“CAN YOU GET ME A WEBCAM?” (NEW ANSWER: HOPEFULLY SOON!)

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, and until today, my answer has been “Alas, no. The pandemic caused a run on webcams, just as it caused runs on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and a number of other commodities (most recently, interestingly enough, bakers’ yeast). The few that are available are either overpriced or dubious imports, with long delivery estimates.”

It’s easy to imagine why webcams have been in short supply worldwide. After all, most everyone has been working remotely and attending virtual school classes for over a month now in much of the United States, and even longer than that in some other parts of the world. This requires webcams, so those people whose desktops didn’t have one (and whose laptops came with crummy ones) rushed out to buy them. But unlike some of the other commodities that people began to hoard, webcams were simply a victim of short supply to begin with. People who buy traditional desktops usually don’t buy webcams for them, and most all-in-one desktops and laptops come with webcams that are at least acceptable. So, under normal circumstances, retailers don’t stock a lot of webcams. After all, no retailer wants to store large quantities of a product that people don’t normally buy in large numbers. Doing so means a long wait to recoup their cost, not to mention the shelf space that the slow-moving product occupies, which could be more profitably occupied by more popular products. And, of course, it’s similarly unprofitable for distributors to keep large quantities of webcams in stock, and for manufacturers to produce them in large quantities. So, once people realized they were going to be stuck working and learning frrom home, it didn’t take long, or panic-buying or hoarding behavior, for the webcams in the pipeline to sell out.

A month and a half into pandemic stay-at-home orders (in the USA, that is), reasonably priced, webcams are starting to reappear, and it no longer takes 6+ weeks to get them. But the familiar webcam brands are still missing, and a lot of the end user reviews, when they’re present, look suspiciously like ‘bot-generated fakes. I’m still getting calls from clients who need webcams, but who wants to buy an unknown, untested model in hopes that it works? Who is going to take that risk?

The answer is: Lebowitz IT Services will! I just ordered the webcam pictured in this post. (I am not posting a link at this time, because I am not prepared to recommend it before I try it out.) It has genuine-looking reviews, some including photos and video, and most of them are positive. It’s in stock now on amazon.com, and I expect to receive mine in a week or so. When I do, I will run it through its paces, compare it with my trusty Logitech C270 webcam, and let you all know the results. After that, if the webcam proves worthy, it will be resold at cost, and more will be ordered for others who need or want them.

“I don’t want to be a criminal. Will you do it for me?”

People who know me well know that I respect intellectual property rights and honor end user license agreements. The fact is that failure to do so is stealing. I didn’t sit down to write a treatise on this today, but suffice to say that there is case law (both secular and religious, for those who compartmentalize) to back my assertion up.

I received a call today from a client who needed remote assistance from a software company. It seems that the software company technician wanted my client to install TeamViewer so that they could log in remotely. The client was unable to do so, and called to ask me to do it. I told the client, as politely as I could manage, that the request was rather surprising, that I found it more than a bit offensive, and if the software company’s technician wanted TeamViewer on my client’s computer, they should find a way to facilitate this themselves.

So, what was wrong with this request? Simple: Contrary to what many people think, TeamViewer is NOT freeware. TeamViewer (the company) graciously permits free use of their remote access product for personal use only. They do not leave “personal use” to the imagination; they explain what personal use means as far as they are concerned, and provide concrete examples to illustrate it. Using TeamViewer to provide technical¬† support to another company falls squarely into the category of business use, at least as far as TeamViewer (the company) is concerned. Business use requires a license, and TeamViewer licenses range in cost from about $700 to thousands of dollars, depending on a number of factors. I’m not going to try to argue that TeamViewer is inexpensive for this, that or the other. The fact is that many technicians find TeamViewer to be the very best remote access software available. TeamViewer (the company) knows this, and thus justifies the premium price. My business can’t afford that premium price, but I don’t use this to make an excuse for violating TeamViewer’s intellectual property rights. I simply license and use a less expensive remote access product.

The reason I found the request offensive is because it told me three things about the software company (which, I happen to know, charges hefty licensing and maintenance fees for their own products): First, they’re too cheap to license remote access software that they need to provide support. (To reiterate: TeamViewer may be the best remote access software, but it is not the only remote access software. There are cheaper, and even free, alternatives for those willing to open their eyes and look.) Second, they clearly know that providing TeamViewer to their customers without a proper license is against the law, because other companies that license TeamViewer appropriately have easy ways to distribute the TeamViewer host software to their customers, and this software company is not doing so. But what really made me angry was the third thing: while the software company knows that distributing TeamViewer without a business license to provide tech support is illegal, and therefore will not do so themselves, they are perfectly happy to ask other people to install it, and thus break the law for them!

If someone doesn’t agree with intellectual property laws and end user license agreements, or just doesn’t want to play by the rules for whatever reason, we can agree to disagree. It’s not my job to police such things. But at least he should have the guts to commit the violation himself. I draw the line when someone asks me to be a criminal for him.

