In March 2019, Microsoft introduced the public preview of a new cloud-based form of the Windows Operating System. It is called Windows Virtual Desktop, or WVD. It is a desktop and application experience that runs in Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Now, after a full year of pandemic use, Microsoft has improved the overall aspects of building and maintaining the desktop for IT Solutions Providers. For those who use the desktop, that experience has been significantly overhauled as well. You wouldn’t know you are using a cloud-based virtual desktop if you didn’t click a unique icon to run it.

What does all this futuristic technology mean? Well, for one thing, by the end of this year, I hope to offer WVD as an alternative to full-fledged desktop solutions along with Azure as a server replacement. In a few years, the typical five-year desktop and seven-year sever hardware refresh may fall by the wayside for small businesses. That’s because it will no longer be about how much RAM or the version of the CPU in a physical computer. Instead, it will be about the number of IOPS (input-output operations per second) and the overall internet speed at your business location.

The primary advantage of WVD is that you can access your business desktop from any device with a web browser. The login process uses multi-factor authentication for security. You connect to your business’ Active Directory server, which contains your user profile information. You get access to the full range of Office applications via Microsoft 365 and standard desktop applications like Adobe Reader and even QuickBooks.

One of the primary tasks Microsoft had to face at the start of the pandemic was to provide a “near-desktop” experience for millions of people suddenly working from home. They implemented new technology to enable fast access to user profiles via a recently purchased company called FSLogix. At sign-in, a user profile container is dynamically attached to the computing environment. The user profile is immediately available and appears on the system exactly like a typical native user profile. (In English: your desktop, files, and favorites are all there, just the way you expect.)

The one drawback to deploying all this cloud-based functionality is, the smaller the business, the higher the monthly cost per person. That’s because to use WVD, you need an Azure server — and that cost is the same whether you have two people in your office or ten. However, the monthly cost for a two-person office could be $200 per person, while at a ten-person office, that cost could go down to $50 per person. Note these figures are examples, and actual prices require careful calculation.

There is a vast educational factor involved in implementing this new technology stack. Previously, I would go to the Dell web site, configure a server with minimal specifications and have it shipped to my office for about $1,000. I would then use my Windows Server licenses (courtesy of my Microsoft partnership) to load up a base system. I’d create virtual versions of the servers and desktops to develop various end-user scenarios, implement the appropriate security settings, and thoroughly learn how things worked before deploying any of them at any client site.

Microsoft will let me do something similar with Azure and WVD. Still, it requires using their facilities to spin up the environment, build the desktops, create the simulated users, and test how everything hangs together. I am already in contact with a leading vendor that is willing to assist building the requisite cloud structures in this new format and help me price and deploy environments to clients. I would much rather work with a Sherpa to climb a mountain like this than do it on my own.

Over time, I envision many small business owners who want to keep their staff working from home will switch to using WVD to provide Windows desktops in those remote locations.

In the evening during the last few weeks of a rapidly fading 2020, I sought some mindless solace watching the Discovery Network programs “Holmes on Homes” and “Holmes Inspection.” (Some of you may recall my writing about these shows in the Spring 2011 edition.) For those of you who are unfamiliar with this unique reality-show creation, I provide the following synopsis.

Mike Holmes is a licensed building contractor based in Canada. Over the years, he worked on numerous projects that increased his ire at the shoddy workmanship of Ottawa-based buildings, contractors, and home inspectors. He developed a TV series where he would work with victimized homeowners, review their problems, propose solutions, and, in his trademark phrase, “Make Things Right.”

Simply put, Mike Holmes is an entrepreneur. He developed a unique selling proposition, found a way to identify pain points common to the people in that niche, and provided a means to solve those problems. Similarly, I view a large aspect of my work at Heliotropic Systems in the same way.
Over the past ten years, I have met small business owners with computer systems that they purchased and supported on their own, some who have been helped by Staples or Best Buy employees, or (in rare instances) other IT solutions providers. Invariably the number of computer problems these business owners experience reaches a point where they cannot function properly, or they realize they require more experienced assistance. As a result, I get a call for help.

