Google can prevent you from accessing your own email if it thinks your email program is “less secure”

I have blogged before about email programs that can’t access your email and that try to insist that your password is wrong when you are quite sure that it isn’t. See “Oh dear – error“, for instance.

One of the situations that causes this completely misleading error message is if Google decides that you are using what it terms a “less secure” program to access your Gmail. It doesn’t say what your program is “less secure than” and it doesn’t tell you that this is why it won’t let you in. All it does is tell you that your password is incorrect.

Some circumstances that can definitely cause this are if you use:

  • The Mail program on an iPhone or iPad with an IOS version of earlier than 6
  • The Mail program on a Windows phone with a version earlier than 8.1
  • The Thunderbird or, believe it or not, Outlook email programs (including Outlook 2016 – the latest version)

Fig 1 - Accessing Google Account Info

Fig 1 – accessing “My Account” in Google

There is, however, a fairly simple way of rectifying the situation. Simple, that is, if you know how to navigate the seemingly Kafkaesque options in your Google account as accessed via a web browser.

So, until they mess around again with how your account information and options are presented, here are the steps you need to take to access your gmail by one of the aforementioned “less secure” methods:

  • Open a web browser
  • Log into your google account at https://accounts.google.com/login
  • Click on the circle at top right and click on “My Account” (see Fig 1)
  • Click on “Sign-in & security” (see Fig 2)
  • Scroll down until you see the box that includes “Allow less secure apps”
  • Click the “switch” to the right-hand (“on”) position (see Fig 3)
  • Sign out of the account (if desired) by clicking on the circle at top right and then clicking on “sign out” (see Fig 1)

Fig 2 - Sign in and security

Fig 2 – Click here

You may think that this couldn’t possibly be the cause of an email access problem today (or tomorrow) as it worked perfectly well yesterday, so why shouldn’t it work today? Because Google are quite capable of moving the goalposts overnight and they are not going to tell you if they do that. You just have to find out for yourself.

In fact, exactly this same thing happened to a computer support client of mine about this time last year. One minute the email was arriving perfectly happily on her iPhone and the next it wasn’t. I should point out here that my own strong advice is to keep up to date with IOS versions. Apart from anything else, it can take a long time to update everything all at once and it’s far easier (and keeps your device safer) to keep it relatively up to date all the time.

Fig 3 - allow less secure apps

Fig 3 – click to the right of the round “knob” to “slide” the switch to the right (“on”) position. It’s no good trying to “drag” the knob to the right: it doesn’t work.

Anyway, in this specific instance the client chose to force Google to accept a connection to a “less secure app”, so we took that route and all was quickly resolved.

So, if your email program suddenly tells you that your password is wrong and it’s a Gmail account that’s involved, do remember to ask yourself whether Google may have moved the goalposts again when it comes to what it considers “less secure apps”.

Yes, it’s that time of year when I congratulate myself on completing another year of weekly blogs

4 years of blog posts

So what’s happened during that year?

November 2013a year of Windows 8.1

Hard to believe that it’s a whole year since Windows 8.1 was released. It’s still with us and I still maintain that it’s not as bad as a lot of people think.

Homer and Windows 8.1December 2013more on Windows 8.1

I said that I didn’t care about the tiled apps in windows 8 and none my clients’ needs have pushed me into spending much time on them in the year that has followed. A client recently asked me if it is a good idea to buy a Windows mobile phone and I had to reply that, even if he does like the tiled apps, he might be better off with an Android phone or an iPhone as the developers of “apps” don’t yet seem to think it’s essential for them to develop Windows versions.

Figures released in June by Statista show the number of apps on the major “platforms” as

  • Google Play (Android) – 1,300,000
  • iPhone – 1,200,000
  • Windows Mobile – 300,000

January 2014making your computer sleep-friendly

I am still a big fan of using f.lux to automatically reduce the blue light emitted from a computer screen in the evening. Whether or not it does actually help in getting to sleep, f.lux certainly makes a computer screen easier to look at in the evening with tired eyes.

Microsoft Ends Support for Windows XP - screen capture from MicrosoftFebruary and April 2014Windows XP is still with us

There’s no sign of XP disappearing just yet. Some of my clients are still using it and I came across it in a local medical centre last week. We haven’t yet seen a massive attack on XP computers, but I still think it’s very likely to happen. If you are still using XP then I urge you to make sure you are taking regular backups of things you can’t afford to lose. See this link as well.


