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The Perils of Shared Working Spaces

Since the Great Re-opening of our economy, utilisation of shared office spaces has never been so popular. Shared office space allows business operators to have all the benefits of an office without the huge fixed overhead. Such spaces also allow large businesses the opportunity to open branch offices or hubs with speed, flexibility and minimum fuss.

However, such offices do come with their drawbacks. Last week for example, we were dealing with a rather unfortunate case of a shared office space in West Dublin which had been subject to a rather pernicious ransomware attack on their network. A user opened a malware-laden email attachment which contained ransomware. The ransomware not only infected the user’s computer, but also spread across the network infecting other users. Several of these had laptops which became locked with crypto-ransomware and this resulted in irreversible data loss.

The roots of the problem

This particular shared office space had one unsegregated WLAN (wireless local area network). All the users connected to this network wirelessly using a Virgin Media modem-router. The connection speed was great. And it was reliable. It was even encrypted with WPA2 encryption. But it was not secure. If any of these users had “shared” folders on their devices, these could potentially be visible to anyone. And, if network got infected with malware, all the devices connected to the network could get infected. And that is exactly what happened.

Solution

We installed a new wireless network for them using an 802.1Q managed data switch as a backbone. Such a device separates networks at the data-link layer of the network stack (OSI level 2) using VLANs (Virtual LANs). A VLAN gives a systems administrator the opportunity to create a private network whilst using the same data switch. These VLANS can then be used (using what is known as VLAN tagging or port-based VLAN) to connect a wireless access point (WAP) to so that each user gets their very own private network. If one user clicks on malware, it will only affect them. A VLAN-based wireless network also means that other users in a shared office space cannot view your potentially confidential files. So, while our economy might be coming out of lockdown, a properly secured wireless network means your computers don’t go back into their own state of lockdown.  

How to save €6000 in broadband costs…

We recently helped a small business owner in Dublin. He was trying to work from his garden office in Clonskeagh but was being hobbled by a poor Wi-Fi connection. His garden office was around 40 metres from his house. He had tried all sorts of wireless boosters and extenders but none of them worked reliably. He contacted his broadband provider. They suggested that a second broadband line would solve his problem. According to the broadband representative the other users in his house would be “using up all the broadband” which they claimed would leave his office with only a meagre broadband supply. However, the prospect of paying for two broadband lines for the next ten years or more was not enticing.

Moreover, the idea that domestic broadband use was somehow going to deplete the supply for his garden office did not make much sense to him. And he was right. Unless his family were covertly receiving real-time geological scans of the Atlantic’s seabed or stereoscopic video feeds from CERN, there was no need for a second broadband line. Our client worked in consulting. The biggest bandwidth load would probably be large PDFs and Zoom calls.

We performed a quick wireless site survey. The speed he was getting at his modem was 350 Mbps. Our solution was to install a CAT6 Poly Poly UTP cable from his broadband modem to his garden office. This cable run was neatly installed along his garden fence. This all-weather resistant cable which means it’s designed to cope with extremes of damp, heat and cold. We terminated the cable in his office using a CAT6 data point. Using this data point, we able to install an enterprise-class access point.

His broadband provider wanted to charge him €50 for the line. The maths on this proposal didn’t work out too favourably. €50 per month over a ten year time span amounts to almost €6000.

The Result

Our client now has a fast, reliable, high-performance and secure (WPA2 AES-256) wireless network. He now has a wireless broadband speed of 348Mbps compared to the 6Mbps he was previously receiving.  He can now connect his iPhone, iPad and laptop seamlessly. He can do Zoom calls without any drops or lags. Wireless nirvana at a fraction of the cost his broadband provider wanted to burden him with. It pays to shop around!

Email is Dead, Long Live Video…

It is estimated that one third of a worker’s day is now spent on email.  So, if you work a 50-hour week, that’s just about 17 hours every week. That’s a lot of time spent on Office365, Gmail, Exchange or whatever flavour email platform you use. The problem with email is that it can become a rather nasty time drain. Just one simple communication can lead to an email thread which grows like a weed and ends up twenty emails deep. Alternatively, you could just set up a Zoom call with the other party but that can be messy too. Both parties have to organise a pre-arranged time. And if several parties are involved, organising a mutually suitable time can become a Herculean task.

