VIPole Secure Messenger

VIPole Secure Messenger is an app for Android and Desktop for Windows, Linux and Mac OS (desktop apps can be downloaded here). You can send and receive encrypted messages, photos and files plus make calls with video using the app. It of course requires registration for a VIPole account. You’ll also have to create a secret key password in addition to normal password that cannot be forgotten or retrieved if you do (so remember it!)

Once signed in you can search other VIPole contacts and start a singe or group message thread. Within these chats you can send and receive secure text messages, files or even start a video call (video quality is dependent on strong Internet connection). Additionally, you can edit and delete sent messages, change voice during the call, view other self-connections to the server from the online dashboard, close the application remotely, lock or close the application when idle. It’s a very fast instant messenger but has a few quirks that need to be ironed out.

VIPole Desktop App

The user interface on both the desktop and mobile apps look great but ironically I found them unintuitive in areas. For example, in the screenshot above on the desktop app- I was able to spark a text conversation without the user officially accepting the chat invite. In other messenger apps you usually cannot start a chat prior to first time acceptance but I could in this instance. This allowed messages and even calls to go through but calls could not be answered by the party shown as “offline”… weird. Upon accepting the invitation the app functioned as normal, meaning calls and video chats went through.

The other aspect I found disturbing and again ironic- is that the app’s description boasts so much about secure military grade encryption, yet it’s only encrypted in transmission from devices and through the servers yet communication history on the local device(s) are not encrypted. You have to upgrade to the pro subscription version for that.

I like that VIPole is a fast instant messenger for text, images, files, and it is also considered secure but I dislike that I have to label it with an asterisk disclaimer. Meaning total end to end encryption is only available in the paid subscription plan and not complete in the freebie. By default it’s secure in transmission plus you can make calls with video making for a well rounded communications tool.

5 Tips to Make Your iPhone More Secure

iPhones today are the ‘go-to’ device when it comes to smartphones for just about everyone from fortune 500 CEOs all the way down to young kids in middle and grade school. The amount of information that we walk around with on our iPhones and other iOS devices is just as powerful (if not more) than the info we have stored on our computers. Keeping that information safe and secure is becoming more and more difficult as time goes on, especially when it comes to teens and young kids.

Here are 5 tips you can use to make your iPhone more secure. For parents trying to ensure their kids are following the proper steps to keeping their iPhone safe, or for any individual trying to ensure their phone’s safety, the tips listed below are the best way to do so.

1. Encrypt Your Device

Even if your phone is protected by a password, there is a chance that others could still plug your device into a computer and gain access to all of your personal information. Encrypting your device can help to prevent such data theft/loss. Learn how to encrypt your iPhone.

2. Ensure that Your iPhone Locks Automatically

Most smartphones have a setting to automatically lock a device after a certain period of inactivity. Even if an iPhone is password protected, if it is left unlocked and unattended for a few minutes, others can pick it up and have uncontrolled access to the device.

3. Install Security Software

Your iPhone is a computing device and should be treated and protected as such. Spyware apps can intercept phone calls, remotely activate the microphone and camera, record keystrokes, as well as track a target’s GPS location. There are several security apps available for download that includes malware prevention, remote data wipe, and even provide an automatic security advisor that alerts you of any potential security risks on your device.

4. iOS Operating System Updates

It is imperative to keep your iPhone as up-to-date as possible. New operating system updates provide users not only with new features, but many times these updates provide system vulnerability patches to take care of security issues in previous versions. Users still may want to set options only to update after they have been informed of the update rather than automatically.

Learn how to update your iPhone to the latest version of iOS.

5. Turn Off Automatic Wi-Fi Connectivity

iPhones just as other smartphones provide users with the ability to connect to wireless networks so as to not use too much of their monthly data limit. Using a wireless connection is great, but users should be advised to turn off the automatic Wi-Fi search option so the device is not continuously probing for a wireless connection. Users should delete/forget networks they’re no longer using, and set the device to only turn on/off in certain locations.

RELATED: How to Stop Your iPhone From Automatically Connecting to a Wi-Fi Network

Securely Storing Passwords in PHP

Tons of websites or applications are requiring us to register our username/password into their system. This scares the hell out of me as a developer. If I register to 40 websites, and one of them gets breached, is my information secure? Does that one breach potentially affect the other 39?

How are you storing your users’ passwords? Read more to see if your password protection can hold up to today’s hackers…

The Methods

Plain Text – If you are storing passwords in plain text, please unplug your internet connection because you are doing more harm than good.  People tend to do this for one of two reasons… 1) negligence, or 2) they need to be able to recover the password.

