Think Your Web Browsing is Really Private? Think Again

How anonymous is your private web browsing? I thought I had all the reasonable requisite Add-ons to keep me fairly anonymous on the Web. Then I read a comment in an article about a file named: ‘machine-id’ which holds all the data about the computer I am using. Machine-id is present on a Windows and Linux computers. It is around in some variation on a Mac, but not as easy to locate.

What this little file does is make your a single computer unique on the ‘Lan’ it is set up on. This information may extend out into the internet to your provider, and perhaps beyond, but in my limited searching, I did not find any reference of that happening. This is called from my understanding…get ready…”Fingerprinting”.

However this made me curious. What else is going out, while I am browsing the web, thinking I am wisely protecting my privacy? I can’t say I was surprised, but a truckload of information is sent to each and every website that is visited, even this one I am guessing, though I never see it.

If you look at this screenshot, Firefox.jpg, you will see the information every web site sees. The list is long, and the shot is clipped to only the top portion, but you get the idea of how privately you browse the web as an average user. Web browsers may as well include a picture, home address and phone number too, as far as privacy matters go.

I thought I was fairly anonymous on the web…

Contained in Firefox browser directory, and likely whatever browser you choose to use is a file called HTTPS. Now this is a really slick little file that works with web sites you visit. It stores the data you see which tells Firefox any site listed in the file can only be accessed using HTTPS at the beginning of the url for a ‘secure’ connection. If HTTP isn’t at the beginning of the URL string, you can’t connect to the website in question. Sounds great, I feel so much better….

The problem with this file is, you can delete the contents and save it as a blank file. Get on the web and surf to a few sites, and you have a long list of sites, including some you did not access and can not visit! Return to a website, and the string contents change My question is, with this file blank, I do not seem to have any problem accessing a website. Why is it needed except for tracking purposes? I think it uses information from machine-id, but I’m not really sure. Monster Cookies anyone?

HTTPS. Just a helpful little file

I never payed attention to the private browsing option until now. The results are disappointing if you think you are really getting private browsing. This is beginning to look like a bad take of, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. All that happens in private browsing is the information normally stored on your computer about your browsing habits is not collected. To the sites you don’t want the world to know you visited, your browser sends the same information it always does. In essence, your family or Boss may not know where you browsed, but everyone else does.

If you want to see this in action, here are two links which collect all the information possible from your computer.

My Browser Info

Panopticlick from Electronic Frontier Foundation

After a quick search, I found a new well thought of web browser named, Epic Browser. It has a slick little VPN feature that really does erase you when you are on the web. I only played with it long enough to verify it works. With the VPN switch turned off, Epic transmits the same information as other browsers. With the VPN switch activated, it’s like being on the onion network with a tor browser. Maybe it is?

If you are serious about your privacy, but not too computer savvy

Which brings me to the Operating System Tails. Tails is so paranoid about privacy it only runs from a USB stick, and does not access any hard drive on the computer on its own. Tails uses the Tor browser and the Onion network. I really prefer using Tails when I want to surf about things I don’t want attached to me like, “How do you get Hemorrhoids”, or some such. You can browse with confidence knowing in your using the best privacy no money can buy when you are on the web. Below is a screenshot of how the sites see me when using tails. This isn’t a how-to about tails, but the web is almost your friend and will lead you to the Tails website.

The most online privacy no money can buy.

The information above is what I was able to find in about an hours worth of searching. Initially I was shocked to see what information about myself and my computer was giving away. After a short amount of time, I became angry, that so much information is built into the system by default. I did learn I don’t need to feel bad when a web site wants me to accept cookies. Websites already have more information than they need.

In wrapping up, I hope you have a better idea of your “privacy” when browsing the Internet. If you want to learn more and perhaps get involved, the, “Electronic Frontier Foundation” is a great place to start. EFF has been around since at least 1990, decries the lack of privacy in the digital age, and fights for our digital rights.

Here is the Electronic Frontier Foundation link:  Electronic Frontier Foundation check them out. They do a lot for you.

Copy like a Power User – Mac

In the past when I only used Linux, I always kept backups of my hard drive. The easiest and safest way at that time was to copy everything to another hard drive. There were programs that could be used, but I thought it was important that I do the copying myself. If a program makes a mistake, you can blame the author of the program, but it doesn’t get your files back if you really need them. If you copy folders and files yourself, you know it is being done correctly, and who is to blame if it is not.

