Ars Technica’s privacy-invading Privacy Policy update

Ars Technica is one of the major technology news sites I follow, as it carries a lot of interesting stories about computer, general technology, and science news.

Last week, however, reading the site became much more difficult.

In relation to the California Privacy law going into effect January 1st, the owner of Ars Technica (and Wired), Condé Nast, put up a pop-up dialog over the front pages of these sites (and maybe others), and required visitors to click through the dialog to access the sites.

Condé Nast dialog
The dialog displayed over Ars Technica’s front page

However, the click through did not take. On the next visit to the front page, the dialog showed up again. And on the next visit, and the next…

A couple of tweets to Ars Technica’s Twitter account has so far not resulted in any response. It seems like Ars Technica are not monitoring their mentions, and based on a previous case a few months ago (related to their new GDPR dialog popping up several times a week), they are not monitoring their DM channel, either.

I had an early suspicion about what was causing the problem. I have been browsing with third-party cookies disabled for the past couple of years, after I got tired of ads about products I had no intention to buy following me around the net for weeks on end.

Considering Ars Technica and Wired’s target audience, I would guess that a lot of their readers are disabling third-party cookies, too.

Except for one banking site, that have mostly worked fine. Until now.

A bit of testing determined that my initial guess about the cause was correct: The Condè Nast dialog requires that third-party cookies are enabled.

This means that in order to register “accept” of an update to Condè Nast’s privacy policy, the users have to permanently enable third-party cookies, allowing all web sites (not just Condé Nast’s) and all advertisers to track them across all sites on the net that are linked into their various tracking systems.

That isn’t a privacy improvement, it is a privacy invasion!

Condé Nast: Please fix this.

Update Jan 10: The Ars Technica site has now been fixed AFAICT. According to info I got yesterday, the problem also affected users of Privacy Badger.

Sophos: An update

Wide open sky
Photo by Agustinus Nathaniel on Unsplash

Two weeks ago I posted an article about the occasional problems of getting false positives in security software fixed, and specifically about our recent problems when trying to solve a problem related to a Sophos security product. A user had reported being prevented from using Vivaldi to browse the net by their company’s firewall.

Some commenters thought we were either too hard on Sophos, or hadn’t properly checked the issue before contacting Sophos.

These comments ignore a few of the issues we mentioned:

  • We had a report about the users being blocked.
  • We also had information from the same report about Sophos customer support claiming we did not support an API, the implication being that we were being blocked because of this.
  • Either of these would be reason good enough to contact Sophos to learn about why this was happening, especially given that we should have the same API support as other Chromium based browsers.
  • We then spent 5 weeks not getting answers to our questions.

Part of our goal with the article was to inform Sophos publicly (just like we had at at least one occasion done privately) that we were not satisfied with how the process was going, and to try to get it escalated.

The next day it got escalated to a support manager, and we started getting real answers to our questions.

First of all, there was no central block by Sophos regarding Vivaldi; the block had been configured by the administrator of the customer installation. We are not yet clear on why the administrator did this, although our not being on the filtering feature support list has been mentioned as a possibility. This particular piece of information was never forwarded to us, and as far as we can tell was not provided to the original reporter, either.

The second part was that the API support was NOT something required to be supported by the browsers. The APIs in question concerned Windows API functionality used by Sophos to configure firewall and network filtering for specific applications.

This functionality is not presently enabled for Vivaldi, because those features had not been tested with Vivaldi. Sophos is now moving to get this functionality enabled and tested with Vivaldi, probably to be released in early Q1 2020.

A part of the confusion regarding Vivaldi and Sophos concerned this functionality, and some of it may have been caused by different understanding of phrases like “Product X is supported”. In many cases a vendor will write this and mean “We only answer support questions about X, not Y”, while most users will read it as “Since Y is not listed, Y does not work with this vendor’s product”.

Regarding Sophos, their page regarding their filtering functionality, they listed a number of browsers for which this feature was enabled (thus “supported”); it said nothing about whether or not other browsers worked on a system using Sophos.

