Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Bordellos of the Surveillance State

CIA Headquarters
DHS (Temporary) Headquarters
NSA Headquarters
US Military Headquarters

These are the places where nameless faceless evil people get off by spying on and interfering in the lives of ordinary people around the world. The NSA knows all my credit card transactions, even though I live in South Africa. They probably know all my land line and cell phone call "metadata", but Telkom and MTN aren't allowed to say. They know the text of all my emails, and all my SMS messages. They can read all my posts on Facebook, whether they are "private" or not.
The CIA has offices in South Africa, and interferes in the policies of all the countries in this region. The CIA has assassinated South Africans both at home and abroad, and kidnapped, interrogated and tortured many more. The DHS is responsible for atrocities both in the USA and elsewhere. The Pentagon has killed more of its own soldiers since 9/11 than the 3 planes did. Yet why is the US public is stupid enough not to notice? Because the military lie to the politicians, the politicians lie to the media, and the media lies to the public.
Try John le Carre's latest novel "A Delicate Truth" to find out about how the arms and security industry corrupts government to get contracts. Or try Andrew Feinstein's "The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade" or "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet" by Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmermann.
Saddam Hussein used to rant on about the USA being the Great Whore of Babylon from Revelation. Perhaps he was right: the US Congress is certainly the best government money can buy.
Update: It turns out that there are 4.3 million Americans with "security clearance" who have access to America's surveillance data. These are the sick weirdos who like to wage war on other countries, read people's emails, and spy on their movements and phone calls without their knowledge. They really need to get a proper job. And a life. Maybe if they did the the USA wouldn't be hated as much by the rest of the world. Of course, their politicians would have to stop lying as well. Fat chance.
Update: It turns out that the UK, in spite of having more security cameras per person than any other country on the planet, is also content to snoop on all the internet traffic in the UK. So we can add GCHQ to the list of bordellos above, as well as the offices of Skype.
I also think the USA should be renamed to the USSA: the United Surveillance States of America. "The land of the free and the home of the brave" will have to become "The land of the fee and the home of the Braves", since they are neither free nor are there many brave men left.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

DiskFresh Installation and Setup

DiskFresh is a useful utility to ensure that your hard drive is storing your data accurately, and that the magnetic signal on the drive is not "fading away" or suffering from "bit rot". Download the free setup file from
Installation is pretty straightforward, as you can see from the steps above. You follow through the screens, agree to the software license, and allow it to install the program in your Program Files folder. By the time you are completed, you should see the normal DiskFresh user interface
(click on the image for actual size)
As you can see, all the drive letters (except network mapped drives) are shown here, as well as the physical drive. In this case it is drive 0, which has two partitions, C: and D:. The other drive letters are TrueCrypt volumes, and can be ignored.
Now Let's take a look at the Task Scheduler (Control Panel -> Administrative Tools) and see how the scheduled task has been set up.
Double-click (or select Properties) to see the task details
Click "Edit" to see the details of when the trigger takes place:
In this case I am going to change it to run every 13th Saturday, i.e. 4 times per year.
Click "Edit" to see the program to be run:
I have added the parameters "/RW" for Read and Write, and "0:" (zero colon) for Physical Drive Zero. This will allow the program to start its work unattended.
Update 4 July 2013: DiskFresh is now at version 1.1, which fixes a bug encountered when using encryption in some cases.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Spinrite's Operations and "Bit Rot" explained

I have just posted this video on YouTube in order to share it here and on my Spinrite product page on the Fact-Reviews site. Steve Gibson explains what Spinrite does and how it operates, including how it "begs" for data from dodgy areas of the disk in order to recover it.
He also mentions the concept of "Bit Rot", where the defects on a hard drive can grow over time, gradually affecting more bits in a sector, until the sector becomes unreadable. Fortunately DiskFresh can also help detect these problems early without taking the entire PC offline for maintenance. With Spinrite the entire PC has to boot off a special boot CD or flash drive in order for Spinrite to do the recovery.
Of course if the PC isn't booting up anyway this is not really an issue, but with preventive maintenance it can be a big issue. That's why I was delighted when DiskFresh was developed, because now I can find out whether my hard drives (including removable USB drives) are developing problems before it is "too late".
Another issue I was not aware of is when and how often drives fail, including brand new "out of the box" drives. The authors of "Protecting Digital Assets for the Long Term" cite research from Google and others which suggests that new drives should be tested between 200 and 2000 hours before being put into active service, to prevent what they term "infant mortality" failures. The problem gets bigger as the size of the drive gets bigger, too.
In the case of Windows it usually takes around 200 hours to install and set up Windows and all the software updates and packages, but I have had a hard drive die on me after 7 days of use. It was not pleasant.
It is also not a good idea to leave a drive switched off for too long, because the mechanism can get stuck and the drive may never spin again. If you are using an external hard drive for backups, make sure you do a regular backup (monthly is more than adequate) to that drive, just to make sure that the drive is still working properly. And remember to do your quarterly disk refresh with DiskFresh (see article below).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