Words called commands are used in the Terminal on your Mac. You can find Terminal in Launchpad, by clicking on Utilities. Terminal is very powerful even though it looks like an empty box, or a wimpy text editor. Administrators of both large and small systems use Terminal to maintain, upgrade, and troubleshoot systems they maintain. Don’t be fooled by the looks of Terminal, it is a very powerful tool.

Below are two command strings showing two ways of copying folders and files from the hard drive on your Mac to a usb stick or usb hard drive you have plugged in using Terminal. Terminal is faster than using a program. I have used the second command “rsync” with Linux, but Apple recommends you do not use rsync to copy folder and files on your Mac. More on rsync and Apples warning below.

Commands you may give your Mac by typing in Terminal are done immediately and not processed by a graphical program checking itself to see which boxes you may have checked, and then issuing the (hopefully) proper command.

Most people will never have any real need to use a Terminal. It is worth using Terminal a few times, so you can start to understand how graphical programs you use work. Everything done in a program can be done by typing commands and instructions in Terminal. It would not be quick or fun, but computing was done this way before desktops and Gui’s.

Using these commands in my Mac Terminal, I moved a few files from Movies folder to a usb stick. If you want to try too, use copies of files which are also saved somewhere else. That way if a mistake is made, the power goes out, or something else happens your files are safe.

The first folder and file copy I did on my Mac, I used a command named “rsync” to copy the contents of the folder “Movies” on my Mac hard drive to a plugged in USB stick named usb1. Apple recommends you not use the command “rsync”. Use instead Apples suggested command “rcp”.

Apple says “rcp” is safer than using rsync. If you use the command “rcp” which Apple recommends there can be folders and files on your usb stick or usb hard drive before you copy more folders and files to it. The folders and files there will not be harmed or changed in any way. With rsync where you are copying too needs to be empty. If it is not, rsync erases what is there.

All a Power User Needs

Be a Mac Power User with Terminal. Copy folders and files like a pro.

Read everything below before you try this yourself. This helps saves any confusion from happening while you are trying to copy folders and files while using Terminal.




Copy using RCP:

Plug in your usb stick or usb drive before opening the Terminal. Using the Terminal of your Mac, before typing anything else in Terminal, type exactly as you see, changing the name ‘usb1’ to whatever your usb stick or usb drive is named. You may also wish to change the folder “dir1” to something else, or not. There is one space between rcp and -. One space between pr and Movies. One space between the two / / in the middle.

Here is the command for rcp:  rcp -46pr Movies/ /Volumes/usb1/dir1

What this Terminal Command does is copy everything inside the folder ‘Movies’ to the usb stick or usb hard drive named usb1, copying all files and folders to a folder named “dir1”. The letters -46pr tell rcp to copy everything and keep everything in the order it is in the folder Movies. It would not be good to find your copy was completed with its folders and files all mixed up.

If the files are small, the command will be completed quickly. If they are large files, it may take some seconds. Do not be in a rush, rcp will tell when it is done.

The command “rcp” which Apple suggests should be used instead of “rsync” is preferred and safer to use. According to Apple – using “rsync” is using it at your own risk as it may cause problems. I am not sure why this is so, as “rsync” is a common Linux way of backing up folders and files, or the full contents of a hard drive.

The rsync command and string is below. I used rsync on my Mac without issue, but you should not. I strongly suggest you follow Apples suggestion and only use rcp, just in case rsync does cause a problem on your Mac.

Using rsync – at your own risk on a Mac:

Important rsync note: If your usb stick or usb drive is not empty before using “rsync”, the string “–delete” erases everything on your usb stick or usb drive before the copy is started. If you want what is on your usb stick, or usb drive, you need to save the files somewhere else before you try this. Where you are copying the files to needs to be empty, or it will be erased before copying starts.

Plug in your usb stick or usb drive before opening the Terminal. Using the Terminal of your Mac, before typing anything in Terminal, to try the rsync command, type in the following command, changing the name ‘usb1’ to whatever your usb stick or usb drive is named.

rsync -av –delete Movies/ Movies/ /Volumes/usb1/

If you find using terminal to copy files fun, and you want to learn more, there is wealth of information on the web. Ensure you go to trusted websites for your information. Reading old posts may be simple, but there is no way to know if what was typed is correct. Too often some typed command is not right in these old posts, and they will not work correctly. There are of course people who knowingly posted information that could hurt your Mac. They thought it was funny at the time.

Learning the basics of using Terminal is fun and rewarding. Anyone can point and click. Knowing what and why you are pointing and clicking is real knowledge. Knowledge is fun, and sometimes pays well too. At the very least you will be able to say, “Been there, done that. Got the copy.”