Encryption – If you do need to reverse the passwords, then you will want some sort of two-way encryption.  If your entire system is compromised, there is a chance passwords may be too.  If you take the route of encryption, I recommend AES, which is the current government-approved standard for data encryption.  Be warned though, proper encryption requires a lot of preparation.  Encrypting passwords is rarely necessary. Allowing users to reset their password via email address is typically preferred from having a way to actually reverse it.  Personally, this also gives me the peace of mind that they are not storing my password.

Hash (One-way encryption) – A hash is a one-way transformation, creating a very small representation of the original data.  It is impossible to reverse.  You can authenticate users by storing a hash of their password, and when they return, a hash of the password they log in with should match the one stored.  This is the preferred method of authenticating users (or, if you can, some sort of OpenID implementation with no password exchange).

Home Grown Solution – Unless you have been studying advanced cryptography for several years, please stop. Every home grown solution I’ve seen has been security-by-obscurity at best, and would not stop even an inexperienced malicious user.

Why You Shouldn’t Use md5 or sha1/sha2

MD5 is the most popular hashing algorithm, and has been around for a long time now. It is still being widely (ab)used. It creates a 128 bit (32 digit hex) hash of the input string. Generally, you will get a unique hash for every string.  SHA1 and its successor, SHA2 are also very popular and valid hashing algorithms.  While they are better than md5, they are also not meant for password storage.  These are general hashing functions – not safe for dealing with passwords.  Here is why…

Rainbow Tables – One of the main flaws of using a standard hash is hackers can compile a large table of strings, and their corresponding hashes. A simple test is to search on Google for a hash of your password (or any string) and see what you come up with. This easily gets past common passwords, but what about more advanced ones?

Adding Salt – Adding “salt” refers to appending or prepending random characters to the password, so it will not match other common passwords, or even the same password somewhere else. Each account should have a different salt! While this does solve the rainbow tables issue, it is still not foolproof.

Collisions – Unfortunately, md5/sha1/sha2 are  not perfect hashing algorithms. Multiple strings can yield the same hash, so there is a chance that a user would be able to log in with a different password than your own. While this is not very common, it lessens the time required to brute force passwords.

Brute Force – At the end of the day, if a user has the hashed password, they can try to brute force it. They’d need a script to generate all character combinations (or download a large db), and compare hashes with the hash that they are trying to break.  If time is the only weapon we have, the slower the hash, the better our chances are. A decent server can crack a 6 digit password in under a minute. If you actually have sensitive information, a few thousand dollars will allow you to try more than 700 million passwords per second. It will not take long.  More and more hackers are renting high-powered computers so they can work faster.

Speed is the Enemy

The faster a hash is calculated, the quicker a hacker can brute force it.   There is an enormous difference in computation power between your home PC, a decent server, and a super-computer that you can leverage for a few hundred dollars per hour.  Some computers can calculate every 6 or 7 digit md5 hash in a few seconds.

bcrypt is a very slow hashing algorithm based on Blowfish (popular encryption algorithm). You can set the number of encryption rounds between 4 and 31. By comparison, depending on the number of rounds you set, it can take a tenth of a second up to a few seconds for a single password. Just to drill it in… md5: millionth of a second, bcrypt: 0.1s-5s (very rough numbers).

bcrypt uses a salt internally, so it naturally avoids rainbow attacks, and due to its complexity, brute force attacks and collisions. Even with some sort of super-computer, it would take several years to crack a bcrypt hash, which is significantly more effective than MD5 or SHA1/2.

Implementing bcrypt in PHP

bcrypt is a lot more difficult to call than md5(), and has a few dependencies as well. Oddly enough, it is also not very well documented. In order to use it, you call the crypt function (yes, it’s a hash and not an encryption function). In order to set the hash type, you need to pass it specifically formatted salt.

string crypt ( string $str [, string $salt ] )
$str is your input string to hash, and $salt is a combination of configuration and the hash type to use. Here is the documentation for bcrypt (blowfish):

CRYPT_BLOWFISH – Blowfish hashing with a salt as follows: “$2a$”, a two digit cost parameter, “$”, and 22 base64 digits from the alphabet “./0-9A-Za-z”. Using characters outside of this range in the salt will cause crypt() to return a zero-length string. The two digit cost parameter is the base-2 logarithm of the iteration count for the underlying Blowfish-based hashing algorithmeter and must be in range 04-31, values outside this range will cause crypt() to fail.

Here is an example:

crypt('string_to_hash', '$2a$10$abcdefghijklmnopqrstuv');

Broken down:

$password = 'TOP SECRET PASSWORD';
$rounds   = 10;                       // typically ~0.2s
$salt     = 'abcdefghijklmnopqrstuv'; // a-zA-Z0-9 / and .
$hash     = crypt($password, '$2a$' . $rounds . '$' . $salt);

When re-creating the hash for comparison, you’ll need to pass the same salt, so you should store it in your user table similar to how the hash is stored. Creating a user and authenticating users may take another 0.2s or so, but that’s really a small (and configurable) price to pay for security.