Much of the rest of the confusion that developed in this case was likely caused by misunderstanding information provided to the people at the reporter’s company, and more details may then have been lost when they were passed on during the several steps it passed through before it got to us. A possible way to reduce such confusion is to always use email for questions and answers, any chat logs should be archived.

One of the things we realized in the aftermath of this is that our Bug reporting form and help pages did not ask for details about any third-party software that might be involved in the problem, and we have now updated the bug reporting help page to specify what we need in such cases: Product name and version, relevant error messages, and if available information about any support contacts, such as support case numbers.

The lack of product and version info about the installation was part of the problems we had when contacting Sophos support, since it made it difficult to get in touch with the right people.

We are quite satisfied with the responses from Sophos in the past two weeks.

The problem with unsophosticated customer support

Do not enter internet
Photo by: Joshua Hoehne @mrthetrain

False positives causing a legitimate application to be blocked is a common problem with security software, and if not handled properly and quickly, it is one that could hurt, or even destroy a security product’s credibility, or in the worst case, the credibility of the entire sector.

It is therefore very important that whenever a security vendor’s product is incorrectly flagging a legitimate product that the vendor resolve the issue within hours, or at most a couple of days of being notified about the problem. Such problems should really be handled with a priority just barely short of problems threatening the customer’s system (like security vulnerabilities).

If a user cannot use their chosen, legitimate products because a security product blocks it, they are far more likely to disable, or uninstall, the security product, than to change their chosen product.

If the problem is caused by some actual problem with the flagged product, the security vendor should immediately contact the application vendor with detailed information about what the problem is, and how to solve it.

Easier said than done

As an example of how to not go about handling such cases, consider this recent case.

About a month ago, in early September, the Vivaldi users at a small German company discovered that they were no longer able to use Vivaldi, since their Sophos firewall was blocking it.

They contacted Sophos customer support and were effectively told that “The block was a management decision”, “Vivaldi does not support content filtering”, “Vivaldi does not support a required API”, “Submit a feature request, we can’t do anything before we receive that” (the latter had been filed over a month before this case started).

No information was provided about which API support was “missing”, or why “management” had decided to block Vivaldi.

Since Vivaldi is based on Chromium, just like Google Chrome, if the blocking was really due to missing support for an API, then Sophos should be blocking Google Chrome as well. We have the same feature support as other Chromium-based browsers. The only real difference is that (e.g. on Windows) our executable is named “vivaldi.exe”, not “chrome.exe” and our UI is implemented differently.

After receiving the replies from Sophos, one of the users in the company reported the problem in a post to our German language forum, and it was then forwarded to those of us in the security group.

I decided to look into the Sophos support site, and did find their chat support, but after two hours of back and forth, being passed from one person to another, their response was effectively “We need a support ticket number, file it from the upload site”.

There were several problems with that upload site, mainly that there was no option to upload a file as “Affected vendor”. You had to be either a “registered user” or “evaluating before purchase”. It was also difficult to choose the right product or product category, and the upload size limit was 30 MB (Vivaldi’s installer is ~55MB), although an FTP option existed.

Since I could not upload Vivaldi’s installers, I uploaded an empty text file, and told them in the message where to get the installers. Their Labs people explained that they were not allowed to download installers from the Web.

After an FTP upload, and a few days wait, they reported that the “problem has been fixed”.

The users said “No, it hasn’t been fixed”.

55+ emails back and forth later (to Sophos and the user), direct involvement with the customer, and 5 weeks after this all started, the problem still hasn’t been resolved. Effectively, they have acted like a brick wall.

In my opinion Sophos has not handled the case well. They never told us, or the customer, what is causing the problem, and they have so far spent at least 5 weeks not fixing the problem, so they definitely did not drop “everything else” to solve it.

I recommend that all security software vendors check their processes to make sure they can handle false positives quickly and efficiently.