Names, Dates, and Notes in one place

This is primarily a how to for creating a simple yet powerful name, address, phone numbers, and dates database using a mac. If you use a Windows or Linux based computer, you can follow along substituting a favorite program. If you use windows Resoph Notes can be used the same way. With Linux there are multiple programs that store and retrieve notes which you can use use.

Using syncing software that places your information on all your electronics is good for some people. Some people do not need that accessibility. Still other people (like me), keep information they do not want to trust to the cloud. If you are in the latter two groups I have a great system for you. That is if you do not need to sync across multiple platforms, and/or want your private information under your control.

With that being said, many people do sync their notes on different computers using this system. A search of the web will show you how if you want to sync across multiple computers. I do not, so I can not offer advice.

Of course there will be Eye Candy missing from the programs. There are no flashy colors or borders. No menu on top to guide you. What you will have is all your important information of all the people in your life in one place. You will have all the information you track, like birthdays and anniversaries, in one place. The best part is this information is accessible faster than you can read this sentence.

Using the ultra powerful program Notational Velocity, or it’s modified younger brother program nvALT, it is easy to create a simple powerful database for tracking people and events which are important in your life. Loosely using the filing system concept of 43 folders electronically, with a few modifications, you can have a power packed pool of information at your fingertips.

Using Notational Velocity or nvALT, you can create a simple wiki type database to track birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, and addresses you want to manage. You already have programs that do this I know, but if you use ical or Address Book, exporting information is not quick or fun. Plus they do not work together as one program as they are both stand alone programs.

For example, currently if you want to check birthdays, you use ical. To send a snail mail card or an email, you need Address Book or a physical address book for an address. If it is a child and you want to mention their age, you may need to look somewhere else. This will put all your information in one place.

Simple database for names and dates

Simple way to store important names, dates, and notes

When it comes to changing platforms, Notational Velocity or nvALT export your individual entries to text files which makes migration simple. All you are giving up is Eye Candy. Eye Candy is great until some point in the future when you want to migrate your information to a new platform. Then you realize your migration options may be limited, and suddenly Eye Candy isn’t all that important.

The first thing you need is either Notational Velocity or nvALt installed on your computer. Once this is done all that remains is entering information in a usable format. I copy and paste as often as possible from the source. A little tedious but it saves on typing.

I use nvALT for this because I am lazy and nvALT automagically does extra steps saving a few keystrokes when making links in the body of each note entry. I also use Notational Velocity, but for keeping more private data using database encryption.

Create a new note named Birthdays and press enter moving the cursor to the body of the note. It is in the body text area these programs really shine for this purpose. There is a small difference between programs, so here for what comes next for each of them:

In Notational Velocity note body press the left bracket twice then add your first month followed by two right brackets, like this: [[January]]. This makes January a link word. Continue for all the months.

In nvALT note body press the left bracket twice, you will see this: [[]] and your curser will be between brackets. as you type the brackets will expand fitting in the month like this [[Jan…]] expanding as you type. Mouse click to the right of the month and press return twice. Repeat these steps for each month.

Now, create notes for the actual months. Go to the label area and type in each of the months as you made links in your main Birthday note. When you have entered the months, you can go to each month note and enter dates and names of your family and friends birthdays.

This is static information that does not change, so put some thought in how you want the data to look. No need to be fancy, but decide what information is most important and should be first. I entered the date, name and actual birth year if I had it on the same line. This may be important for children’s birthdays. I also arranged the dates in descending order for readability.

When I finished entering dates and names for each month, I went back and placed the total number of monthly entries for the individual month to the right side of each Birthday note link. This method is the basis of your simple all in one digital brain! Add more notes with links using the same process for Anniversaries.

Add notes for all the people in your life to include their addresses and phone numbers, and link them as you see fit. For example, I link everyone by family name. As they grow up and marry, I will know who is who and if or how they are related.

You can also add notes for the future. This idea is from the 43 folders concept. Using the same process make a note named Notes. Add links in the note body for each month, Jannote, febnote, …,for each month. When done create a note named for after each month link in your Notes note. Now you have a repository for dated information. When you have something to do in three months, you have a note to keep it in. Or if you do not mind mixing information notes can be added to your Birthday month notes.

Make a final note and named Temp, Mytrash, Short, any easy to remember word. This is your catch all note for temporary information. Blips of information you want, but only for the short term. If you find this note beginning to get cluttered, move the old information off this note, perhaps placing it in its own note. If there is a lot of the same type of information, consider creating a parent note and making links off of it,  or create a link in your Temp note, naming a new note via link for information of this type

Entering information and linking it is only limited by your time and imagination. The data you enter can be encrypted by Notational Velocity or nvALT if you choose. The clincher is all your information can be exported one entry at a time to all entries at once. They can be exported as text files which can be read on any computer.

