Adobe Reader X Quick Review

Background
Last week Adobe released a new version of Adobe Acrobat, version X.  This is a new version of the program that many of us use every day.  In the past people shied away from new versions of Acrobat reader because over the years the program had become bloated and slow.  However this new version offers important security benefits and speed improvements that make the upgrade worth it.

As many people know Adobe Reader has become one of the favorite attack vectors for hackers and malware over the past few years for a number of reasons including.

  1. The install base is huge! Most new PC’s come with it preinstalled, if not almost everyone needs a PDF viewer and Adobe’s is the most popular.
  2. Quarterly updates that Adobe releases are too slow and infrequent, Only if an exploit is really bad does Adobe decided to do an out of cycle update.  Even with these updates few people know that the program needs updated.  The automatic updates in version 9 have been better but still seem to fail most of the time.  Manual updating seems to be required.
  3. The ability to run things such as Javascript in a PDF exist and are on by default.  Just about everyone does not need this feature and it represents a large place to exploit.

The Good
Security
The biggest feature of version X is the introduction of a Sandbox.  A sandbox provides isolation  of the program from the operating system, to lessen the chance of security exploits.  Adobe does a great job in explaining all about the sandbox features in these two blog posts, Sandbox Post 1,  Sandbox Post 2, Sandbox Post 3, Sandbox Post 4.  This is such a big thing from a security angle that the SANS institute has recommended that everyone install Adobe Reader X to get this feature.  https://isc.sans.edu/diary.html?storyid=9976

Speed
Surprisingly this new version is faster than the old version 9.  It appears to be less bloated and quicker responding.

Other changes
I noticed the voice that will read text to you if you want seems to be more like a human.  The flow is greatly improved. The interface has been tweaked slightly to have more of a beveled edge, silver stainless steel look.  I like it.  Its nothing revolutionary but a nice, clean change.  The updater also now allows for you to set it to automatically download and install updates.  Hopefully this works well and allows the program to stay up to date without much user intervention.   I do hope Adobe changes their company policy and moves to a monthly update policy on the second Tuesday of the month, like Microsoft.  This will make the task of corporate administration much easier on the administrator.

The Bad
By default two security settings are on, when they should be disabled for increased security.  They pertain to features that a very, very small percentage of users actually use.  If for some reason you needed these someday you can easily turn them on, but for maximum security they should be off.  Adobe has even recommended doing this when the program has had problems in the past.  So to disable these settings go under EDIT—> Preferences —-> Then on the Left hand side choose JavaScript and then at the top of the page, uncheck the box that says “Enable Acrobat JavaScript”
The second option that needs changed is under this same menu.  Choose Trust Manager on the left hand side of the page, then at the top of the page uncheck the box that says “Allow Opening of non-PDF file attachments with external applications”

The other bad thing is that despite these new security features the very people you are trying to keep out are trying to take advantage of this new release to push their spamware most of it dubbed “Adobe Acrobat 2010” THIS IS FAKE and Malware, DO NOT INSTALL.  The SANS institute has a nice post about this as well, even with photos! https://isc.sans.edu/diary.html?storyid=9982

In conclusion when combined with the new security features and increased performance this seems like a great thing to have if you like the official client.  Here is a direct download for Windows ftp://ftp.adobe.com/pub/adobe/reader/win/10.x/10.0.0/en_US/AdbeRdr1000_en_US.exe

Security the Family PC

The SANS center also known as the Internet Storm Center is a volunteer organization dedicated to computer and Internet security. They rely on volunteers to detect problems, analyze threats and provide technical and procedures to the general public and IT professionals to address these threats.  I visit their website at https://isc.sans.edu/ daily to see the new threats that I need to be aware of as a general PC user and an IT professional at work.  It is very well known in the security community of posting quality information in a very timely manner.

They have designated October as Cyber Security Awareness Month and have dedicated that efforts this year will be focused on “Securing the Person”, in other words they are talking about the human element of security.  These things go beyond the everyday security practices of “Run a Firewall” but should be helpful for anyone who does any technology trouble shooting.  I plan on highlighting some of each days topics that I think will be most helpful for readers adding comments and other thoughts along the way.

Today’s topic is “Securing the Physical Family PC”. Anyone who has a computer at home should consider implementing at least some of these tips. They are designed for families but most can apply to anyone. I will talk more about general computer security such as software updates, network security, etc in my next post.