And yet, there are some calls for help that never result in an ongoing relationship. Looking back, I can recall one specific instance where the business owner was not interested in obtaining the requisite support needed to make their life – and their business – better. Mike Holmes only shows the successes on his TV programs, not the failures (although that might make for an exciting show on its own). But sometimes it is important for me to point out where I have dropped the ball – because that’s when I learn about how to be better.

In this case, a provider of health care solutions for older adults asked me about an anti-malware solution. I informed him that my answer to his question depended on whether he was using the consumer version or the business edition. He didn’t know which version he used, so we arranged for me to visit his office to conduct a network survey so that I could answer properly.

When I arrived, he explained how he had set up his office and his computers. He explained that the software he and his staff used was cloud-based. He showed me one of the computers and listed the software. He was certain everything was okay because he and his team had experienced very few problems.

What I saw was vastly different. Here was the owner of a healthcare-related business, which meant he was supposed to follow HIPAA guidelines. I started by asking about the results of his HIPAA Risk Assessment (the first step required for compliance) and his internal documentation. I learned he didn’t do the assessment and didn’t have any documentation. His network did not have a firewall. His computers ran the Home edition of Windows 7 and Windows 10, not the Professional version on which settings needed to be established for HIPAA compliance. His security software was a consumer version, as was his anti-malware software. He did not backup the files stored on the computers that were not associated with his cloud-based product. The computer hard drives were not encrypted (nor could they be on the Home version of Windows). In other words, his situation was a hot mess.

When I presented my findings to him a few days later – and spoke of what it would take to become compliant – I realized when his jaw dropped that I had failed in a significant way. You see, in the initial meeting, when I saw all those “red alerts” around the office, I got distracted and immediately slipped into my “tech support red shirt” mode. I neglected to take the time to ask him what his current and expected IT budget was. As it turned out, he didn’t even have an IT budget. Like the omnipresent Liberty Mutual commercials (as I said, I was watching a lot of TV), “he only paid for what he needed.” So, he couldn’t begin to fathom the amount of money I was proposing to upgrade this office’s computer network — an effort I call “technology stabilization.” Nor could he envision an ongoing, monthly expense to maintain that heightened managed security posture. And he certainly wasn’t willing to step up his game to comply with all necessary HIPAA regulations.

I tried – over the next year – to convince him that paying a HIPAA violation fine to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) would be far more expensive than doing the right thing. But he had safely stayed beneath the radar for so long that he felt comfortable “saving money” by not doing anything. Eventually, I stopped sending him further entreaties to help him out.

What lessons did I learn from this experience? I always ask a prospect what their IT budget is, and what they think it should be. I always make sure to set appropriate levels of expectation afterward. I always follow my checklists faithfully so as not to forget important steps. I always aim to learn if a business owner places a high value on having reliable processes and procedures to manage their network and computers. The last thing I need is to have a constant fight each time I introduce a new feature to protect a business. And I always aim to “Make Things Right,” just like Mike Holmes.

The “black screen” problem in Windows 10 shows how nothing sometimes matters quite a lot. Seeing nothing except a black screen where the desktop and its icons usually appear is disconcerting because you don’t know what the computer is — or isn’t — doing.

I am an experienced Windows user, and when I encounter a black screen, I know at least two things immediately. First, just like you, I know that something is wrong with my computer. And second, because nothing is visible, I can assume something is not quite right with the graphics interface and the operating system.

As a start, that may be enough, but what most of you want is to get your desktop back. In this article, I’ll guide you through the methods I’ve found to fix this annoying problem.

Occasionally, you’ll start Windows and end up with what’s called a “black screen with a cursor.” Just as it sounds, this means the display is entirely black, except that the mouse cursor appears on that black background. The cursor might track your mouse’s movement even though it’s moving over a completely black screen.

In my personal experience, the black screen with a cursor occurs far more frequently than a black screen by itself (no cursor). The presence of a cursor that responds to your mouse’s movement is a good sign — even in the midst of a bad situation. It indicates that Windows is still working (partially) behind the scenes, and that the mouse driver can still track the cursor position on the screen. This means there’s an excellent chance that the desktop can be restored to regular operation using a few well-known key combinations.