If you want to develop your information further, both Notational Velocity and nvALT have a note named, “Excruciatingly Useful Shortcuts” to read if you want to go beyond a basic file system and become a pro. This system is not going to win any glamor awards, but when you upgrade your computer, you will be happy exporting your information is painless and quick.

For general note taking see my previous post using both of these programs for basic note taking.

Mac Note Taking Made Easy

As with almost any OS, there are any number of note taking applications for Mac. Here are three note taking applications I use almost exclusively. I would not be happy if I had to stop using any one of them. Like you, I find I take a lot of notes. Notes may last for a few hours to notes saved for the long term. One of the biggest drawbacks with notes, is long term notes.

Long term notes

My long term notes have been created Windows, copied into Linux, and finally onto my Mac(s). Keeping notes in text file format is incredibly helpful when it comes to both long term and cross platform notes. Generally every file system recognizes the .txt ending, and every platform knows how to display text files. As long as long time notes are kept in text format, they can be emailed, placed in dropbox, put on a usb stick or backed up for long term storage.

Note taking should be simple

Three note taking apps I use on my Mac make taking and keeping notes simple. Why three applications and not a single application? I have been through the realm of organizers, one long document made up of smaller notes, and sticky notes, both paper and virtual. They all have their limitations.

Organizers tend to lock you into their format, or they duplicate your notes. Long single documents keep everything in one place, but cutting and pasting into and out of a long doucment gets messy. Sticky notes multiply until there are too many to keep track of. Too many loose sticky notes in itself become a problem.

Easy and fast note taking

Total Note Control

Take Great Notes

I use Notational Velocity, nvALt which is a modified Notational Velocity, and a third app named xPad. All three are free apps. All three apps fill a niche. Notational Velocity and nvAlt no longer share the same database, so you have two separate databases for different types of notes.

All three of these programs easily export notes as text which is critical for long term note keeping. They are simple to use, and can be used almost entirely from the keyboard of you wish. There only drawback, though use and ability override this is they are not the prettiest applications out there. There strength and ability far outweigh what they lack in looks.

Encrypted notes

I use Notational Velocity with the option of an encrypted database to store private information. The plethora of personal information we need to share grows weekly, and Notational Velocity handles it all easily. My notes are safe via encryption, and retrieved as fast as I can type in a search word or phrase.

Note Syncing, Markdown, more

nvAlt is a modified version of Notational Velocity. I use it for public notes, which if seen by others does not matter. For example, urls, command key sequences for programs, HTML examples, Markdown, any note that is not personal or sensitive. nvAlt works with drop box, so notes can be sync’d across your computers.

Short term Notes

xPad is my all around scratch pad. I use xPad for short term notes, or to jot down some important blurb of information. I am using xPad to write this post. Once this post is written, I export it from xPad into a folder. Other notes are deleted when no longer needed. xPad has a sequential directory of your notes. One icon click and your documents are displayed. If you do not name your document, xPad saves your note in as Untitled xx, with xx being the next number in the untitled note sequence you have already stored in xPad.

Save as not needed

All three applications share the freedom of not having to manually save your note. This feature ensures your notes are there when you need them. Notational Velocity and nvAlt want a name first before you go on to create your note. One that is done, your note is being saved as you type it.

These three applications cover almost all of my writing needs. I have tried most of the other popular formats, and for me, they all fall short on one way or another. These three are very straight forward, easy to use and cover all my note taking and typing needs.

Exporting notes

The ease of exporting notes is a must for keeping notes. In Notational Velocity and nvAlt, when I have stagnant notes [notes I want to keep but seldom reference], I use the export feature and save them to their own topic folder. For example, all my blog posts are kept in on one main folder. All my other long term notes find there way into a folder named by subject.

I have all my notes handy and easily located. My commonly referenced notes are mixed with notes I seldom have a need to reference. This makes searching for notes simple, without adding any additional overhead to my notes such as keywords.

More information and Downloads

If you are not using these three note taking programs already, you are missing out on something good. Try these three apps out. After a few days, I am sure you will agree, they make your note taking simple, complete, and safe. You are not sending your bank account information into the cloud and across the net. Best of all you will have the perfect note taking app for each and every note you want to create.

