Special: Dragon*Con session – Webmail Security

This special episode of the Gmail Podcast is a recording of a webmail security presentation I did at DragonCon in Atlanta Georgia on September 3, 2011. I co-presented for the EFF track with my Technorama co-host Kreg Steppe. It’s a little longer than my usual Gmail Podcast. And at times it starts to become a Google support forum, but thanks to Kreg’s facilitation, he gets things back on track. This episode contains many topics discussed on previous episodes of the Gmail Podcast, along with some new information, put together in one package. If you’re looking for better ways to reduce your risk email attacks, then you won’t want to miss this episode.

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Mobile Labels

Just a short one today… Some of you may already know this. If you use Gmail from the web browser on your iPad, iPhone, Android, or other mobile device, you might find it a bit annoying to label your messages. When reading a message, use the drop down chevrons on the upper right, select Label, and you are presented with a list of all your labels. Until recently, I would scroll to the label I wanted, check the checkbox, then have to scroll back up to the Apply button.

One day I was doing this and for some reason missed the checkbox and just clicked the word “Finance” and it put the label on and went back to the message – much faster than scrolling back up and clicking Apply! Of course, if you want to apply more than one label, you will need to scroll, tick the appropriate checkboxes, and click Apply, but for just one, tap the label text for a quicker experience.

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DragonCon Announcement

I’m headed to DragonCon again this year and this time they’ve asked me to do a Gmail panel around security. If you’re headed that way, I’d love to meet you. Hope to see you there.

More Gmail Podcast coming soon…

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My Top Five Labs Features

In this post I cover several of my favorite and most useful add-on features to standard Gmail that keep me productive and organized.

For those of you who are new to Gmail or perhaps haven’t explored the labs features, here’s a little background. Gmail has a collection of features they like to test out. They think they are useful or fun, but don’t put them in the main product unless they’ve proven that they are widely adopted by the public. The features or functionality of labs features can change at any time without notice. The name “labs” comes from the fact that they are still in the proverbial research and development lab.

You can get to the Labs features two ways. The first is to use the gear icon in the upper right corner of your Gmail screen next to your name and select Labs. The other way is to choose Mail Settings from the same gear icon, and select the Labs tab on the mail settings screen. Both menu options get you to the same place.

Once on the settings screen, use the radio buttons next to any of the labs features to enable (or disable) them as you wish. As of this podcast release, there are 56 labs features. I have well over 30 enabled at the moment, but have tried them all at one point or another (including some that have gone in to the mainstream product.) In no particular order, here is my top five list and why.

  1. Background send – This labs feature frees me up a few more seconds while the system delivers the message in the background. This is particularly handy with large file attachments. When I process my inbox, I like to go fast. Background send helps me fire off a message and go on to the next one.
  2. Google voice player in mail – A very handy feature for those with a Google voice account. When someone leaves you a voice mail, the poorly interpreted transcript is emailed to you with a voice mail file attached. With this lab enabled, a handy player displays so you can listen to the voice mail right in Gmail without having to download the file or use another application.
  3. Nested labels – What can I say? I like to label certain messages either automatically through Gmail filters, or manually. While some people like to just archive everything and leave finding old mail to the powerful search, I find it helpful to use some tags to not only spot important messages in the conversation index (colors help with this), but also narrow down my searches later by including a label. Nested labels help reduce the clutter on the left side of the screen by grouping together common themes in a collapsable hierarchy. I can group labels such as the organizations or groups I’m involved in, my podcast related messages, or projects I’m working on.
  4. Undo send – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent a message only to realize I forgot to include a file attachment, a recipient, or an email address microseconds after hitting the send button. The Undo Send labs feature puts a link at the top of the screen that gives you up to 30 seconds to re-edit that message. This is one of those labs features that was so popular, the Gmail folks put it right in the General Settings tab.
  5. Authentication icon for verified senders – Today, you need to be concerned about security and fraud protection. This little lab gives you a peace of mind when viewing your conversation index and messages. To date, ebay and PayPal are the only known verified senders I’m aware of. They also happen to be two of the biggest targets for fraud. Someone will send you a message that looks like it’s from one of these sites, asking you to log in and verify your settings, but it takes you to a site that looks like ebay or PayPal, but isn’t. It gets your login and password and you’ve just given up your access without realizing it by clicking on a link in your email. With this labs feature on, you know that the little gold key means the message is really from a trusted source and not a fraudulent one.

While there are a lot of labs features, these are just a few that I find most useful. I’d love to hear which ones you find useful or entertaining.

One final note, all of these labs features are designed to work with a desktop browser. I have not done extensive testing on a mobile browser such as an iOS or Android device.