Two keyboard combinations can (usually) restore normal operations

Both combinations involve pressing multiple keys simultaneously. This means using one finger to press the first key and holding it down, using a second finger to press the second key and doing likewise, then more of the same for a third key — and one of these two combinations requires adding a fourth and final key as well.

Attempt 1: Restart the graphics driver

This four-key combination tells Windows 10 to stop, then restart any graphics drivers that happen to be running. For your first attempt, do this: Windows key + Ctrl + Shift + B. I usually do the first three keys with my left hand, then press the letter B with my right index finger.

If you see the rapid flashing of the disk activity light, that’s a good sign. Sometimes the screen will return to regular operation a few seconds later, showing that the driver has reloaded and is now running successfully. Sometimes, nothing else will happen after the disk activity light stops flashing, so it is on to the second attempt.

Attempt 2: The three-fingered salute

This is a familiar key combo to anyone who has used Windows for a long time: Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

Even when the first attempt gets the graphics driver going, it still won’t light up the screen. And sometimes, when that’s the case, this key sequence will repaint the screen to show you the secure log-in options. If that screen does appear, click “Cancel,” and your desktop should reappear.

Attempt 3: Forced restart

If the cursor is absent, these key combos often won’t help (and sometimes they don’t help even when the cursor is present). In those cases, there’s only one thing to do next: forcibly turn off your computer. This means holding down the power button – for at least the count of 10 – until the device completely shuts down.

After a moment, press the power button again to turn on your computer. It should typically start with no black screen. If the screen remains black after you’ve gone through these steps, you need to call me!

Nobody wants to see a black screen on Windows 10

If you ever encounter this disturbing situation, you now have a pretty good idea of how to fix it yourself. In most cases, reloading the graphics driver or restarting the computer will do the trick. In other cases, there’s no choice except to let me know so that I can work through some of the more advanced troubleshooting sequences.

SonicWall, a leading perimeter security vendor, issued a mid-year update to its annual threat report in July. Amid the global disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic some threat trends are surprising:

  • The number of malware attacks is down by 33%.
  • The instances of ransomware are up globally by 20%, but over 100% in the US.
  • Office files (Word, Excel, and PDF) continue to be used primarily for malicious intent.

There was a huge spike of IoT malware — up as much as 50%.
Also noted, but not at all surprising: Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting the large number of employees who are working from home.

Cybercrime has increased since the start of the pandemic, and the latest targets now include medical facilities, hospitals, and research labs. These focused attacks have two purposes: First, to disrupt normal business and day-to-day activity; second, to obtain research data related to potential vaccines and coronavirus solutions. Nation states – most likely China, Russia, and North Korea – are very interested in obtaining intellectual property. Based on these attacks, it appears to be far easier for these cybercriminals to steal someone else’s work than to do their own.

New, never-before-seen malware variants found in the first half of 2020 increased by more than 60%. This occurred despite the overall decline in the number of malware attacks. From this, we surmise cybercriminals are experimenting to see what version can effectively get through normal defenses.

In the first half of 2020, Office files and PDFs comprised one third of all new malicious files. One of the key takeaways from the analysis of these files is that “threats are becoming more evasive and more nefarious.”

However, ransomware is on the rise. By way of contrast, global ransomware rose 15% in all of 2019. In the first half of this year, despite a global pandemic that constrained most business activity in the second quarter, it is up 20%.

The report notes a very strong correlation between where the coronavirus hit and when ransomware attacks occurred. Looking closely at the numbers, I believe this trend will continue, and the United States is going to experience more cybercrime during the next few months until the rest of the country (particularly the South and West) reduce the number of infections.

One of the scariest aspects of these recent attacks is summarized as follows:

“To make matters worse, many ransomware operators have taken to selling or otherwise releasing company data if the organization refuses to or cannot pay.

“Even for companies that cooperate with the criminals’ demands, the trouble often doesn’t stop when the ransom is paid. Many organizations pay the ransoms, only to find their files are irretrievably corrupted or have been wiped out altogether. Ransomware attacks are so devastating that they’ve forced a number of companies out of business.”