February 2014
PC World

in this blog I said that the service in PC World may be getting better. I was dis-abused of this notion last week when trying to buy a Microsft Surface Pro 3. For some odd reason, John Lewis aren’t stocking the model I want. My saga with PC World went as follows:

  • Oxford Street branch – hadn’t got the machine and they said their Tottenham Court Road branch hadn’t got it either
  • Tottenham Court Road – despite advice from Oxford Street, they did have it – but no matching keyboard/cover
  • Kensington High Street – they told me I needed to have it specially made to order as it isn’t a standard model (huh?)
  • Brixton – their website said they had it but they hadn’t
  • Old Kent Road – success!

Windows Desktop - Cluttered

This is getting silly

February 2014a cleaner desktop

My Windows desktop is still cleaner than it used to be. I now just periodically dump every icon I’ve not used recently into a folder of un-used icons that sits on the desktop. I don’t agonise over which ones to move: I just move nearly all of them. They’re easy enough to fetch back out of the folder, but I rarely need to. Very therapeutic having an uncluttered desktop.

March 2014Windows 8 File History

I still think this inbuilt backup routine is better than nothing, but I was disappointed to find that it can’t be used to automatically create backups to OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage service).

April 2014Faststone Image Viewer

I continue to recommend this to my Windows computer support clients and to install it for them. It may not be cutting edge software, but it makes photo viewing and editing a lot easier and more intuitive than Picasa. Get Faststone Image Viewer from here.

May 2014closing my LinkedIn account

I’m still thinking of closing this account. I am certainly not going to sign into any other account by using my Linked In credentials as I do not trust Linked In not to steal the data that would then be open to them.

Gmail LogoAugust 2014Gmail shortcuts

Do you use gmail’s webmail interface? Try using some shortcuts

September 2014the new “.london” domain

Maybe I got off the mark too soon when I changed from davidleonard.net to davidleonard.london . There are some places in cyberspace that refuse to accept that an email address ending in “.london” is genuine. It looks as if some web programmers need to re-visit the validation routines on their website forms. This is going to become a bigger problem for them as more and more domain suffixes are released. Did you know, for instance, that the following are all new domain suffixes – .mail, .club, .training, .marketing, .photography?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in profileOctober 2014the Microsoft Surface

As mentioned above, I’ve gone and got one (despite PC World’s best efforts to quash any impulse buying). Haven’t yet had time to install everything, but it’s definitely a very nice machine. I was right about the small screen, though. I don’t think I could use it for very long towards the end of the day if I hadn’t got a pair of glasses specifically optimised for reading at the distance of a computer screen.

October 2014 Windows 10 Technical Preview

If you’ve heard bad things about Windows 8 then you probably need to hold out for about 10 months before buying your next computer if you want to avoid Windows 8 altogether. It’s likely that 2-3 months before that you will be able to buy a Windows 8 machine with a voucher for a free upgrade to Windows 10 when it is released.

That’s it, then. On to year five…

Do you use Gmail in your browser?

Gmail LogoI’ve said previously that I don’t think it’s worth learning loads of shortcut keys. This is for two reasons:

  • Unless you use them all the time it’s very easy to forget them
  • Different shortcut key combinations do different things in different programs, so it’s very easy to get confused

However, if you only use a few different programs (eg a web browser, an email program, a picture viewer, and a word processing program) then it may be worth latching on to a few important shortcuts that might become second nature if you use them often enough. If you become familiar with important keyboard shortcuts, then your typing will become more efficient as it is quicker to type a shortcut than it is to grab the mouse and click on a command that might be available on-screen. With that in mind, I’ve been looking at the shortcuts that are available in Gmail’s webmail program.

Some of these are always available and are the same as in Microsoft Word and other programs. These include:

Ctrl + b to turn on bold type.
Ctrl + i to turn on italicised type.
Ctrl + u to underline text
Ctrl + shift + 7 to create a numbered list
Ctrl + shift + 8 to create a list of bullet points

Mac Funny Symbol

On a Mac, look for this button instead of Ctrl

In all the above, type the command to turn the feature on, type the content that will be formatted, and type the command again to turn the format feature off. This is what you do if you wish to turn the feature on and off again as you are typing. An alternative to this is to write the text first, so that you’ve got all the wording down (“on paper”, as it were) and then go back over the text, formatting where necessary. In this case, highlight the piece of text that you wish to format (by depressing the left-click button on the mouse or trackpad and then dragging the mouse over the text to be formatted) and then execute the command (eg Ctrl + b). The command will then be applied to the highlighted text.