Problems I have seen during the process with Sophos

  • The support people kept assuming I was the customer using their product, and repeatedly asked for information I could not possibly provide. My suggestion is that they create a separate support ticket category for application vendors.
  • They were unwilling to contact the reporter via the forum thread, saying they were not allowed to do support except through their issue system. My suggestion is that they communicate with reporters through the reporters’ chosen channels, and then invite them to use the vendor’s own channels. This will improve the impression of their customer service.
  • As mentioned, the upload system is not suited to normal-sized applications, or affected vendors. The minimum size should be increased significantly, and I think they should offer SSH upload via SCP instead of FTP.

An unsophosticated test

While working on this article, I started thinking about the question of exactly how Sophos blocks Vivaldi. My conclusion based on what I know about other firewalls, was that the most likely method is to just check the process name which, as mentioned above, in our case is “vivaldi.exe” on Windows, not “chrome.exe”. It could be that they are doing something more sophosticated, but I doubted it.

So yesterday I created a special version of Vivaldi 2.8 where I undid the changes that rename our Windows executable to “vivaldi.exe”. Even if this experimental build would not be able to get through the firewall, we would learn something about just how sophosticated Sophos’ implementation is.

This morning we sent this special build to the reporter and asked him to run a quick test for us. He has just reported back that the special build was able to access the internet through the firewall.

For other affected Sophos users, the special build (which works as a Snapshot channel, so you might want to disable updates for this particular installation) is available for download here. It should be installed as a standalone version using the advanced installation dialog, NOT over the main Vivaldi installation.

Similar cases from the past

This is not the first time we have had similar problems, either in Vivaldi or back when many of us worked in Opera, and they are usually resolved quickly, without much publicity. For the most part an exchange of a couple of emails were enough to get the problem solved.

There were two cases that didn’t get resolved quickly, and which required a bit more work. One was the old 2003 Opera Bork edition targeting Microsoft and MSN, and the 2016 Vivaldi case when some AV software decided they did not like “Vivaldi Technologies AS” as a text string in our installer, “Vivaldi Technlogies AS” (without the first “o”-letter) worked fine. In both cases our public response caused the issues to be resolved very quickly.

In a more recent example, Eric Lawrence from Microsoft’s Chromium Edge team was trying to chase down why recent versions of a Chromium support executable was triggering warnings from a significant number of Anti-Virus scanners. Although he never actually found the problem (it disappeared in newer builds), as he closed in on what triggered the problem, it started to remind me about our 2016 case, which is why I sent him a link to our 2016 snapshot announcement, and it subsequently made a short appearance on Twitter.

Where did all the nice things go? SmartGit project dropdown

For modern software developers, there are a number of must-have tools: An editor, a compiler (called a web browser by HTML/JS devs), and a debugger. Further, if you are developing a non-trivial project, especially as part of a team, you will need a version control system.

A version control system is a very important tool when developing software, as it maintains the history of your project, chronicling every change, whether small or major, and it allows you to share your code easily with others. Using the information stored by this system it is possible to specify the source code version to use for a public version of the product or to discover which modification introduced a bug (or fixed it).

There are many different version control systems available. Among the more common ones are CVS, SVN, Hg, and currently the most popular, Git.

All of these systems are generally implemented as command-line tools, and this lets the user perform many advanced actions, especially using scripts to repeat the operations. However, maintaining source code updates only via command line operations becomes difficult very quickly, it does not scale well. A graphical UI (GUI) for the version control system is needed for any major project.

Some of the systems, like Git, also have some basic GUI applications, but their usability is limited. This has opened up a market for more advanced version control GUI applications, such as the one I have used for 10 years, or so, SmartGit.

Syntevo’s SmartGit, like most such tools, has an advanced display of projects, updated files, conflicted files, differences between the currently stored version, and the currently edited version, graphical representation of the project history, etc.

All of this is very useful to developers, especially when they are working on big projects.

Five years ago I wanted to update to the then newest version of SmartGit, v6.5 (the most recent is v19), from my then current version, v4.6.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the SmartGit developers had made some UI changes that broke the tool for me.

One of the UI features I use frequently is a dropdown menu on top of the directory explorer panel listing all the projects I am working on, and which allows me to easily open a second project in a new application window.