Your Hard Drive May Be Encrypted…

AND YOU MIGHT NOT EVEN KNOW IT.

No, this isn’t a warning about the latest virus, ransomware, or hacker-related misery (unless you’re one of those Mac or Linux fanatics who views Microsoft as pure evil). It’s about a feature built into your computer and Windows that you probably didn’t know about, want or ask for, and was provided to help protect you from those very things, but has the potential to cause data loss itself.

I’m writing this while waiting for a client’s ailing hard drive to decrypt so that I can make a full image backup of it and use that to move the system onto a new solid state drive. I hope the drive doesn’t fail in the process, and I’ve already backed up the data files separately in case it does. But how did this happen? The client was unaware that their drive was encrypted, and their computer runs Windows 10 Home. Most people assume Windows 10 Home doesn’t support drive encryption thanks to Microsoft’s minimal and misleading information on the subject, which mosty contains reminders that Bitlocker is not supported on Windows 10 Home! So, how did this situation come about?

I’ll try to keep this post from getting too long and complicated by simply saying that all flavors of Windows have supported drive encryption – generally referred to as “device encryption” – since Windows 7. However, until recently, computers didn’t have the hardware support to make it easy to implement and enable at the operating system level. That has changed over the last few years, and now nearly all mass-produced personal computers sold in the United States implement technologies such as Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), Secure Boot and some form of Trusted Platform Module. When Windows 8.1 and later are installed on a computer that have those features present and turned on, they automatically install with device encryption enabled, but not fully activated. The problem is that the installation does not tell you at any point that it is doing this, nor does it tell you how – or even that it is necessary – to take action in order to obtain your encryption key. What I find outrageous about this is that if you don’t take action to obtain your encryption key, Windows encrypts your drive *anyway*, just with a generic key. Look in any Windows support forum, and you’ll find plenty of requests for help from people who had no idea that their hard drives were encrypted until something went wrong, and you’ll find plenty of solutions suggested. Sometimes, one of those solutions helps someone get his computer back into Windows, but in all too many cases, none work, Windows must be reinstalled from scratch, and the data is lost.

I’m not saying that any of these technologies – UEFI, Secure Boot, drive encryption, or Windows 10 – are bad. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s good to have hardware support for drive encryption, especially in laptops, which are often targeted by thieves while their users are traveling. It’s not hard at all to get data off of a computer, even if you don’t know the user’s password, but hardware-supported drive encryption prevents that. However, I am saying that Microsoft’s decision to turn this feature on by default, without informing the user and making sure he either turns it off or takes action to obtain and secure his encryption key, is irresponsible. It leads to users getting locked out of their computers when manufacturers’ driver updates or Windows updates fail to install properly, and, in cases like the laptop that prompted me to write this, the potential to increase repair costs or even lose data when a hard drive starts to malfunction.

Here is what you need to do to ensure that drive encryption doesn’t bite you:

1. First, find out if it’s turned on. If your computer runs Windows 7 or 8.0, you can stop right here, because unless you explicitly purchased and installed a drive encryption system, your hard drive is not encrypted. If your computer runs Windows 8.1, its hard drive is still probably not encrypted. If you have Windows 10, click your Start button, then click on Settings, and then click on Update & Security. Look at the list on the left side. If you don’t see “Device encryption” listed, then you’re done. If you do see it listed, click on it, and the left pane will then tell you if device encryption is disabled, enabled or if you need to take action to finish setting it up.

2. If Device Encryption is turned off, and you want to simply leave it that way, then you’re done. Similarly, if the screen reports simply that Device Encryption is turned on, then you can simply leave it that way, although you may want to log into your Microsoft Account to make sure you know how to get to your recovery key.

3. If the Device Encryption screen reports that “You need a Microsoft account to finish encrypting this device”, then you need to decide whether you want to turn encryption off or finish activating it. Clicking the “Turn off” button will decrypt your drive. Clicking the “Sign in with a Microsoft account instead” link will take you to a screen where you can switch from logging in with a local account to logging in with a Microsoft account, after which you should return to the Device Encryption screen and finish setting up Device Encryption.

If you choose to use Device Encryption, then I strongly advise storing your encryption recovery key in your Microsoft Account, rather then relying on keeping it on a printout or a USB flash drive (the other two options). Anything kept on paper or flash drives is subject to being lost, damaged beyond recovery or stolen. You can misplace the credentials for your Microsoft Account, but you’re more likely to recover from that than you are to get back a recovery key that was stored on a lost, stolen or damaged flash drive or piece of paper.

Another consequence of using Windows 10 Device Encryption (or BitLocker, if you have Windows 10 Pro) is that it complicates data recovery efforts if Windows becomes completely unbootable or the encrypted drive starts to fail. Data recovery tools won’t work on an encrypted drive, and the drive can’t be decrypted if you can’t at least get into the Windows Recovery Environment. I’m always advising people to make regular backups anyway, but it’s absolutely critical to do so if your drive is encrypted.

As always, Lebowitz IT Services is available to assist you in protecting your precious data.