So, while email is great for short messages and applications such as Zoom are great for interactive two-way conversations, wouldn’t it be great if there was a half-way house between the two solutions? Because let’s face it, sometimes you want to send an engaging message to someone (like a prospective client for instance) and email is just not up to the task. Likewise, setting up a Zoom call for such a use-case scenario might not be ideal either.

Welcome to the world of video messaging

This is where video messaging applications come into play. Now when most people hear the word “video”, images of lights, high-tech cameras, green screens and post-production suites start popping into their heads. However, with video messaging apps, none of this equipment is needed. You simply open up your video messaging application such as Vidyard or Loom on your phone or computer, click on record, present your message in a no-fuss way and then click on send. Just as if you were sending a voice mail. The video arrives in your recipient’s inbox.

Your communication is no longer centred on text on a screen

Now there will be people thinking “well, that approach is too informal. I’m not using some sort of Tik Tok service for my business”.  However, our experience would suggest otherwise. We have been recommending the video messaging option to many of our clients across a broad range of industry sectors. They love it. And for their clients, this medium has been well received and proven highly effective. More engaging than a boring plain-text email, your communication is no longer centred on typed-out text signed off with a faceless email signature. You become recognisable, approachable and more connected to your interlocutor. It’s almost as if the whole process has become more humanised.

Proven Effectiveness

The US-based video messaging application provider BombBomb conducted a survey of over 500 business users of video messaging. Here is what they found:

81% get more replies and responses

87% get more clicks through their emails.

68% have increased their lead conversion

56% generated more referrals

16% of users doubled their reply rate

In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a face-to-face meeting is 34 times more effective than traditional email when it comes to persuading people.

Why send a video message?

Convey nuanced Information more effectively

Communicate complicated, detailed and nuanced information which might be difficult to convey with traditional email. Most video platforms now provide you will the option to present your ideas, problems or solutions on a virtual whiteboard.

Stand out from the competition

You can stand out from your competition by sending your very own personalised introduction to prospective clients while showcasing your products or services.

Teambuilding

For remote team members dispersed around the country (or the world), video messaging provides an engaging and more collaborative way to communicate.

Most video messaging platforms allow you to record and track your videos. You can quickly find out which videos are working and which ones could be improved. Moreover, all of the video apps recommended in this blog are GDPR and PCI compliant.

Stop hiding behind email…

So, it’s time to stop hiding behind typed-out text-based emails and show your face. You will build trust; save more time, sell better, collaborate better and will be very pleasantly surprised by the results.  

Video apps we like.

Vidyard

BombBomb

Loom

(Most of these are compatible with Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS)

10 IT Mistakes made by Remote Workers

  1. Using a Mechanical Hard Disk

SSDs have probably been one of the greatest innovations in end-user computing in the last few years. They make your Windows or Apple operating system boot faster while making applications and file transfers run significantly faster. This means no more beachballs on your Mac or spinning circles on your Windows PC. Moreover, you no longer have to endure listening to strange mechanical noises emanating from inside your system as SSDs contain no moving parts.

2 Not having a Dual-Display set-up.

Working with just one computer screen is a pain. You’re constantly toggling between open tabs. One tab for your accounts package, a few tabs open for your browser and a few more Explorer or Finder open for good measure. All of this can result in cognitive overload. With a dual-display setup, there is no need for the constant toggling. For example, you can have your accounts package open one display whilst having Excel open on another. It just makes your workflow easier and less tiring.

3 Using an Ink-Jet Printer

Inkjet printers are slow, relatively unreliable and are expensive to run. Laser printers make printing a breeze without the headaches of messing around with paper alignment, paper feeders, nozzle-cleaning or frequent paper jams. What is more, a quality enterprise-class laser printer can be acquired for much less than you think.

4 Downloading MacOS Updates Willy-Nilly

When many users see the word “update” appear on their screens, they assume it must be good. Unfortunately, of late, MacOS updates (such as the now infamous Catalina 10.15 update) have caused more problems than they solve. Always do your homework first before deciding to install a new version of MacOS. An incompatible MacOS version installed on your MacBook or iMac can result in a whole plethora of problems from issues with dropping wireless internet connections to kernel panics.