In the new version, they had removed this dropdown, and moved all the projects into the explorer panel, alongside the directory views, and the default operation was to open all of these in the same application window (it _is_ possible to open a second window). When you, like me, are working on 20+ various project checkouts, half of them having more than 500 000 files each, having more than one of them opened in the same application window is, in a word, unworkable. Even having the list of all the projects in that panel is in my opinion unworkable with a setup like mine.
I reported this issue to the developers at Syntevo, informing them that this was an upgrade blocker for me. Their answer boiled down to “Won’t fix it”. I responded with “Won’t upgrade”.

I have stayed with SmartGit 4.6 ever since, despite the other issues with it, such as it being slow, leaking memory, some of which could be due to it being implemented as a Java application.

I have explored other similar tools, but the ones that look most useful have one major problem: They all require that before you start, you must create an account with their code repository and log the application into it.

That is unacceptable to me, because I am not generally going to be using an external repository. We have our own local servers holding the repositories for our projects.

I do not mind buying a license for a useful product, but I do mind having to run a product logged into an external service, especially one I don’t need.

So, if Syntevo, could just fix the GUI in this area (and haven’t broken anything else important), they would sell at least one license, and since this would make the tool work better again for Chromium sized projects, they would likely sell even more licenses.

Syntevo: Make it an option!

Microsoft, keep your hands off my keyboard!

The keyboards connected to our computers are essential to controlling every aspect of our computer experience, and to our communications with everybody we communicate with. A very basic aspect of the keyboard, and of our personal choice (it is really a major aspect of our national identity), is the layout of the keys. In my case, I am using a keyboard with a Norwegian layout, which is essential when writing text in my native Norwegian language.

What happens when someone, or something, changes how the keyboard is working?

About a year and a half ago I started working on a Windows 10 machine at work (having used Windows 7 until then), but after I while I started running into a particularly obnoxious problem: The keyboard layout would, occasionally, automatically be changed to the US layout, instead of my Norwegian layout.

For somebody who is reasonably competent at typing without looking on a Norwegian keyboard (aka. the “Touch” method), that is rather irritating, because keys like “<“, “:”, “-“, “æ”, “ø”, and “å” suddenly produce completely different characters. The result is a disruption of my current activities.

After some searching I discovered this thread about it, started in 2016 (and still active), and there are indications in the thread’s references that the problem first appeared in Windows 8, at least as early as 2012, maybe 2011.

Based on information in the thread and its references, what seems to be happening is that Windows 10, being “concerned” that the user’s configuration might not be correct in the context of his or her environment, scans the other Windows 10 machines on the network, or obtains information from computers it connect to, and possibly other information, such as the machine’s geographical location, and automatically reconfigures the enabled keyboard layout based on this information.

I do not know if this is correct, but the name of a registry value mentioned in this information, “IgnoreRemoteKeyboardLayout”, indicates that there may be something to it.

This problem seems to have been affecting many users from non-English
speaking countries, especially those working in multilingual, global companies, or those having moved to a different country.

In Vivaldi, I work with colleagues from many countries and we are all using different keyboard layouts, including German, Icelandic, and US layouts.

The thread I found discusses various workarounds, some of them requiring
you to edit the registry (one of which I used to fix my problems), which is something the average user should never be required to do.

Recently, though, I have run into this again with my personal laptop, and as far as I can tell the workarounds are not just not working anymore, it seems
that the workarounds I did apply earlier were removed somehow, possibly by the recent major Windows 10 update.

The keyboard layout of my laptop keeps changing to the US layout several times a day, even several times an hour. In fact, I have had it happen in the middle of writing emails!

And what is happening to my laptop is not an isolated case: One of my colleagues has reported the same thing has started happening to his laptop, too.

So, I think Microsoft is being too “helpful” in this case.

I have configured my PCs the way I want them configured, with the UI language I want, and the keyboard layout I want to use, and I did so when I installed Windows on the PC, and I have no plans to change them.

Microsoft, keep your hands off my keyboard!