Note that if you ever see a shortcut written as (for example) Ctrl + u, this means depress the Ctrl key and keep it depressed while you tap the other key. Note also that if you are using a Mac then it is not the Ctrl key that you use, but the key marked with the funny icon on it (see illustration).

There are other shortcut keys in Gmail’s web interface that are only available if you turn them on. These include:

c = compose a new message
/ = place the cursor in the search box ready to type in a search term
u = close the message and go back to the message list
r = reply to the message
a = reply to all the message recipients
f = forward the message to someone else
# = delete the message
v = move the message to a different label (or “folder”, if that description makes more sense to you)
shift + i = mark the selected message(s) as read
shift + u = mark the selected message(s) as unread

Obviously, the above commands don’t work if you are currently creating a message, as a letter “c” or a “/” or a “u”, etcetera, would just be added to the message you are creating.

You don’t have to turn these shortcuts on individually. To turn them all on:

Gmail Shortcuts Settings

Turn keyboard shortcuts on

  • Click on the “settings” cogwheel near the top right of the Gmail window
  • Click on the “settings” command in the menu that pops up
  • Make sure you are on the “General” tab
  • Go down to the “keyboard shortcuts” option and click the button next to “keyboard shortcuts on”
  • Scroll down the page until you see the “save changes” button and click it.

Click on this link for a more comprehensive list of Gmail shortcuts

I’m having serious doubts about whether it’s a good idea to keep a LinkedIn account

Linked-In LogoRegular readers will know that I’m no great fan of social networking sites. I think they are devious, manipulative, insecure, and can not be trusted with a tenth of the personal data that people entrust to them.

Nevertheless, for about five years I have had an account at LinkedIn. I thought that as long as I only give them the minimum amount of information (about my professional self) then it should be ok. To be honest, the real reason for joining was to increase my credibility as a self-employed person advertising via his website. If I have “x” number of connections on LinkedIn then at least “x” people are saying that they know I exist and that they are not ashamed to be associated with me (at least as far as LinkedIn is concerned).

But a number of things have started happening that I don’t like. These include;

LinkedIn - you may know

This person has suddenly appeared at the top of the list of “people you may know” in my LinkedIn account – just days after I started an email exchange with her.

People showing up on LinkedIn as being “people I may know” that LinkedIn could not possibly have deduced from my current connections. Indeed, LinkedIn don’t suggest they are first, second, or third degree “connections”. I have always scrupulously denied LinkedIn access to my contact lists. And yet, the only thing that a lot of these “people I may know” have in common is that they are, in fact, in my address book. If LinkedIn has obtained my contacts legally then I can only think that they must have bought another service – of which I am a member, and to which I have inadvertently revealed my address book. In any event, I don’t like it. Online services taking over other services and then pooling information about their users is one of the most insidious mis-uses of data online that I can think of.

More and more emails being received from people I don’t know, asking me to “connect with them” on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is not supposed to be like some stupid social networking sites where the aim is to get as many “followers” or “friends” as you can – irrespective of whether you actually know them. It’s supposed to be about business networking. There’s going to be no point in it at all if you can’t trust that the relationships are genuine.

There has been a lot of press about LinkedIn being hacked and about LinkedIn allegedly misusing information gleaned from users’ email accounts. If you suspect that people in your address book have been receiving invitations to join LinkedIn – apparently instigated by you – then do have a look at this link:

LinkedIn customers say Company hacked their email address books

And these pages don’t exactly inspire trust, either:

Your leaked LinkedIn password is now hanging in an art gallery
LinkedIn hack
LinkedIn passwords hacked

A Leaky BucketPerhaps It was one of these episodes that gave rise to a client phoning me last week with the news that her Gmail account had been hacked and her contacts were receiving some very strange email messages that were supposed to have come from her. She said that she had just been exploring LinkedIn (where she has an account) and that this hacking happened just afterwards. I realise that there is no proven connection with LinkedIn, but that doesn’t stop my uneasy feeling about them.

Luckily, the hackers used her Gmail account to send all these strange messages, but they didn’t change her password. The only reason I could think of for this was that they’d got access to so many accounts that they were content with a “one-time use” of her account. We were very, very, lucky. I have tried to recover Gmail accounts from Google before (see this blog on Gmail Passwords) and it can be very difficult. When trying to prove ownership of your hacked account, Google will ask some impossible questions – such as “on what date did you open the account”!