5 Opening Phishing Attachments or Links

Humans are curious by nature. However, opening up a malicious email attachment or web link can result in cyber-criminals getting access to your email account. Once in, they perform all sorts of nefarious activities from invoice fraud to supply-chain attacks. Always stop and think before you open an email attachment or a web link (within an email).

6 Not Using MFA

Multi-factor authentication means that even if a hacker does steal your email password, they will still not be able to get into your account. Popular email platforms such as Office 365 and GSuite all support MFA. Enabling this extra layer of security on your email accounts protects your data, your reputation and helps prevent against financial damage.

7 Trying to Boost Wi-Fi with the Wrong Equipment

Working at home with a poor or intermittent wireless internet connection is annoying. Most of the wireless equipment manufacturers have done a stellar job in convincing home workers that their Wi-Fi booster gizmos is going to solve all wireless problems quickly and easily. Sci-fi-esque terms like “wireless mesh” are now being used by manufacturers erroneously giving consumers the impression their whole house will be saturated with fast and stable Wi-Fi in just a few minutes.  Unfortunately, a lot of these products don’t work as advertised and often conflict with your existing network configuration. An experienced IT technician should be able to perform a (socially-distanced) wireless site survey of your home in order to implement a reliable, fast and secure Wi-Fi solution.

8 Using Un-encrypted Devices

Another mistake of remote workers is using unencrypted devices. If your mobile computing device such as a laptop or tablet is lost or stolen and is unencrypted – a third-party could access your confidential files. And if you’re thinking that your operating system log-in password (the one your input when starting your system…) will protect your files, it can’t. Encryption based on AES-128 or AES-256 can protect your data if it gets into the wrong hands. It can also save you from a hefty GDPR non-compliance fine from the Data Protection Commissioner.  

9 Not Using an Automatic Backup System

Here is a fact. Most people have a backup of their data somewhere, but not everyone has an up-to-date backup of their data. And an out-of-date backup can be practically useless. Peoples lives are busy, you cannot always remember to back-up your computer. It’s often the last thing on peoples to-do lists. Having a robust automatic backup system saves you the hassle of having to remember to backup. It also gives you the peace of mind, that should some incident such as hard disk failure or ransomware occur, your data is safe.

10 Using the Email Service that came Bundled with your Web Hosting Plan

When you own a website, most hosting companies will provide you with a free email service. However, even with the best hosting companies, this email service can be a fairly bare-bones affair. It will provide minimal spam and malicious email filtering, which in today’s cyber threat landscape poses a security risk. And it will probably not support IMAP which is very important for keeping a uniform view of your inbox, sent items and custom made email folders across all your devices. Moreover, most email services provided by web hosting companies offer lousy mobile support. For a better alternative, GSuite (Google for Business) and Office 365 offer a much more secure and streamlined email service, meaning you can send and receive emails from anywhere quickly, securely and reliably.

What is the best noise cancelling microphone for remote working?

A lot of our customers are asking us about the best noise cancelling microphones for WFH purposes. A noise cancelling microphone means that the cacophony of background noise produced by kitchen taps, barking dogs, crying babies and slamming doors can be filtered out by the microphone.

For years we’ve been recommending the headsets from Jabra and Plantronics. The Jabra 75 (connection type: USB A + Bluetooth) and Plantronics Blackwire C5220 (connection type: USB A + C) are both highly recommended. These are the Toyota Lexus of the headset world which use a robust no-nonsense design, offer excellent audio quality (in and out) and are super-reliable. Moreover, they work very well with common video conferencing apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Lifesize. This all means you can enjoy hassle-free video conference calls without the drama.

Turbulent Times…where reliable IT Support is needed more than ever.

In these turbulent and unprecedented times, RealClear is still operating their on-site and remote service. While some of our competitors have left their customers high-and-dry, we believe that providing a reliable IT support service in a time of crisis is more important than ever.

We have always operated the highest safety standards. Now, even more so. All of our technicians are meeting (and often exceeding) the  recommendations from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Our technicians are following best-practice social distancing, hand-washing and respiratory protection measures. We’re using hospital-grade disinfectant on computing devices we interact with. We kindly request that before one of our technician visits your premises, that the workspace is well ventilated by opening windows and doors.

We’re in this together. We look forward to assisting you. Take care and stay safe.