Here is an analogy to put that in perspective. A stranger breaks into your house, steals some of your belongings, and contacts you, offering to sell them back. You agree, and after the items are returned, you find they are damaged beyond repair. Worse, some of the personal documents you kept in your desk drawer have been published on the internet so that everyone can see your financial position. You, as an individual, would be mortified. When this happens to a small business, the consequences are enormous.

In terms of IoT – devices that connect to the internet to provide various services – the first six months of 2020 saw twice the number of attacks as 2019. The report forecasts that the end of the year may show numbers surpassing the combined values of 2018 and 2019.

In the consumer space, IoT devices include: Amazon Echo, Nest smoke alarm, Ring doorbell, various home security systems, smart TVs, and even smart refrigerators. http://iotlineup.com has an extensive list.

In the business environment, IoT devices include: smart locks, smart video cameras, and smart lights and energy management. These components comprise all the security elements of typical building management functions.

What’s the motivation of cybercriminals to attack these devices? They are looking for a “back door” into networks with lower chances of detection so they can deploy other forms of malicious software to compromise the computers on that network. It is essential for both the IoT device manufacturers and people who use them to insist that security considerations should be top of mind for all new devices (older ones are unlikely to be retrofitted).

I don’t think have made any mention of Coinhive in recent editions because I knew it had been shut down in early 2019. But just to recap: Coinhive was a cryptocurrency mining service that installed software in a computer’s web browser to exploit that computer’s resources to mine bits of the cybercurrency, Monero.

In 2020, as if there wasn’t enough anguish, there is a replacement called XMRig, another Monero cryptominer. In June, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced that XMRig was among the three signatures that make up 90% of potential threats.

So, there you have it. From SonicWall’s perspective, we were not even half-way through the year and things were already looking pretty dicey from a security standpoint. There is general consensus among security companies that attacks will only increase, and as the coronavirus continues to beat down United States businesses, along with the disruption from the upcoming presidential election, the cybercriminals are not going to stand idly by. They are going to take full advantage of the turmoil, and they will exploit it to the best of their ability.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Some phishing campaigns work by impersonating well-known organizations or brands. If cybercriminals send an email that looks just like one that comes from a company you are familiar with – and possibly even doing business with – then their hook is set. You can either take the bait or delete the email.

Microsoft is a tempting target for cybercriminals to spoof because it has a large number of subscription-based products, like Office, OneDrive, Outlook, and even Windows.

In mid-July, Abnormal Security, which specializes in preventing email fraud, discovered two different attacks designed to trap unsuspecting victims with subscription renewal. The crooks impersonated actual email notices from Microsoft. Their goal was to steal sensitive information from the recipients by convincing them that they need to renew their Microsoft Office 365 subscription.

The first campaign consists of an email telling the recipient that Office 365 is now called Microsoft 365 and that they should renew their subscription by a specific due date. The email contains a “Click to Renew” link that takes the recipient to a submission form requesting certain sensitive data, such as name, address, and credit card number.

In the second campaign, the email warns the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription has already expired and that by a particular date, they must renew it. A “Renew now” link takes the person to a PayPal page that prompts them to enter their PayPal payment details. (I had to look this up, but I learned that Microsoft does accept PayPal.) Typically, the transaction is processed directly, but in this case, it goes to the criminal’s PayPal account.
In both cases, anyone who took the bait will eventually find their PayPal payment information misappropriated and their Microsoft credentials compromised by the attackers.

Why These Attacks Work

A convincing phishing attack incorporates a variety of elements to trick its recipients. These two campaigns adopt several familiar tactics.