Anyway, in this instance we were able to access the account and change the Gmail password. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you not to use the same password several times (or similar ones such as mydog1, mydog2, mydog99 etc), as any human being that has hacked one site containing your email address and a password may well try the same combination (or similar ones) on other sites – see this blog on re-using passwords.

Add all these things together and I’m now teetering on the edge of closing my LinkedIn account. Certainly, I changed my own LinkedIn password as soon as possible after the above incident. I would advise you to do the same.

Setting up an autoresponder in Gmail is quite easy when you know how

What is an autoresponder? Also, known as an “out of office” reply, it is an automatic reply sent by your email provider to someone who sends you an email. It is typically used to let people know that you are probably not immediately available to respond to the message they have just sent you (eg because you are on holiday).

Setting up an autoresponder does not affect your ability to receive, read, or even respond to incoming email. It just sends an automatic message (of your own creation) to let the person know you are probably “not there” at the moment. You can still check your email when you are poolside in Florida (or Skegness) and you can still answer it in the normal way if you wish.

Different email providers offer slightly different options. Some, for instance, allow you to specify the exact times (as well as the days) during which the autoresponder will do its job. Others, like Gmail, switch it on and off for whole days at a time.

So, let’s go through how you set up an autoresponder in Gmail (see, also, the figures at the bottom of this blog):

  1. Log in to your Gmail account in the usual way (eg, by clicking on the “gmail” link on the page at www.google.co.uk and entering your credentials).
  2. Click on the “settings” gearwheel icon towards the top righthand corner of the screen.
  3. Click on the “settings” option about two thirds of the way down the menu.
  4. There is a list of “tabs” that pop up from left to right (from “General” to “Themes”). Make sure that the “General” tab is selected (by clicking on it).
  5. Scroll down the screen until you see a section headed “Out of Office AutoReply” and then complete the section as follows:
    1. Click the “radio button” next to “Out of Office AutoReply On”. This will put a black dot in the circle.
    2. Click the white space next to “First day” and click on the calendar on the starting day for the autoreply. Note that you can move forward to different months by clicking the right-pointing chevrons (double arrows) next to the month’s name at the top of the calendar.
    3. You can either enter an ending date for the autoresponder, or leave it blank (maybe you’ll choose to stay in Skegness indefinitely).
    4. Enter a subject. This will be the “subject line” of the email your correspondent will receive – eg “Thanks for your message. I’m away for a few days”.
    5. Enter the “body” of the message in the large white box – eg “I’m going to be away from October 4th until October 18th. I’ll respond to the email message I’ve just received from you as soon as I can.”
    6. If you would prefer that only people in your contacts list should receive this autoresponse, then click on the radio button next to that option. The reason for having this option is that sending these autoresponses does two things that you might find undesirable:
      • You are confirming that your email address is valid and that you are using it. This is valuable information for spammers.
      • You are saying that you are not where you usually are! if you are the sort of person who wouldn’t put an address label on a suitcase because it tells anyone seeing it that your house is probably empty (and, therefore, eminently burgle-worthy), then you might think there are security implications in using autoresponses.
  6. Click on the “Save Changes” button slightly further down the screen.

The advantages of using autoresponders are that they are a considerate, and even professional, way of dealing with the problem of leaving correspondents wondering why you aren’t replying to their email. After all, most of us expect that an email will probably be answered within two or three days at most. Autoresponders solve this problem.

Gmail - Sign In link

Fifure 1. Gmail – Sign In link

Gmail - Settings Gear

Figure 2. The Gmail Settings Gear


Gmail - Settings Option

Figure 3. The Settings option


Gmail - the General tab

Figure 4. The General tab


Gmail - Out of Office Options

Figure 5. The Out Of Office options

How do you like the new Gmail inboxes, then?

Google have been rolling out the new Gmail inboxes, whereby your incoming email is pre-sorted into one of five tabs. These tabs, together with Gmail’s definitions of what goes into them by default are:

  • Primary – “person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs”
  • Social – “messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services and other social websites”
  • Promotions – “deals, offers, and other marketing emails”
  • Updates – “personal, auto-generated updates including confirmations, receipts, bills and statements”
  • Forums – “messages from online groups, discussion boards and mailing lists”

I must admit that the knee-jerk reaction of this grumpy old man was to start chuntering at my screen “… and who do you think you are, intercepting my email and sorting it onto piles. I never asked you to do this“. But I’m starting to get tired of this reaction. Maybe they’re wearing me down (see also this blog a couple of weeks ago). And, anyway, they already “read” my email in order to try and match advertising with what they think interests me.

