social Fixer that offers many of the same options on the Firefox browser as Friendly offers on mobile including keyword-based post blocking, ad blocking and the ability to show most-recent posts first instead of what Facebook wants to show you.

Another great Firefox extension is called Facebook Container. This amazing extension isolates all your interactions with Facebook to a sandbox so that the rest of your browsing around the web can’t be tracked to your Facebook account. This means all of the user tracking that ad companies enjoy can’t be used on you. The websites see a new, virgin user because your Facebook activity is walled off from your web browsing.

Conclusion

If you see a Facebook ad, or if Facebook sees anything you do around the web, or if your Facebook experience is anything other than fast and great, it’s your fault. Take action now by using the right clients, browsers and extensions to control your experience.

Posted in community

Privacy, security and sanity

I’m fairly convinced the internet has become a cesspool of advertising and coercive content meant solely to influence people. Marketing feels less about raising awareness of useful products, services and events and more about convincing a predetermined mark to take an action or believe something.

It’s a race to the bottom, with marketers shamelessly using more and more motion, pop-ups, red text and capital letters. Ad tracking on many websites has become so intrusive that there’s little privacy left. Not only does the website you’re on know what you’re viewing and how long you’re spending there, but myriad other services are also watching everything you do.

This tracking creates the ability for an uncanny amount of precision, with marketers being able to target lists of specific users. On social media, politicians can run up the score, putting their posts only in front of those they know are sympathetic to their causes without risking dissent from anyone who may not be supportive. Those marks who then see the ad see nothing but confirmation in the comments.

I’ve had enough, and you should have, too. There are ways we can protect our privacy and security and, by doing so, our sanity. For the foreseeable future, I’ll make an effort to document here all the tools and services I use to protect myself from tracking in hopes that these resources can help others. For now, let’s talk about the categories of tools that exist to anonymize browsing, prevent tracking and secure ourselves from internet malware.

Browser extensions

The easiest tool to implement, browser add-ons exist for all modern browsers. These extensions can change the way our browsers interact with websites, warn us when tracking is occurring and filter out content that is dangerous or obnoxious. Currently, my favorite extensions are UBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, Facebook Container and Trocker. Also, you should switch to Firefox as Chrome is planning future changes that make these extensions less useful.

VPN

I’ve written at length about VPNs. Everyone should already use them for security when using insecure wireless networks. However, there’s an increasing case to be made for always using them to prevent your internet service provider from monitoring your browsing and selling that browsing data to third parties. This need varies depending on your ISP.

DNS

This is the most exciting and underutilized area for reducing advertising and increasing security. I’ve written about DNS in the past and it was a big part of Auction Podcast episode 8 over 10 years ago. Simply by using different DNS servers, or by running your own, you can eliminate most ads and tracking on your entire network and even on your mobile phone when away from home.

Sanity

I admit, I used to get excited about finding new and better ways to target users for the marketing I was pushing. However, as a consumer being exposed to the marketing of others I understand how pernicious and invasive marketing has become. Until more services offer to allow users to pay for an ad free experience, they shouldn’t be surprised when more and more of us block more and more ads and trackers

Posted in advertising, Security | Tagged , |

iSeries is great; your internet auctions are terrible

One of the many educational offerings from the National Auctioneers Association is the iSeries, a collection of free webinars, whitepapers and audio recordings from experts within and without the auction industry dealing with topics relevant to auction professionals.

Registration for the webinars is free for anyone who wants to watch live and ask questions to be answered by the presenter at the end of the session. The webinars are saved as videos and are made available in perpetuity, along with the white papers and audio recordings, at auctioneers.org/iseries. The videos are also made available as a YouTube playlist.

As I write this article, registration is now open for the next installment of the iSeries. The webinar will be presented on February 7 by Casey Roberson, entitled Targeting and Profiling Customers.

Knowing how to target buyers and sellers isn’t just a social media advertising skill. It applies to every ad and message! Let #NAAPro Casey Roberson, the marketing director behind McCurdy Auction‘s 2017 NAA/USA Today Auction Marketing Campaign of the Year, teach you how to effectively target customers no matter if you’re using print, digital, or social marketing strategies.

Anyone interested in joining the webinar can register for free.

I was asked to present a webinar last December as part of the iSeries entitled “Your Online Auctions are Terrible.” Here’s the recording of the presentation.

Posted in theory | Tagged |

Verizon Samsung Galaxy Note8 review

The last phone I reviewed in Samsung’s Note line was the Note5, released in the summer of 2015. Samsung skipped the Note6 name in 2016 in favor of the Note7, which was recalled before I’d gotten a chance to take a look at it. I was eager to take a look at the Note8, released this fall, and my friends at Verizon let me spend a few weeks with one. I wrote yesterday that the Google Pixel 2 has the best Android experience you can currently find, and its software is indeed clearly better. However, the Samsung Galaxy Note8 is perhaps the most feature-complete phone I’ve ever seen, excelling at nearly every aspect of hardware and leaving very little on my wish list.

Galaxy Note8 hardware

Samsung Galaxy Note8 handheld

To my knowledge, there isn’t a faster phone on Verizon at the moment than the Galaxy Note8. Other phones have the same processor, but the Note8 has a whopping 6 GB of RAM, making it a monster when it comes to specs and speed.