DiskFresh stops data fading away

My development server has two huge 2TB drives in it, which makes backups a nightmare. But what has worried me even more is that these drives are too big to do proper disk maintenance. No drive is "too big to fail", and the more data it contains, the bigger the disaster when it does fail. It's just a matter of time.
All magnetic disks suffer from the same problem: the analogue magnetic signal decays over time. If the file is being regularly updated, then this isn't a problem, because each update rewrites the analogue signal. But what about those old music files that you haven't listened to in 2 years? How do they get updated? When was the last time your hard drive even read those files to see if they are OK or not?
Until now I have used Spinrite to maintain my hard drives. On my laptop this isn't a hassle, because the drive is only 160GB big, and I can run Spinrite overnight in "refresh mode", where it reads and rewrites every sector on the disk, whether it has been used or not. If any sectors are damaged or faulty, Spinrite will attempt to recover the data. It usually succeeds.
In addition, I use Carbonite to make an automatic backup to "the cloud" of all the files I need on a regular basis. This includes all the programming projects I am working on. So if I file gets damaged or corrupted, or I just screw up and need an older copy, I can get it back in a few minutes. For bigger files like my two 4GB Truecrypt volumes, I use SyncToy to make copies to the server, and to an external USB hard drive.
But this is where things start getting difficult. The 500GB USB drives are slow, and it can take ages to run Spinrite on them. Each of the 2TB drives takes Spinrite nearly two weeks to check thoroughly (level 4), but I simply cannot expect my server to be offline when this happens, and Spinrite only works in offline mode. Gotcha. So I have had several hard drives lying around the office with important data on them, and no way of ensuring that the integrity of the data is being maintained. I can't afford to wait for the drive to fail or the data to be lost. That's a luxury for big companies like Google.
Google have so many hard drives in their data centres that they are always removing and replacing faulty hard drives. They have special machines (shown above) to destroy drives once they fail. Watch from about 3 minutes into this YouTube video.
A few weeks ago, the author of Puran Defrag and the Puran Utilities, Vishal Gupta, wrote to me to say he had started working on a program to solve this problem. I gladly agreed to do some testing, and make suggestions. I made a complete image backup of my test machine, and set to work.
DiskFresh is the result of this collaboration. Vishal did all the engineering, wrote all the code, and put up with my nitpicking, wild ideas, and occasionally useful suggestions. The result is elegantly simple, but extremely useful. You select a drive (either the entire physical disk or a drive letter) and the program methodically reads each sector, and assuming it gets no error messages from the drive, rewrites the data back to the same sector. Bingo! A fresh analogue signal on the drive, and you can rest easy that (for the next few months at least) the magnetic signal is not going to fade away and lose your data with it.
DiskFresh also has a "read-only" mode which is useful for SSD drives and USB Flash drives. Flash memory also has a "data fade" problem, but rewriting the data doesn't help, because you can only write data on a flash drive a limited number of times. Instead, you just read all the data fairly often (4 times a year) and the drive controller should pick up any problems before it is too late.
On my server's scheduler I have set DiskFresh to run every 13 weeks, on a Saturday. It will refresh all 3 physical drives, a total of 4.3TB of storage space. The server can still run while this is happening, and the DiskFresh software detects how much other hard drive activity is happening, and will scale back if the drive gets too busy. It is very well behaved, and doesn't consume lots of computer resources or disk space. On completion of the refresh, you get a text report listing useful information and any errors encountered. FWIW, each 2TB drive took about 22 hours to refresh during testing.
There is a free version that you can use on your home PC or for testing in a business environment. There is even an option to schedule it to run quarterly. The commercial version has some extra features, and the installer allows you to also install Puran Defrag, Puran File Recovery and/or Puran Duplicate File Finder. All of these are essential tools for modern Windows PCs, and it is great to have them in a single setup program. It makes life easier for the IT technician. Choose from a 5PC license for small businesses, or a site license for 20 or more PCs.
Update: For a more detailed look at why DiskFresh is so useful, see my Fact-Reviews article on DiskFresh and why you need it.
Update 4 July 2013: DiskFresh is now at version 1.1, which fixes a bug encountered when using encryption in some cases.

Full disclosure: I was not paid to do any testing, nor do I receive any money for any sales of this product. I am grateful that Vishal listened to my rantings about the hard drive signal fading away, and I am glad to be able to use this utility on my computers: Windows 2012 Server, Windows Vista (laptop) and Windows 7 Home Premium (Test PC).