Having said that, I can easily imagine quite a handful or so of my IT support clients not being happy with this change, so let’s look at how you can over-ride it to go back to the single inbox.

Gmail Inbox Tab Selection

Figure 1 – Selection of Inbox Tabs

If you look at the right-hand side of the list of inbox tabs there is a plus sign. If you click on this a window will pop up as in Figure 1. The way to return to a single, undifferentiated, inbox is to click on the ticks against the four “subsidiary” inbox tabs so that they all become “unticked” (you can’t untick the “primary” tab) and then click on the “save” button. After a few seconds the inbox will return to the old style.

The way to turn the new inbox tabs back on is to click on the “Settings” gearwheel at the top right and then click on the “Configure Inbox” option. This will then re-present the screen that allows you to select which inbox tabs to show.

Gmail Inbox Tabs - moving messages

Figure 2 – Gmail Inbox Tabs – moving messages

You can move a message to a different tab and then instruct Gmail to put future messages from that sender into the same inbox tab (see Figure 2). I’ve noticed, though, that it doesn’t move other previous messages from that sender to the newly-chosen tab.

This blog was written with Gmail’s normal webmail interface in mind. The new inbox tabs are also being rolled out for Gmail apps in Android and iPhone. You won’t see them, however, if you have configured an email client (such as Windows Live Mail or Outlook) to deal with your Gmail.


Google Search is now secure

Google's Secure Search

Figure 3 – Google’s Secure Search

A few times in the last week or two I have noticed browsers not correctly showing Google Search when that is the defined “Home” page and the “Home” button is clicked. Instead, an error of the type “document not found” is encountered. I think the reason is that Google have changed their “Search” to a secure connection so that data between the browser and Google is now encrypted. This means that the web page has changed from http://www.google.co.uk to https://www.google.co.uk (ie the “http” part has changed to “https”). If you are encountering this problem, then just change your home page in your browser settings accordingly.

And I’d just like to take this opportunity to remind you that the “s” after “http” should ALWAYS be present on any web page in which you are exchanging confidential information – especially financial information.

I recently blogged that the computer market appears to be maturing in that there are fewer innovations in the hardware from year to year. All the bells and whistles that nerdy people used to add to their computers are now all built in and taken for granted. The hardware is still getting faster, but there are fewer new goodies to bolt on.

The software side is different. A shift is taking place in the way we do our computing. More and more of our data is being held for us “in the cloud” (by services such as Skydrive, Dropbox, Evernote). In a lot of cases that same data is also held on the hardware we are using, but we needn’t go into all that now.

Laptops in the cloudsThe huge advantage to storing data in the cloud this way is that it is accessible from many devices – even devices that use different operating systems and different versions of the programs and apps. I currently have Evernote and Dropbox available on my Windows 8 laptop, Windows 7 netbook, Macs, iPad, iPhone and Android phone. It’s all a far cry from the days when I had to remember to make data backups from my laptop and transfer them to the netbook before taking the netbook out with me.

All of this “data mobility” through internet access does have a few downsides, though:

  • My long-held opinion that our online data is not secure against prying eyes has now been well and truly shown to be “jaundiced realism” rather than “paranoia” (I am resisting the urge to use words such as “Told”, “You”, and “So”).
  • You are sometimes stuck if you don’t have an internet connection.
  • And, the point I’ve been trying to build up to, is that the very way we access, view, and interact with our data is constantly at the mercy of whoever is providing the service. I’m not suggesting they are unreliable or badly intentioned but they do have the very annoying habit of changing things without warning.

I think the most obvious way that this is apparent is not, in fact, services such as Evernote (that we access via programs or apps on our own computers and devices), but services where the data and the interface with it are both provided directly via a web browser.

The most obvious of these is our old friend webmail. How often have I heard the cry of anguish that Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, have changed the user interface again and now it’s impossible to find anything. This often happens without any warning at all and it can feel like an intrusion into our personal space. We get used to doing something in a particular way. Most people don’t want to consciously “engage” with Gmail: they just want to get at their mail without having to think about it or re-learn how to do it.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it's all changed again.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it’s all changed again.