PS: For those currently working from home, you might be interested in reading our article “Remote Working – the Silent Revolution” from 2017.

What to do when Sage Accounts Production will not activate…

Recently, one of our Dublin clients had a problem with their Sage Accounts Production software package not activating. Even though the client was using a valid activation license, the application would still not activate. They tried installing and re-installing it, but their problem remained. They disabled their anti-virus and firewall, but to no avail. They phoned Sage but were informed their Windows 10 computer “must have a bug” and a re-installation of Windows would be needed. But this really sounded like trying to break an egg with a hammer.

Solution

We went on-site. Our diagnostics found that while their download speed as 6Mbps, their upload speed was only a paltry .4Mbps. Using a 4G dongle, we connected their desktop to another, faster connection. This time, with an upload speed of 1.3Mbps, the product activated straight away.

So, there you have it. The activation servers at Sage must require a minimal upload speed in order for their software to activate on client devices. Otherwise, it would seem the activation process just seems to time-out. It’s always the little things isn’t it…

Dell laptops intermittently dropping internet connection: the case of 5 systems and 1 solution.

Recently, one of our clients, a business consultancy in Dublin, experienced a rather odd problem. Last week, they procured five new Dell Inspiron laptops for their team to replace some aging HP systems.

Upon delivery, we assisted them in installing software such as Office 365 along with their endpoint security software. Printer drivers and other ancillary software were also installed and configured.  After migrating data from their old systems, we then connected their shiny new systems to their wireless network (WLAN).

Wireless Teething Problems Emerge

However, less than twenty-four hours later, teething problems began to emerge. To our surprise, some of their users were already experiencing issues with their wireless network connection intermittently dropping.  For example, one of the users was trying to email a business proposal to a client when their wireless connection abruptly cut off. Whilst another user, when trying to upload data to a cloud server was greeted with a “page cannot be displayed” error message.    Understandably, this was very frustrating. And, it was not just one user affected, but all of them. This should not have been happening on brand new laptops.

Troubleshooting Wireless Connectivity

Troubleshooting an intermittent wireless problem like this necessitates a methodical approach. (A liberal dollop of experience and intuition can undoubtedly help too) Taking into account that their network had remained the same, we did not suspect any problems with their network infrastructure per se. After all, it worked great with their previous laptops. There was no obvious reason why the addition of new client devices (in this case laptops) should cause a problem. (Just in case, we tested the connection on our own laptops and it worked fine!)  The TCP/IP settings on all the laptops were configured in DHCP mode. This means they were getting an IP address automatically assigned by the modem-router. However, when pinging the modem-router, a 25% “packet loss” would sometimes occur. Pinging is like a small network connection test where you send a tiny “data packet” to the router to see if it can reach its destination intact. In this case, something was interrupting these packets causing the internet/network connection to drop. We were determined to find out the root cause of this.

We decided to use one of the Dell laptops as the test system. On it, the background “services” needed for WLAN networks were running. We disabled their endpoint security software. No effect. In rare cases, Bluetooth can even interrupt TCP/IP transmissions over wireless, so we disabled it. No effect. We then visited the drivers and downloads section of the Dell website to see if any driver updates were available for the Qualcomm 802.11ac WLAN card which the laptop was using. At last, a glimmer of light. We discovered that in December, for this particular model of laptop, Dell uploaded a new WLAN driver which they designated as “urgent”. So, the old WLAN drivers were uninstalled and the new drivers installed. The test system was rebooted. The internet worked for about 10 minutes until, alas, the connection just randomly timed-out again.

Going Deeper…

We would have to dig a little bit deeper to solve this problem. We deployed a sophisticated packet sniffer or tracer tool to pinpoint the root cause. A packet tracer is an application which forensically traces and logs data packets as enter or leave a computer. We installed it on your test system. Then just like David Attenborough studying wilderbeest on The Serengeti, we sat back and watched. Even when an operating system like Windows 10 is not in use, there will still be loads of network or data packet activity.  So, whilst observing packet activity, we had to look out for anomalies. Experience is key here because there will be a copious numbers of background processes running which have the potential to be just red-herring events. These are background data transmissions which look suspicious or anomalous, but are in fact perfectly legitimate. So, after around 30 minutes of observing packet transmissions through the GUI of our tracer, one application kept on appearing. This network-related application called “SmartByte” seemed to be quite active sending packets over the network. This was happening even when the computer was idle. A quick sleuth on Google revealed it to be non-essential bloatware.