  • Official source. By pretending to look like an automated notice from Microsoft, the email gives the appearance of coming from an official source. As such, the recipients may be more likely to follow the instructions in the email.
  • Sense of urgency. Like any effective marketing campaign, the emails conveyed a sense of urgency by warning the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription needs to be renewed or has already expired. Further, both emails gave the recipient only a couple of days to renew before the deadline was up. Because Microsoft Office is considered an essential service by many individuals and small businesses, people may overlook the suspicious signs and quickly click on the link to try to renew.
  • Convincing landing page. Hosted on a web site called “office365family.com,” the landing page for the first campaign uses the Microsoft Office 365 name and branding to appear legitimate. The page also borrows images, links, and a website footer from Microsoft’s actual site. However, there are telltale signs that the page is not legitimate. The fonts are inconsistent and many of the header links are broken.
  • Real URL. The second campaign links to an official PayPal page. Yet, there’s no verification as to the product being purchased, no specific entity or individual as the payee, and no guaranteed transfer of goods.

How to Protect Yourself

To guard yourself against these types of phishing campaigns, take the following steps:

  • Double-check the sender’s name and email address to ensure that they’re coming from legitimate sources – don’t just trust the display name.
  • Double-check the webpage’s URL before signing in. Attackers will frequently hide malicious links in redirects or host them on separate websites that can be reached by safe links. This technique allows them to bypass link scanning within emails by traditional email security solutions.
  • If the web site name looks suspicious, do not enter your credentials! Instead, contact me if you have any questions.
  • Verify the information with your office administrator or IT solutions provider for cloud-based subscriptions.

Analysis

If you ask why anyone would do this, the answer is simple: these campaigns generate significant revenue for little effort. One result is straight-forward, because PayPal provides funds directly to the cyber criminal’s account. The one that gains access to a business’ email account is another way. How? Well with those credentials, they now have a list of all of their contacts. They can see who works for which business and can then craft a third, and more disconcerting scam: Business Email Compromise (BEC) or CEO fraud.

A follow-up campaign will be sent to those contacts attempting to claim missing accounts, or asking for wire transfer payments, or various “we need this funding by this time” emails that use social engineering to convince office administrators and in-house bookkeepers to send money to the stated claimant. Only, these emails are not from who they say they are. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), businesses in the United States lost more than $1.7 billion in 2019 to BEC scams.

Protecting your business from this kind of malicious email threat follows similar rules to those I stated above. And I’ll add one more factor to keep yourself and your business safe: If you get an unexpected email that asks you to send funds, CALL the person who is requesting it to confirm they sent it. It takes one minute to make a call. It could save you and your business tens of thousands of dollars.

Thanks, and safe computing!

I have written frequently about various scams and wrongdoing that have been perpetrated by “bad actors” around the world. Their attempts to profit by phishing for your personal information, obtaining your company’s data, or by wreaking havoc on your computers to collect a ransom have continued unabated. According to several threat analysis reports, these violations are escalating.

Accordingly, I have built what I consider to be an adequate security solution to offset, if not lessen, those threats. But as we all know, these unscrupulous offenders are relentless in their pursuit of illegal gains – because of the high payoff from their activities.

While reducing the number of attacks is one thing, I no longer believe that it is possible to eliminate them. I want to make sure that small business owners are aware of a variety of defenses that they can put in place to help prevent various attacks from ending badly for them and their business.

If you think back in historical terms, a castle had many defenses: the moat, the drawbridge, the battlements, the inner wall, and finally, the walls of the building itself. A business must have similar levels of security mechanisms in place to prevent cyber-attacks from causing devastation. Because without multiple layers of protection, the likelihood is, something malicious will get through, and whatever that something is, it will wreak havoc on you and your business.

In mid-June, I attended a webinar that featured one session that blew my simple analogy to shreds. Bruce McCully, president of Galactic Advisors, has come up with a more sophisticated method of determining risk, and thus, identifying areas of improvement for security measures for small businesses.

His approach comprises six layers of protection, which surround the assets of a company. He defines assets as any file system data, a Human Resources system, Payroll data, or database. Those six layers are:

  1. Human
  2. Perimeter
  3. Network
  4. Endpoint
  5. Application
  6. Data

The Human layer describes, as you would expect, the actions taken by the employees of a company. They are the first line of defense against any attacks on any small business, but they are also the weakest. This is why policies, procedures, and training are so important.

The Perimeter layer describes the rules required by the company’s firewall. A firewall is an appliance that reads the incoming and outgoing internet traffic and scans for anything unusual.

The Network layer is one that focuses on how an organization connects their computers and devices.