Just occasionally I’ve been in the vicinity when clients have given vent to the frustration this can cause. Part of me sympathises with my client, of course, but every now and again I’ve tried to offer a different perspective (tactfully, I hope!):

  • The service suppliers get us to to agree to their terms and conditions before we can use the service. No-one ever reads those terms and conditions because they give us no choices and they are, anyway, utterly incomprehensible to human beings. You can be sure, though, that somewhere in those tems and conditions they have told us that they will make any changes they feel like at any time and that we can like it or lump it.
  • Computer software is still a relatively new, and rapidly changing, technology. Advances can only happen by having change. That may be a truism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true! We just happen to live in a time of lots of change. Personally, I like that and, to an extent, earn my living from it. Frustration, re-learning, adapting – they’re all part of the change. Hopefully, we can also sometimes experience pleasure, delight, surprise, and even a sense of fun when engaging with this stuff.
  • The other thing I occasionally point out is that the only way we are paying for a lot of this stuff is in the form of giving away our personal data when we use the service. Most of the internet, including webmail, Dropbox, Skydrive, etc, is free at the point of use. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. If any of us could have imagined the internet forty years ago, I’m sure we wouldn’t have also imagined that it would be largely free (which is not to trivialise the cost of giving away our personal data: this is just the wrong blog post for that particular hobby-horse!).

Heraclitus (c 535-475bce), looking as if he's just lost his internet connection

Heraclitus (c 540-480bce), looking as if he’s just lost his internet connection

So, we engage more and more with the internet to store and retrieve our data, to communicate with friends, family, suppliers, manufacturers and Uncle Tom Cobbly. All of this communication happens via “software interfaces” – be those on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Skydrive – or wherever. As the software becomes more powerful and more “feature rich” those interfaces are going to continue to change.

We’ve just got to live with it.

Apparently, it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said “The only constant thing is change” – and that was two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d think we would have got used to the idea by now.

Is your Contacts List at the mercy of your webmail service?

Email "@" signs falling from the Cloud into a laptop

It’s well worth saving your Contacts information locally if it only exists in The Cloud.

“Webmail” is the method of accessing email that works via a browser (eg Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera). There is no “program” on your computer that is dedicated to dealing with your email. All of the necessary programming is provided via the web browser.

If you use webmail to send and receive emails then it’s possible that the only “contacts list” you have is intimately bound up with that email account. This contacts list (also known as an “address book”) may be just the email addresses of your correspondents, but it may also include postal addresses and many other items of contact information.

When you use webmail, the information that you are looking at (email content, contact information etc) is normally only stored on the servers of whoever is providing your service. Now, I know that there is an argument that says “So what? Microsoft/Gmail/AOL/Yahoo all know what they are doing and they will take better care of my data than I ever would. I never take backups“. Call me a control freak, but I would not be at all happy to think that 200-1000 email addresses might be at the mercy of an organisation over which I have absolutely no influence. And although you might be right that these large companies have better data backup procedures than you do, that does not mean that they are entirely reliable.

Here are two ways in which computer clients of mine have lost their contact information:

  • Last summer a client of mine lost control of his Gmail account when it was hacked by someone correctly guessing his password – see this blog on Gmail Passwords for the full story.
  • Very recently a (different) client had problems with his Hotmail account. Microsoft told him that there appeared to have been attempts to hack into his account and they made him jump through all kinds of hoops to get it back. He was luckier than the Gmail client in that he did get back into his account, but all his contact information has disappeared.

Despite these occasional problems, there are definitely arguments in favour of using webmail, so can you do something to reduce this vulnerability? Yes, you can. If you use any of the main webmail services (eg AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo) then you have the ability to “export” your contacts list. It would be too tedious to describe the process for each webmail client (ie each webmail service), but the general advice is to click wherever necessary to get your contacts list in front of you and then look for an option that includes the magic word “export”. This may be a sub-option of an option called “manage contacts” or something like that. See the illustration for an example from a Yahoo webmail account.

Webmail Data Export Options

These are the options for exporting Contacts information from Yahoo webmail. The circled option is the one to go for.

You will probably be offered a selection of different formats in which the exported data can be saved, but we needn’t get too distracted by that. If it’s offered, take the “csv” option (which means “comma separated values”). If there’s no “csv” option apparent then take another option such as “Outlook” or “Thunderbird”. The main thing here is that we are saving a copy of your data onto your own computer so that it could be made available in the case of an emergency. Even if it’s in the wrong format a bit of “data massage” will probably put it to rights and you’ll certainly be better off than if you had no local copy at all.

When you’ve completed the process you will have a file on your computer that might be called something like “contacts.csv”. This is a local backup of your contacts data. It can be useful in several ways:

  • To restore contact data back into an existing account.
  • To transfer the data into a new account from the same webmail service.
  • To transfer the data to a completely different account with a different webmail service.

