April 2019: Web browsers

Strait Macintosh User’s Group (SMUG)
April 2, 2019

Meeting: 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sequim

Meeting called to order by President Sabrina Davis and Vice President Lawrence Charters.

Two outstanding board positions, Treasurer and Secretary, remained to be filled. By unanimous vote, Analiss Schutzman was elected Treasurer and Kathleen Charters elected Secretary.

There was a discussion of the need for better communications. The SMUG forum had a note that the meeting was canceled and the organization dissolved, but at the last meeting in December, no such motions were entertained, and the February meeting was canceled due to show. Most attendees found out about the meeting either through direct contact with the President or Vice President, or through an announcement posted on Next Door (https://nextdoor.com/).

At present, there are no plans to charge for membership in 2019. The domain name and Internet hosting fees for the website are paid through 2019, with the only remaining expense being room rental for meetings. The membership voted to pay the room rental on a yearly basis, and to reimburse Sabrina for paying out of pocket for the April meeting rental.

It was also agreed that meetings would continue every other month in Sequim. If attendance and conditions warrant, more frequent meetings may be adopted.

Meeting topic: Web browsers

Lawrence Charters did a live, interactive presentation on the World Wide Web in general, with a particular emphasis on web security and privacy. The web began in 1990, with an experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, from the French Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire). Tim Berners-Lee developed a prototype web server on a NeXT computer, and it started serving out pages over the Internet in 1991. It rapidly eclipsed or replaced Gopher, FTP, newsgroups, and other Internet sources of information, and now the most widely used communications medium in history.

At its foundation, the web is based on text. As an example, this curl command (curl is built in to macOS) will fetch the opening page from the National Ocean Service website:

Capturing the first page of the National Ocean Service site using curl.
Capturing the first page of the National Ocean Service website using curl and macOS Terminal. Click on image for a larger view.

These elements of code are assembled by your web browser (Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc.) into something (usually) much more useful: shopping sites, encyclopedias, dating sites, travel maps, etc.

Incidentally, email messages — even ones with graphics and sound and video — are also based on text. The text is assembled by your email client into discrete messages that look more like paper-based letters.

Because of abusive practices on the web, Google and Apple have been pushing hard for increased security and privacy. Safari on your Mac shows a lock icon when visiting an encrypted site; Google will show a lock in the location bar, and if visiting an insecure site, will display “Not Secure” right next to the URL.

It doesn’t matter if a site “sells” something; Apple and Google, and more recently Microsoft, want you to visit only encrypted sites. An unencrypted site can be easily compromised to, among other things, pass malware to your computer, or be used to “impersonate” a site.

With an encrypted site, anything you send between your device and the website is encrypted; it can’t be intercepted and read, or intercepted and modified. Google Chrome and Apple Safari also check the encryption certificates of a site to ensure that a) the certificate is valid and b) it is for the site it claims to represent.

Apple and Google also maintain a blacklist of sites that are known to be harmful. Apple does this through Gatekeeper, which is a combination of technologies that, among other things, periodically downloads a list of domains that your will refuse to visit. Google does this dynamically; every Chrome URL request checks with Google’s list of blacklisted sites.

Because of the security risks, Google also “downrates” sites that are not encrypted, pushing them down their rating results to discourage visits. Similarly, Apple does not allow iOS apps to make unencrypted web connections. These and other measures have resulted in a very rapid change to make encrypted websites (https and not http) the default on the web. There are still hundreds of millions of unencrypted sites; avoid them.

The easiest way to protect your Mac or iOS device: stay current with system and security updates.

In response to a question, Lawrence explained one major security difference between iOS devices and Android devices. Apple directly updates iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod) devices. In the Android world, with one major exception, you need to go through your phone company. What this means: if you are on T-Mobile, or AT&T, or Verizon, or whatever, you can update your iPhone by just asking your device to do a software update, or responding to a prompt sent by Apple. But with almost all Android devices, the updates come directly from Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, etc., and while the device might theoretically qualify for a security update, the phone companies generally will not provide updates; they expect you to buy a new phone if you want an update. The exception: Google updates their Pixel devices directly.

Lawrence strongly recommended that everyone use long (15 characters or more), unique passwords for everything on the Internet. No password, for anything, should be reused somewhere else. To keep track of the passwords, use Apple’s Key Chain (free, and shared between iOS and Mac) or 1Password (paid, but much easier to understand and organize).

Don’t worry about “complex” passwords (use one upper case, one lower case, one symbol, one number) password. The important thing is to make them unique, and long; the longer the better. Spaces, by the way, count as a character.

Good: Kim Jong-un is a nutcase

Too short, and much harder to type correctly: K1mJ0Ng-nUTs

Passwords that are hard to type are easy to compromise because people tend to reuse them, or leave notes reminding themselves how to type them.

There were many more questions and topics than time available, so at the June meeting we will continue with:

Web security and privacy

While there are no privacy laws in the US, the European Union has imposed fairly demanding privacy laws, and as US companies want to do business with the EU, improved privacy is rapidly improving on major US websites. But individuals ultimately have the most control over their own privacy and security. We’ll talk about that in June.