The Application layer involves the remote monitoring and maintenance software that IT technicians employ.

The Endpoint layer consists of the computers that run next-generation antivirus security.

Finally, the Data layer is the one that details the company’s back-up and restore policies. After all, if you are not backing up your important files – with the foresight of knowing how quickly you can restore them in the event of any attack – you are not protecting your assets.

All of this seems reasonably straight forward, and it is. Where it gets more complicated is when McCully says that it is not enough to have those layers and apply rules to them. No, he adds that it is essential to add gradations to those layers. He proposes four, although not all four apply to each segment. Those categories are:

  • Prevent
  • Guard
  • Detect
  • Mitigate

Yes, it would help if you prevented terrible things from happening. It takes a significant amount of discussion with a business owner to determine just how he or she would want to go about doing that. But it would be best if you also guard against inadvertent data loss that is not necessarily controlled by people. Next is the ability to detect intrusions of almost any kind, and define the alerting mechanisms to ensure they are acted upon promptly. Finally, you must develop Breach Response Procedures and possibly involve a third-party Security Operations Center to track the elusive path of the threat vector that attacked your company — and clean up afterward.

McCully then describes three levels of business needs for each of these components:

  • Basic needs
  • Security compliance requirements
  • Compliance-driven mandates

For each of these, he includes the following scale:

  • Non-essential, meaning it is not a core component of the company’s security program.
  • Recommended, because it is necessary to educate the company about the solutions, whereby they will invest in a more secure environment.
  • Mandatory, which he defines as “table stakes items;” these are items that, if not implemented, are considered negligent.

This vast matrix of layers, categories, and levels is truly wonderful, and incredibly thought-provoking material. I plan to spend several weeks working to formulate my responses for each aspect of this new roadmap. And the very first step in this arduous journey will be to apply all of these elements to my business, and to shore up my documentation and defenses. I am certain the result of those efforts will be various proposals for new and improved ways in which to safeguard your home computers, your “work at home” laptops, and all the small business networks that I serve.

Thanks, and safe computing!

But what happens when something that another IT provider, or vendor, does is so not aligned with “best practices” that it makes me shudder? What if their actions could cause a serious problem at the client’s (or prospect’s) site that might have otherwise been avoided? Couldn’t I then be forgiven if I mentioned that the other guy’s effort was misguided?

I guess it depends on the circumstances.

I encountered two instances of less than stellar computer infrastructure design in the early part of June, and my frustration was significantly higher than that expressed by the folks who were affected. Could I not be forgiven if I said, “Well, you know, those guys really messed up here, but I have a way to fix it.”

But I can’t explicitly say that because I don’t always know the kind of relationship the client (or prospect) has with that vendor or IT company. Instead, I’m usually turning things around by saying something like, “Well that’s not how I do things, because after 10 years in business, I’ve learned that this approach —whatever this is — works much better.”

Of course finding the appropriate solutions to a client’s – or a prospect’s – problems is the core of my business. The tag line for Heliotropic Systems has been “Computer Systems Analysis & Design” for more than 20 years. My goal is to design and deploy computer and network hardware and software with the understanding that it is supposed to operate properly, based on the client’s requirements. In my very parochial way of thinking, I guess that’s pretty much what anyone would want, never mind expect.

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Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 7 in January 2020, which means there will be no further updates. Shortly thereafter, I will stop support as well. While that date may seem far in the future, I can assure you that’s not the case! It is less than a year and a half away, and the majority of my clients will need new computers (along with associated hardware and software) between now and that deadline. I am affected by this as well; because I have to replace my desktop and laptop.

This early reminder is designed to let you begin planning a budget for a refresh. Based on the current political talk and potentially looming trade tariffs, it is possible that computers could cost more for consumers and businesses before next year. However, I have no idea when (or if) price increases will take place, nor by how much. You can use the following approximate numbers: $800 for a computer, $200 for a monitor, $150 for a printer, and $500 for me to do the necessary work (assessment, procurement, system set up, installation, and file transfer).