If you do use webmail and decide to spend a little time doing something “techie” and well worthwhile, then have a go at this.

Large eye through a magnifying glassWe may be fighting a losing battle with online privacy. As mentioned in last week’s blog on Internet Privacy, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon hoover up every crumb of information they can glean about us and use it to target us with ads and content that they think will appeal to us. As far as I know there’s isn’t any perfect strategy for maintaining online privacy, but there are lots of small things we can do that will certainly help.

I’m not concerned here with security on the internet as it relates to the safety of children, or trying to hide our identity so that we may be completely untraceable. I’m just trying to keep down the amount of un-necessary information we give to the likes of Google. These tips are equally valid in a home computer or business computer environment.

So, here are some tips. They’re not listed in any particular order. Some are easier to put into practice than others:

  • Create another email account that you never intend to use for “real” email. Don’t include your own real name in the account name and don’t give real data when completing the compulsory items of information in the account profile. Quote this email address on any websites that demand you supply one and where you don’t expect a normal, ongoing, email exchange (since you don’t want to have to keep checking this account for incoming emails). Having an “anonymous” account like this also helps in keeping spam out of your main email account.
  • If a website demands that you give personal information that is not connected with a financial transaction nor has other legal implications, then LIE. I will NOT give my real address or date of birth online when there is no legitimate NEED for it (and there are few legitimate needs except the protection of the other party in financial transactions). If I am entering a compulsory date of birth on a website where this is “relevant” (but not essential for financial reasons) then I enter a date that is close to my own (so that it makes no difference for the legitimate purposes of the website) but from which I can not be traced.
  • When filling in online forms, exercise judgement in completing any item that is not marked as compulsory (usually indicated by an asterisk or written in red). If they don’t require you to give a date of birth then why would you? If an item is compulsory but impertinent then LIE.
  • Don’t click on any “like” buttons in Facebook or anything similar (eg in Google).
  • Don’t take part in online quizzes or polls.
  • Preferably, don’t use Facebook at all. If you are a Facebook user and have any concerns at all about the privacy of your data, read this article about Facebook’s attitude to privacy.
  • Magnifying glass over computer keyboard

  • If you’re still keen to use Facebook, go through all the settings and mark everything private except what you explicitly wish to share.
  • If you use LinkedIn, do not click on ads without first changing your privacy settings to exclude monitoring your activity re ads.
  • Do not use Gmail or any of its branded versions (I think Virgin’s webmail is one of those). Google reads your emails and bombards you with “appropriate” Google ads (sponsored links). See last week’s blog on Internet Privacy.
  • If you must use Gmail, at least ensure that you sign out when you are not actually using the email as Google records everything you do in your browser if you are logged in as a Gmail user. They then use this info to target you with Google ads. I also sign out of other sites, such as Microsoft Live, as soon as I’ve finished with them.
  • Disable or remove browser add-ons that place “toolbars” and/or “search boxes” at the top of your browser. These often have tracking software in them. Incidentally, your browser performance will also be improved by doing this and your browser screen will be less cluttered.
  • Be very careful about “linking” any social networking site to any other (by giving any of them permission to access others). You might add data to one program, believing it to be private, forgetting that you have linked it to another program that sucks in what you thought was private data and spits it out somewhere more public.
  • Set your browser so that all cookies are deleted as soon as you close the browser (but this has implications – read on).
  • Set your browser to delete your browsing history as soon as you close your browser.
  • Set your browser to disallow third party cookies.
  • Turn off Amazon browsing history.
  • If you use Firefox or Chrome as your browser then you can install AdBlock Plus. This will stop most ads from appearing while you are browsing.
  • If you use Firefox, another excellent add-on is Better Privacy. This deletes the “flash cookies” that are placed on your hard drive by Flash Player. Flash cookies (also known as LSOs – Locally Stored Objects) are not removed or blocked along with other cookies.
  • Do not be misled into thinking that “private browsing” will give you any protection. It does suppress evidence on your own computer but it does not prevent sites you visit from recording your activity. Nevertheless, it may help to turn it on.
  • More technical ways of throwing websites off your scent include using proxy servers and using a dynamic IP address.
  • If you want to make an online purchase from a website that you don’t completely trust, you can use a prepaid Mastercard. This will limit your financial exposure to the value on the card and will also keep all your personal information from the website.