Resolution

So, on our test system, we quickly uninstalled it via the Window’s 10 Control Panel. We rebooted the system. Internet browsing speed using Firefox seemed to have more pep straight away. After a further hour of testing, just to be sure, no packet loss was experienced and no more wireless internet drops. The SmartByte software was uninstalled from the other four laptops. Problem solved!

Comment    

Bloatware, or the practice of computer manufacturers pre-installing their own or third-party software onto Windows has been going on for years. Third-party software companies paying computer manufacturers to have their products pre-installed on operating systems means they can create awareness of their products with a captive audience. While this has always been more of an annoyance than anything else, in this case, bloatware caused a critical computer function, namely network and wireless connectivity, to fail. For an manufacturer like Dell, which relative to other brands take quality control seriously, allowing an application onto their systems which causes internet dropouts is a serious technical faux-pas. Not only does it waste the time of their own technical support staff, it also has the potential to frustrate their customers. We hope this blog post helps someone else who encounters the same problem!

RealClear are based in Dublin, Ireland and provide remote and on-site IT support service for Dublin. Our remote IT support service is delivered via TeamViewer (or equivalent) and covers the whole of Ireland is a safe, quick and painless way to get your Windows 10, Office 365, Apple (macOS) problems or software installation problems solved from the comfort of your home-office or business. Call us on 01 685 4833. We’re here to help.

Latest Malware Trends from Botconf 2019, Bordeaux, France.

Last week RealClear attended Botconf the malware and botnet conference in Bordeaux, France. Here, malware researchers from the USA, UK, Germany, France, Spain, The Netherlands and many other countries shared their latest findings.

Cyber-security incidents can have a devastating impact on your business. Customer or intellectual property can get stolen. Online financial transactions can be compromised. Email accounts can be hijacked. Ransomware attacks can wipe your Windows or Mac systems in a matter of seconds. All of these threats can result in significant downtime, financial loss and reputational damage. A common denominator in most of these attacks is the use of malware by cyber-criminals. Typically, malware is malicious software which gets installed surreptitiously onto your PC. Once installed, it can perform all manner of nefarious actions in your system or network. For instance, malware can secretly record keystrokes, take screenshots, steal online banking credentials and email passwords. Increasingly, today’s data stealing malware are connected to remote “command and control” centres in places like as Russia, Ukraine and China. Once your data is in their hands, it can be used to launch further cyber-attacks or sold on the darkweb.

Some interesting findings from this conference include:

1 in 5 malware threats goes undetected

1 in 5 malware threats goes undetected, even when using the most advanced firewalls or security software. This stealthiness is achieved by obfuscating the malware’s payload using encryption (such as RC5 or XoR), manipulating code which produces different cryptographic hashes, and programming the malware to “phone home” using multiple IP addresses.

Data exfiltrating Android phones

Certain brands of Android phone secretly exfiltrate your data to remote “command and control” servers. The malware runs at firmware level on the device.  So, even running and applying OTA (over the air) operating system updates for your device, the malware still persists. Just another reason why should never store passwords for email or cloud services in plaintext on a smartphone device.

Password Stealing

Some researchers explained how the Darknet is awash with password stealing kits such as Azorult. This malware can steal passwords from popular email clients such as Outlook. It can also create a hidden administrator account on your Windows computer and set up an RDP connection, giving the hacker free rein over your system. This attack can start with just one infected macro-enabled Office document being opened. Users should use extreme prudence when opening office documents.

Malware is getting more difficult to detect and mitigate

Malware is getting more difficult to detect and mitigate. For example, new breeds of smart malware, once installed on your computer, will perform reconnaissance on your system. If anti-virus software is detected running in the background, the malware can silently disable it. Moreover, some malware runtime processes will even temporarily stop if they detect the presence of malware scanning or analysis software. Malware creators and propagators continue to pick surprising and unusual locations to hide their creations such as using the COM1 (serial port) driver folder in Windows environments. Old reliables like the Svchost.exe Windows process is still commonly emulated by malware creators.