I have a chart with the warranty information for each of my clients’ computers. I will send you a letter 60 to 90 days in advance of its expiration to find out how you would like to proceed. Some of you may decide you want to move to an Apple Mac, others may opt for Ubuntu Linux, and still others Google Chromebook. We can discuss those options in the coming months.

Please note that recently purchased Windows 7 computers are eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. I will contact Lenovo to obtain the software update for you. Other Windows 7 computers may not be eligible for free software, but could still run Windows 10 (an additional purchase). Again, I will discuss these options with you as well.

Look for more frequent reminders, along with Windows 10 usage tips, in future editions of this blog.

Cisco Systems earlier this week released a report from its Talos cyber intelligence unit. It contained a warning of 500,000 routers and storage devices in 54 countries that have been infected with malware. Their findings (https://blog.talosintelligence.com/2018/05/VPNFilter.html) pointed to the Russian government as having sponsored the hack, calling it “VPNFilter,” and that the software was simply waiting for activation. With a high preponderance of these devices in the Ukraine, it seems that an attack might be pending, or at least imminent.

I won’t bore you with the details (and they are voluminous), but the recommendations for how to thwart the hackers are quite interesting. End users are instructed to reboot their routers, modems, and network attached storage (NAS) devices to the factory default state and then to install the latest firmware. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are instructed to reboot routers and cable modems for their customers and to ensure the devices are patched. Those two steps should, for all intents and purposes, knock out any of the malware that may have infected the devices.

Here’s my question: How many home users – or business owners – know how to perform those two steps? I do, because it is something I learned a long time ago as part of my job. But I can’t see asking any of my clients to do that. For one thing, the recommendations didn’t take into account the main task of saving existing settings – or at least writing them down – so they could be recreated after the device was flashed and rebooted.

In a “best case scenario” I can imagine someone was using a Linksys modem they purchased from a big box store and they didn’t configure anything; they simply followed the installation instructions. But in all likelihood, the SSID (i.e., the broadcast name) of their Wi-Fi is going to change. That means all of their wireless devices – computers, printers, tablets, and phones – will also need to be reset.

The report acknowledges that most of these devices are what we frequently call “set it and forget it,” meaning that they are expected to simply do their job once they’ve been installed. My concern about the recommendations centers on the fact that most individuals have no idea how to obtain the current firmware for these network attached devices. It isn’t very obvious from any of the manufacturers’ literature (and these include Linksys, TP-Link, and Netgear) that this is a task anyone should ever consider doing.

Granted a half-million devices is only a small drop in the bucket in terms of world-wide network device distribution. Yet it seems we have entered into a new “normal” for what people need to do – and learn – in order to better protect themselves from cyber security threats.

Thanks and safe computing!

I received a phone call from a major distributor earlier this week asking me if I knew about a new line of laptops issued by the electronics giant LG. I admitted that I was a Lenovo partner, and was partial to their offerings, but I was interested in seeing what the competition had available.

A short while later I received the email, the bulk of which is shown below.

 

At first I was intrigued, because it looked like it was going to be a light-weight model that could be useful for some road warriors. That is until I got to the last word of the text, and I stopped short. In my head I heard the cartoon sound of tires screeching to a stop.

I then re-read the title, “Professional Redefined.” At that point I was horrified because of the dissonance in the ad copy.

It starts with the word “professional” in the first line and ends with the words “Windows 10 Home” in the last.

If “professional redefined” means using consumer-based products in a business environment, I am absolutely and totally against it.

I am a managed services provider (MSP), and I sell IT support services to small businesses.

One of the main points I make as an MSP is that a business must use business-class (or even enterprise-class) products, because they are designed to be properly managed, provide greater security, and offer additional features used by businesses.

Windows 10 Home does not fit in those categories at all.

I cannot, in good conscience, even consider these devices for my clients.  But now I’m wondering how much grief this LG marketing campaign is going to cause other MSPs who will have to tell their clients, “No, I’m sorry, it looks nice and shiny, but it isn’t suitable for your office.”

And no offense to LG, but if you are going to redefine the word “professional,” I would hope – very sincerely – that you would aim for something higher up on the scale, instead of lower.

Thanks and safe computing!