The Note8 is very similar in shape to the Galaxy S8+, with a shape that’s even more tall and narrow than the LG V30 and Pixel 2 XL. The phone is elegantly thin, to the point that it’s extremely difficult to hold without dropping or at least filling the back glass with fingerprints.

The power button is on the right and the volume rocker is on the left. Like the S8, the Note8 has a button on the left side dedicated to the software assistant called Bixby.

Samsung Galaxy Note8 back

Like the S8, the Note8 uses only soft navigation keys, thankfully ditching the physical button on the front in favor of a virtual button — pressing hard on the bottom of the screen from any program will vibrate the phone and function like pressing the home button. Also like the Galaxy S8, the Note8 suffers from a really bad placement of the fingerprint reader. The reader works quite well, but it’s placed immediately adjacent to and in line with the cameras on the back and it’s tough to get to with your finger without accidentally touching the cameras.

Samsung Galaxy Note8 review S-pen

The Note8 comes with 64 GB of storage that can be expanded using an SD card up to 256 GB. It’s water- and dust-resistant. It has a headphone jack.

One of the signature features of the Note series is the stylus, or S Pen. The S Pen on the Note8 seems extremely accurate, and I’m sure I could find times when it provides greater control or convenience than using the phone normally, but I simply can’t ever remember that it’s there.

Galaxy Note8 screen

Samsung Galaxy Note8 front

The screen is slightly larger than the Galaxy S8+ and at 6.3″ is the largest screen on a phone I’ve yet seen. Because of the tall shape of the screen and near lack of bezels on the sides, the screen fits in a body that doesn’t feel that much larger than other phones released in 2017.

It’s also gorgeous. It’s bright and doesn’t seem to change much based on the viewing angle, which is a problem other phones struggle with. The edges of the screen are curved, which is an unfortunate trend these days from a functionality perspective, but it sure makes it beautiful.

Galaxy Note8 camera

Samsung Galaxy Note8 cameras

As much as I like the cameras in the Pixel 2 XL and LG V20 and V30, I have to admit that if each was laying on the table in front of me and I had one chance to take a good picture, I’d reach for the Note8. With dual cameras, optical image stabilization and an app that never seems to have any lag, it’s perhaps the best cell phone camera I’ve ever used.

Like the AR Stickers on Google’s Pixel 2 XL, Samsung has some fun enhancements in the way of live focus and stickers. Live focus creates the bokeh, or blurred background, effect and lets the user control how much is introduced into the image by dragging a slider. The stickers, much like Snapchat filters, allow enhancements like sunglasses or animal ears to be added to the picture or video as it’s taken.

Battery and charging

The Note8 boasts the highest score I’ve yet seen on a stock battery. Lasting 7.5 hours and scoring a 4500 on the Geekbench 4 full-discharge test, I’m not sure I could run the battery down with a full day on the farm. It’s sure to last the average user all day without needing a charge.

The Note8 supports wireless charging so I don’t have to worry about plugging it in to a cable unless I want to utilize fast charging.

Software

The software on the Note8 is definitely the weak spot. The launcher, or home screen, is extremely hard to use. Luckily, it’s easy to install Action Launcher and GBoard to simplify the experience. The navigation buttons are in the wrong order, but it’s easy to set them to standard Android order in the settings so that the back button is on the left.

Like most phones, the Note8 comes with a ton of pre-installed apps from Verizon and Samsung. Many of the games require internet access to play, a problem I didn’t realize until I was on an airplane coming home from Las Vegas.

Samsung Galaxy Note8 review

Samsung has always tried to build software and apps that compete against core Android services. Samsung makes apps for contacts, calendar and even an internet browser that compete with the standard Android apps. The best and most recent example of Samsung trying to reinvent the wheel is with Bixby, Samsung’s virtual assistant.

In many ways, Bixby is a direct competitor to Google’s Assistant. Occupying the left pane of Samsung’s home screen, Bixby hooks to social media and news sources to create a feed of important items, similar to Google Now. While there are distinctions between the abilities of Bixby and Google Assistant, I’m squarely wrapped up in the Google ecosystem and am thankful that Google Assistant works just fine and without conflict on the Note8.

Another extremely frustrating software feature is a warning when turning the volume up above about 60%. I understand the need for parents to limit kids’ listening levels, but there’s now way to disable the warning that I’ve found. I think older Samsung phones had the warning only for wired devices. The Note8 has the warning for Bluetooth headphones as well.

Galaxy Note8 review summary

Even though Samsung has a long way to go to create a software experience that’s as simple and clean as Google’s Pixel, the Note8’s specs and feature list place it squarely ahead of the pack. It’s a beautiful device that’s extremely fast and has an excellent camera, all while ticking the boxes for expandable storage, wireless charging and a headphone jack. It’d be tough to make a claim that there was a better phone currently on the market than the Samsung Galaxy Note8 on Verizon.

Samsung Galaxy Note8 example pictures

Here’s a collection of pictures I took while reviewing the Note8. No editing was done on the pictures. Click to enlarge.

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

Posted in gadgets, reviews | Tagged , , |

Use a VPN for security and privacy

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Security

Update January 2020
I no longer recommend Private Internet Access due to its recent acquisition.

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.

Posted in Security, services | Tagged , , , |