Remote Access Trojans (RATs) are in widespread use

Remote Access Trojans (RATs) such as Nanocore, WSH and Houdini are still in widespread use by cyber criminals. These tools can enable the attacker to have remote control of your PC. Ports 80 and 443 are commonly (but not exclusively) used as busy ports make a RAT hard to detect. You can become infected with a RAT by opening just one infected email attachment or URL (web link).  

The Problem with Two Factor Authentication

Many business owners believe that two factor authentication (2FA) is a panacea for their email security. While it does enhance protection, it can also be broken. Many threat actors now present their victims with cleverly timed fake 2FA authentication pages to bypass this defense.

Beware of the Webinject

Webinject attacks are still rampant. These occur when, for example, HTML or JavaScript code is injected into a website to exfiltrate data. If you’re a business owner who has a website with data collection capability (even just a contact form), it is essential there is no vulnerable code. Otherwise, your website contact form could be exploited for use in a phishing campaign.

Mind the NAS

Increasingly, many Irish businesses use a NAS device as a file server or backup device. Some brands of NAS, however, are also capable of exfiltrating your data via a secret inbuilt backdoor left by the manufacturer. One researcher found that an off-the-shelf NAS device from a well-known manufacturer was generating some unusual outgoing HTTP traffic and was utilising some unusual running processes. On further investigation, a root-level backdoor was found communicating to 4 remote IPs via API call and DDNS. And not only that. NAS devices are also targets for ransomware. In fact, they are almost perfect targets as they are connected to your network, they hold data and often don’t have the protection afforded to a traditional server. Between backdoors and ransomware, your NAS device could easily be a security blind spot and you won’t find mentioned on any glossy GDPR guides.

What Arctic Explorers Amundsen and Scott can teach us about Technology.

Between 1911 and 1912, two arctic explorers, Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, endeavoured to reach the South Pole. Amundsen painstakingly planned his trip. He studied the methods of Eskimos and other arctic explorers. He reckoned that dogsled would be the best mode of transport for equipment and supplies. He mustered a team of experienced dog and ski handlers. He was fastidious in his attention to detail. From ski goggles to clothing, he painstakingly made sure that every piece of equipment would suit the environment in which it would be used.

His competitor, Robert Scott, a British naval officer reckoned a more high-tech approach would work best. He bought motorised sledges. He bought the most expensive goggles and clothing he could find. However, the equipment he bought was more suited to a mountaineering expedition than an arctic one.

Both expedition leaders spent a lot of money on equipment. However, it was only in the unforgiving arctic wilderness where Scott’s equipment procurement mistakes became tragically apparent. The engines on the sledges ceased working only days into the expedition. The ill-suited clothes resulted in his team developing frostbite. They developed snow blindness because their goggles were ill-suited to arctic conditions.

Scott reached the South Pole a month after Amundsen. But unfortunately for Scott and his team of four, they all perished on the return journey to base camp. Amundsen and his team all made it back safely. The worst problem they encountered was a toothache experienced by one team member.

There is a powerful lesson here for businesses procuring technology solutions. Context is everything and throwing money at “shiny box” solutions does not always work. You need to carefully examine factors such as:

  1. Is the new solution a genuine improvement on your existing technology enabling quicker and more efficient workflows?
  2. Is the new IT solution aligned with your current work flows?
  3. Is the solution compatible with the IT skill set of your team. Not everyone is IT savvy.
  4. Is the solution compatible with your current infrastructure? For example, many SMEs have bought expensive IT solutions which were reliant on high-speed broadband connectivity when their users in the field did not have access to a high- speed connection. Likewise, buying a Windows-centric solution when most of your users have Apple devices can be a common faux-pas.
  5. Will the solution be adopted by the users? Is it intuitive to use?
  6. How well does the solution protect your client, donor or intellectual property data?
  7. Is the solution GDPR-friendly?
  8. Does the proposed solution have genuine buy-in from your team? Having employee buy-in usually means a smoother transition and greater adoption rates.
  9. Does the solution suit your remote working team members?
  10. What redundancy does the solution offer in the event of failure?

This valiant expedition undertaken by Amundsen and Scott teaches us a very simple but profound message. The best technology solutions are those which are not the most high-tech or expensive, they are ones which are most suited to the context in which they operate.