Notational Velocity –

nvAlt –

xPad –

3 Virtual Machines for Mac

Virtual Machine on a Mac

I did some testing of Virtual Machines on my Mac. I wanted a VM (Virtual Machine) to run linux. I wrote down my thoughts to share in helping you in your decision. Following is a general overview of my likes and dislikes of each Virtual Machine. I am using a 17″ Mac with a quad core processor and NVidia graphics, 4 gigabytes of memory. My Mac is about one year old as of this writing.

Virtual Machine basics

For those of you who have never used a Virtual Machine, virtual Machines are an interesting piece of software. What they do is allow you to run almost any operating system as a Virtual Machine. This is good if you need to use a program that only runs on another operating system, or like me, you want to use another operating system for other reasons. With enough memory, you can be very exotic with Virtual Machines.

Virtual Machines are versatile

For example, running Windows as a Virtual Machine under MAC OS, which is running Linux inside of another Virtual Machine, which is running MAC OS inside of it. No one I know goes to those lengths, but it can be done. Most common uses are to run a second operating system as Virtual Machine. In the case of my Mac, I wanted a Virtual Machine to run Linux Operating System, and check out Google’s Chrome Operating System.

Virtual Machines for Free

Free is always better. Most people will use a free program is they can and save their money for other things. I am no different. One free Virtual Machine I used before is from Oracle’s VirtualBox.

For running a 32 bit operating system VirtualBox works well. This time around I wanted to run 64 bit Linux and things were quite different when to came to VirtualBox.

There were two stumbling blocks I came up against with VirtualBox. I could not find a 64 bit switch to run 64 bot Linux OS. 64 bit software will run in a 32 bit environment though slower than normal. A bigger problem was screen size of the VirtualBox. The best resolution I could get was 800 x 600 screen size. I wanted at least 1024 x 768 and I could not adjust the screen to a higher resolution. Free is good though, and VirtualBox is excellent for a 32 bit OS, and a smaller screen size. Plus it is free.

VMware is a long time player

VMware has been around in the Windows world for a long time. As far as I am aware they were the second player in Mac OS. I used VMWare in the past and it is a great program under Windows OS. VMware ran every Operating System I wanted to run. I had high expectations for the Mac version of VMware. I went to the website, signed up and downloaded a thirty day trial copy.

The VMware software practically loaded itself. Virtual Machine creation was painless. Setting my preferred screen resolution was painless. Everything worked as advertised, just as it did under Windows. I was very happy with VMWare’s performance under Mac OS. VMWare is geared towards running Windows as a Virtual Machine under Mac OS. That is VMware big selling point. For three days I was happy with VMware running Linux VM under MAC OS.

One small Glitch

I found a switch (setting) for full screen and tried it out. The Virtual Machine made its adjustments and came up full with an escape key to return to normal resolution. Everything ran well and I was impressed with the full screen. When I reduced the screen size to my previous settings, I found a glitch. The screen locked up between full screen and original settings. Linux was frozen as was my Desktop.

I waited some seconds and nothing changed. I retried the full screen escape commands, tried to escape the mouse from the Virtual Machine, and still no response. I had a dark empty screen and no way to give input to either the Virtual machine or Mac OS.

After deliberating some seconds about whether to force my MAC into reboot by turning off power, the Virtual Machine produced a few tremors, paused for a few more seconds, and finally, screen resolution returned.

Third time is the charm

Virtual MachinesIt was time to try Parallels Virtual Machine. Parallels was the first serious Virtual Machine for Mac OS. I was a registered user of the first Virtual Machine release for Mac OS by Parallels. After some months, I no longer needed a Virtual Machine, and it obsoleted itself.

Parallels loaded simply, and went right into setting up a Virtual Machine. Available settings are clear and choices are straightforward. There was little difference between the three Virtual Machine softwares in their setup and operation. Parallels is on its second week, and every option has worked without a glitch for me. One surprise is having Ubuntu and Chrome OS available through Parallels and pulling in and converting a Virtual Machine already on my hard drive.

Windows VM support and Test Drives

I can not comment about Windows as a VM. I have Windows 7 on a laptop only which I rarely use. In wrapping up, if you want to be thrifty, VirtualBox works well and it is free for home use. There is nothing seriously wrong with the two pay for Virtual Machine Software within the limitations I mentioned. Either free, or thirty day trial is available for you, so you can check each one out and put them through their paces yourself.

If you want to run Windows on a Mac Virtual Machine, I read either VMWare or Parallels reportedly work equally well with Windows as a VM. This is their main selling point for Mac users. For me with Lion OS running a Linux Virtual Machine, Parallels was my choice. I think you should happy with any Virtual Machine software packages if they fit your needs.