As if all this wasn’t already a nightmare worthy of a Kafka novel, some of these measures nullify others. You can turn off Amazon’s “browsing history” and, similarly, stop ask.com from retaining your history but the instructions to turn these off are held in cookies so if you delete cookies (as recommended above) you’re back to square one with these two sites. Doh!

Some of the tips above are easy to carry out and others less so. I haven’t attempted to give specific instructions (eg for different versions of different browsers) as it would just take too long.

If you’d like some help in tightening up your online privacy, contact me to arrange either a computer support visit or some online remote support.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Are you concerned about the privacy of your internet activities?

Magnifying glass over computer keyboardA lot of people just shrug their shoulders at this question. They just don’t care what information is being collected about them or their online habits and activities.

Others – including me – think that the “default position” ought to be that only the minimum information should be collected to permit an online function to happen and that no data should be kept unless it is required to protect one or both parties in a contract situation (such as a purchaser giving a full invoicing address).

Someone recently told me that she thought it was “freaky” that Google ads are appearing in her email for products she had recently been looking at on seemingly unrelated websites. Along similar lines, I was recently training a silver surfer client in the use of Gmail and noticed a lot of ads for militaria. I asked him if he had recently had any contact with the army and he said that he had been involved in a veterans’ dinner.

Now, to some people this spying on our activity and fine-tuning on-line ads to capitalise on what they have learned about us is nothing more than a logical extension of how traditional advertising has always worked. After all, if you were selling a boat and wanted to advertise it, you would put the ad in a boating magazine because you’d know that the reader was interested in boats. Is there any difference between that and Google targetting ads about militaria to a Gmail user who has been discussing an army veterans’ dinner in his email correspondence?

If I ask people under 30 this kind of question, their eyes glaze over and a look comes over them that suggests that they’ve just realised they’re talking to a nutter and now they’re wondering if I’m dangerous as well. Ask the same thing to someone who’s old enough to remember the days before CCTV cameras (silver surfers in particular) and I’ll usually get a different response.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that it is an outrageous invasion of privacy for Google to read people’s email and use the knowledge gained to target ads to that person. OK, I do realise that it’s a machine that’s doing the reading and not humans. That doesn’t change the principle. Apart from anything else, it’s widely thought that Google never ever throw data away, so anything they’ve recorded about you could, in principle, be checked over by humans or machines at any time in the future. I also acknowledge that Gmail is “free” to use and that people are quite capable of choosing different methods of handling their email. However, that should only give them the right to read a Gmail user’s outgoing – and not incoming – email. If I send an email to someone who uses Gmail what right do Google have to read that email? I haven’t given them permission to do so: I don’t use Gmail.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser. Click here for an interview with The Independent.

"The Filter Bubble" book coverPariser discusses the fact that Google and other huge websites such as Amazon, Facebook et al, not only bombard you with ads that they have tailored to what they know about you, but that they are also tailoring content to show you what they think you will like. So, if you perform a Google search and I perform the same search we may be presented with different results depending on what Google knows about each of us. And I’m talking about the Google organic results, here, not the Google advertising presented in sponsored links. Facebook are likewise filtering which of your friends’ updates are displayed to you depending on how much interest you have shown in that friend in the past. Pariser argues that these online organisations are creating a “filtered” view of the universe such that what you see on the internet is biased in favour of what you already know and like (ie you are in a “filter bubble”). Pariser maintains that, at the very least, this is presenting a distorted view of the world and most people are just not aware that such filtering is going on. I’m not sure about some of the implications that Pariser considers because I suspect that he over-estimates the importance of the internet in influencing our worldview. Nevertheless, I found this book informative, thought-provoking and worth reading (and thanks to Elaine for telling me about it).

If you belong to the part of the population that doesn’t care about privacy and doesn’t care where all this data gathering and filtering may be taking us then you won’t read my blog next week as I’m going to list some of the steps you can take to try to protect your privacy. l feel like a cross between the boy with his finger in the dyke and King Canute, but I do feel happier taking at least a few steps in the right direction and maybe you will, too, if you find things like targeted advertising “freaky” and disturbing.

I am aware that I am open to charges of hypocrisy. I advertise my computer services using Google AdWords and www.google.co.uk is still my home page. I do also buy stuff on Amazon (but not books). That doesn’t mean, though, that I have to approve of their definitions of acceptable boundaries when it comes to information gathering, retention, and use. My stance is that taking small steps to protect my privacy is better than taking none at all.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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