 

Update June 24: The jury is still out on this, but a couple of days ago I decided to try two changes: I removed all the extra languages and keyboard layout combinations (again), and also disabled the keyboard shortcuts for switching between these settings.

If this continues to work, it may have “solved” my problem.

However, it is still a “solution” for a problem that should never have existed, the automagic addition of languages and keyboard layouts, and it may be that the workaround only hides the issue.

It also points to what I think is a bad design choice by Microsoft: The choices for the keyboard shortcuts are Ctrl+Shift and Left Alt+Shift (never mind that Norwegian keyboards only have one Alt key, the left one; the other is the AltGr key that is an alias for Alt+Ctrl, used to type various characters like “@”, “{“, and “€”). Both of these shortcuts are used as part of various keyboard shortcuts, and the Alt+Shift key variation is part of the “Switch to previous Application” shortcut Alt+Shift+Tab. What happens if you start to press this shortcut, and decides to not change application after the first two keys are pressed? That’s right: The keyboard layout changes!

And even if these two actions “solved” the problem, it should never have been an issue for my systems, since I never added extra languages or keyboards. Microsoft added them without asking, then a bad choice of keyboard shortcuts exacerbated the problem.

And users that, for various reasons, do have multiple languages and/or layouts enabled, may still be having problems.

Update June 27: After rebooting the laptop, the US layout returned, despite having been manually removed, and the keyboard shortcuts being disabled.

What is tls-testing.tlsprober.net?

Executive summary: The TLS Prober is a tool that gathers information and statistics about the state of the SSL/TLS protocol security features and vulnerabilities across the internet. It does nothing that will harm your server.

The TLS Prober is a tool I developed while I worked I worked at Opera Software, originally to track the progress of the TLS Renego problem, and which I was allowed to take with me when I left Opera in early 2013. It is primarily used to scan a set of 23 million hostnames, most of the names derived from Alexa top million domain names, resulting in tests of about 500000 unique servers, for their support of SSL and TLS features, as well as checking for various interoperability issues and vulnerabilities.

Similar tools are also in use by others, such as the Qualys SSL Labs prober. Continue reading “What is tls-testing.tlsprober.net?”

Vivaldi.net now showing EV-green in browsers

Friday evening (20 December) those who keep an eye on the browser UI would have observed a small but significant change take effect at Vivaldi.net: The browser turned on the Extended Validation “Green Bar” for us, indicating that the identity of our website was now better assured than it has been, though the encryption is just as good as before.

Previously, while we were developing the site and during the first days of it being live, we used a Domain Validated SSL/TLS certificate for our sites that indicated that we had control over the domain, but not who we are. This is a useful level of web site identity verification for smaller sites that only need to present information securely and without any major collection of personal information. 

For users of a web site that collects or manages personal and payment information, it is not just important to know that the people managing the web site are in control of the domain. It is even more important to know, or be able find out, who they are, legally speaking, in case there is a problem.

This need for verifiable identity information was why a group of Certificate Authorities, such as Verisign and Entrust, and Browsers, such as Microsoft, Mozilla and Opera (including yours truly), gathered to found the CA/Browser Forum so that we could define what eventually became the Extended Validation (EV) Guidelines for CAs, and the associated “Green Bar” in browsers.

When Jon decided to start the Vivaldi.net social web site project, one of my suggestions was to have an encrypted site. Given recent revelations (e.g., NSA) it is now, or should be, unthinkable to have a social web site that is unencrypted. While many sites have been using a hybrid approach where the login, account management, and sometimes authoring, is encrypted, there are just too many ways to sniff information that way, so the whole site needs to be encrypted. Another of my suggestions was to use EV certificates on the sites, to provide better identity information and assurances to our users.

While I would have wished to have unveiled Vivaldi.net on Wednesday with an EV certificate, the process of obtaining one was intentionally designed to include a lot of paperwork that has to be completed before the certificate can be issued, and that paperwork was not completed by our CA, GlobalSign, until early evening Friday.

So, go ahead and enjoy Vivaldi.net, assured that it is Jon’s company, Vivaldi Technologies AS, that is operating it.