  • Backup your computer.
    • In my opinion this is the most overlooked area in home computing today. We live in a digital world today, with most people owning a digital camera, purchasing digital content (music, movies, software, games, etc) but they fail to prepare for problems.  Computers have problems from time to time, hard drives and other hardware fail, computers become infected with viruses and malware, acts of God (Flood, Fire, Tornado), and theft all happen.  What would you do if your house burned down? Would all of your digital photos, turbotax records, music from the past 5 years burn with it? The answer should be no.  Backing up for protection from a hardware failure is easy with a local copy on another hard drive but it is not perfect because it does not protect against theft and acts of God, a more perfect solution involves an offsite backup.  Many online cloud solutions are good for this and each service is a bit different and has pro’s and con’s.  My favorite of the moment is Backblaze but other good options are Mozy and Carbonite.  Take a look at them and consider implementing something on your computer today. All of these services offer encryption and trial periods.  With any cloud based backup soltuion the initial backup may take days but in the end it  is worth it. On my list of To Blog about topics includes a couple of backup articles. More will follow.
  • Use an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) for PCs, laptops have their own built-in UPS – the battery.
    • Many people understand that a computer should be plugged into a surge protector, but a UPS is an even greater source of protection.  UPS’s allow a PC to run on battery power should the power dip, or spike or go out and most initiate a safe shutdown procedure to protect your hardware from damage that would result.  In the midwest they are very handy to help with extreme weather.
  • Document computer details in writing (serial number, software, receipts, BIOS password, etc.) and keep the documentation in a fireproof box or safe
    • This is very helpful information if you ever have computer problems or need to call your manufacture for support.  It is also helpful for an insurance inventory.  Consider storing a copy online in the cloud as well.  Dropbox, Lastpass, and a Google Document (for non sensitive information) are both good ways to do this.  Also keep the information up to date
  • Keep all of the hardware and software manuals, plus any software CDs/DVDs in one place that is easy to find
    • Common sens here, it makes it easy to find when you need it in a panic situation.
  • Use a cable lock to keep intruders from stealing the computer should there be a break-in
    • No device makes it impossible for a theif to steal if they really want it.  A cable lock does slow someone down.  This may seem overkill but works especially well in some environments (Think college dorms).
  • Throw a towel over the web cam (better:  unplug the web cam)
    • The recent news story of school district that was found to be spying on students while at home by accident with the school issued laptops integrated web cams (News stories here: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3) have brought this to the attention of the public.  It is possible for a virus of malware program to do the same thing.  As a result the easy solution is just to cover it up. On laptops with integrated web cams a piece of blue painters tape or sticky note works well too. Most people don’t use their web cams all the time so this is an easy way to improve general security.
  • Unless it needs to always be on, consider turning it off when not in use
    • Computers use a lot of energy and create a lot of heat.  Consider shutting it off or enabling sleep or suspend mode on your operating system to control this.
  • Keep plenty of room around the PC so that air can flow through to cool it
    • Computers are hot and need lots of air moving through them for cooling.  Under the desk in the corner on the dirty floor is not the best place for a PC, Out of sight is not out of mind for a computer tower.  At least once a year (quarterly is preferred) unplug the computer, take it outside and open up the side of the computer case and then blow the dust out with a can of compressed air.  This is easy to do and will keep the computer running much cooler.
  • Keep all computers in full view (no hidden machines, no illusion of privacy)
    • This one is really designed for families with children.  A PC in the living room that the kids use really do allow for parents to keep an eye on what the kids are doing online. Also for younger kids who are using the computer for homework it can help to keep down the many distractions they face (IM’s Facebook, etc)

Here is a link to the original SANS article https://isc.sans.edu/diary.html?storyid=9649

Secunia PSI – The Security tool every windows user should be running

Lets be honest, Windows security is not the easiest thing to manage.  On top of the Microsoft products, there exist the 3rd party programs that tend to be forgotten about. Microsoft has made great progress with the security of Windows in its most recent releases of Windows 7 and Office 2010, but that’s only part of the solution. The Microsoft update website and built in Microsoft update utility in Windows Vista and Windows 7 have helped a great deal with keeping Microsoft products up to date, but these are far from all of the programs that most people run.  Persons crafting malicious code such as viruses, malware, etc know this and are targeting other programs too.  These 3rd party programs do not have a common updater and each must be updated on its own, for example, programs like Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Acrobat, Java, and Firefox, just to name a few. It is a lot for the average user to do, especially considering there is no general update policy (IE, Patch Tuesday) with most vendors, and announcements about updates are quiet.

Enter Secunia PSI. This is a free (for personal use) program put out by the Secunia company. They specialize in finding exploits and providing monitoring software.  PSI (Personal Security Inspector) is a tool that scans the programs on your hard drive and then does version checks against its vast list of known exploits.  It then notifies you of older versions and tells you where you need to go to fix them. The program is great for finding those programs you rarely use and forget about when updating.

The program is smart. For Microsoft websites it knows to open them in Internet Explorer so the download tools will work. It also allows you to rescan specific programs after you update them instead of spending time to rescan your entire drive.  It also offers the ability to ignore a specific program if for instance you need the older version for a custom tool to work.  It will run in the background and notify you when new updates are available or new known exploits exist.   It also offers an advanced mode which offers more features and details.  In advanced mode PSI will tell you about products you have installed that are no longer supported by their vendors and any known exploits that exist in them.

Secunia also offers a product called OSI (Online Security Inspector) which is a great tool as well. It is similar to PSI but does not require you to install anything. However, it does require Java to run in the browser.  While not as thorough as PSI, it’s similar in operation and usage.

In conclusion, this is a great tool that is very thorough and easy enough to use that every user should have this in their tool box and run it as part of a biweekly security audit.  It really helps to inform users of out of date software that could leave their computer vulnerable. While PSI is targeted for personal use, they offer a corporate version that is a paid version. Its functionality is similar but it also offers many more features.

Update #1 (9-3-2010)

Since this article was originally posted Secunia has come out with a new version of its PSI security tool that is currently in beta. It is called Secunia PSI 2.0. You can grab a copy for free here. The big feature that this adds is the ability to install updates silently and automatically if you choose for your vulnerable software. I think this could be a great feature especially for people who don’t want to deal with always having to update their computers.

Google Calendar Sync: The poor man’s Exchange Server

They say that necessity is the mother of invention… and they’re right, but in my case, Google already invented it, and I’m just taking advantage of it… don’t judge me.  I was recently setting up a Sprint i1 android phone for one of my co-workers, and besides being disappointed with the molested version of Android it was running, realized that they also don’t offer a desktop app to sync the Outlook calendar, of which said co-worker uses… a lot.

Enter Google Calendar Sync, and sweet little app that sits on your desktop and syncs your Outlook calendar to your Google Calendar.  Since the only option the i1 had for Outlook sync was through an Exchange server, which many smaller businesses don’t have, we just setup a dedicated Google account to sit there and be our pseudo Exchange server, letting Google Calendar Sync push events back and forth between Outlook and Google Calendar, then ultimately to the phone.

No specific issues as of yet, as I just finished setting it up this afternoon, but in my initial tests, it seemed to work well.  So if you’ve got an Android phone and use Outlook calendar, give Google Calendar Sync a try.

Axon Haptic Tablet Available for Pre-Order

For those that are daring enough to jump off the deep end, you can now pre-order the rumored Axon Haptic tablet (not to be confused with Axiotron’s Modbook) for a cool $750 . The capacitive-touch Hackintosh tablet boasts compatibility with Windows 7 as well as all Darwin-based OS platforms, including Mac OS, though on Axon’s website they state that Apple’s EULA specifically prohibits installation on any non-Apple hardware, though that’s certainly not going to stop anyone… after all, they call it a Hackintosh for a reason.

Some might believe the 1.6Ghz Atom N270 leaves a little to be desired, though it still has fairly decent hardware for a tablet. Specs include a 10.1″ LED backlit screen, 320GB HD, 2GB RAM, a removable battery, 3x USB ports, ethernet, card reader, VGA port, WiFi and for additional $70 you can add a Verizon 3G SIM card, and yet another $70 will get you Bluetooth GPS.

It’s up in the air at this point how well full-fledged operating systems will behave with the capacitive touchscreen, though I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction to bring more devices to the market as alternatives to the iPad that allow something more than a mobile OS. If nothing else, it might cause Apple to consider the possibility of competing with them, but then again, does anything anyone does really ever affect what Apple does?

For full tech specs and description, visit Axon Logic’s website, but see if I’m not the only one that’s bothered by the fact that they copied Apple’s top bar right off their website for their own….