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Never fear, I’m still here

FYI – I’m still here despite the reduced show frequency in the past few weeks. A number of factors have contributed, mainly short notice work related travel, keeping me from producing podcasts as frequently as I would like. My schedule is supposed to get a little less hectic in the coming weeks so look for more shows then.

We’ve got great things planned as I move in to my seventh year of podcasting!

Thanks

Auto Advance

In this episode, I cover

  • A way to advance to the next conversation without going back to the index,
  • A recommendation from a fellow podcaster whose Gmail account was hacked
  • A quick note about an update to the iPhone interface.

First up, long time listeners will know that I’m a fan of the Gmail keyboard shortcuts. They have been a huge time saver for keeping my inbox organized when using the desktop browser interface. I also understand that not everyone uses the keyboard shortcuts and there are some features that are not available from standard screen interface.

One of those is the ability to archive a message and advance forward or backward in your conversations without going to the index. Keyboard junkies already know about the right and left square bracket keys (“[” and “]”) to do this. Unfortunately, there was no way for those who prefer the mouse to do the same thing. Once again, Google has heard the cries of their Gmail audience and created a labs feature called Auto-Advance that lets you determine if you want Gmail to advance to the next or previous conversation, OR return to the index after you archive, delete, or mute a conversation.

Like other Labs features, click on Settings in the upper right, then click the Labs tab. Look for the feature labeled “Auto-Advance” and click Enable, scroll to the bottom and click “Save”. This turns the feature on, but doesn’t change the behavior until you go to the General Settings and tell it to advance to the next or previous conversation. If you’re the kind of person who likes to start with your newest mail first, change the setting to go to the previous conversation. If you read your older messages first, then set tell Gmail to go to the next newer conversation. If you decide this option isn’t for you, either change it to the setting “Go back to the threadlist” or disable the labs feature.

Whether your a keyboard shortcut junkie or prefer the mouse, the Auto-Advance feature should make it easier to keep your inbox clean without having to go back to the index every time you archive, delete, or mute a conversation. I activated the feature shortly after I heard about it and love it.

Next, I received the following message from Dennis Gray over at the 101 Uses for Baby Wipes podcast:

Apologies to all for the strange e-mail you received from my account.  Google advised me that my Gmail account had been accessed from China, and once I received that notice I locked the account for a few days and changed the password.

If you’ve ever been curious about what the warning looks like, I have attached a snapshot of the warning. (Which I have included in the show notes on the Gmail Podcast website) Sad thing is, the warning doesn’t show up in mobile Safari browsers, which are now my primary web access tools.  The warning also does not appear in the mail app for iPad.

It does show up in Firefox, though, and that is how I captured the warning, saved for posterity in the attached .PNG file.

Once again, my apologies for the spam, and the ‘radio silence’ that followed.

The key take away from this is the recommendation to change your password once in a while, say every six months, and use a secure password with mixed case, numbers, and throw in a symbol to keep those hackers off your mail account. Remember, you can change your password from Settings> Accounts and Import or go to google.com/accounts. If you’re not good at remembering passwords, I recommend using a password tool like 1Password at agilewebsolutions.com or KeePass at keepass.info.

Finally, a quick note for your iPhone Gmail users. You probably already noticed, but the floating toolbar is no more. When you select one or more conversations from the index, the option to archive, delete, and more is at the bottom rather than floating at the top. It’s a subtle change, but a nice one in my opinion. What’s neat is that they are willing to share the JavaScript and HTML techniques used to do this with other developers. Watch for that on code.google.com/mobile. Thanks Google!

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Gmail News: October 2010

I’ve come across several new stories and features regarding Gmail that just didn’t seem to fit in any other podcast so I’ll cover them here. Today I’ll be covering:

  • Buzz on the sidebar
  • A security checklist
  • Watch out for a phishing scam
  • Calendar notifications in Gmail

To start, Gmail has a new feature being rolled out that puts the latest Google Buzz comments from the mail sender on your sidebar. When you open a conversation, look on the left and if the person writes Buzz comments, you will see them there. If you don’t see the option, it could be that the person either doesn’t use Buzz, or that you need to turn this feature on. You can find it under Settings on the Buzz tab just below Your External Apps. If you don’t see the option there, it could be that it hasn’t been released to you yet. Keep watching. Like most features, this is being released in a phased approach.

Gmail is currently Google’s biggest application to date. While Buzz has a few million users, it hasn’t lived up to Google’s expectations and still falls far short of being a Twitter of Facebook killer. Google hopes that by making Buzz messages more prominent in the Gmail interface, it will drive more people to use the feature.

Next up, I came across a security checklist on Gmail’s help site with 18 steps to help make your computer more secure. The checklist includes everything from keeping the latest software and patches installed to changing your password periodically. I’ll include a link in the show notes so you can make sure you do your part to prevent problems and unwanted access to your computer. I went through it and found a couple things that I could probably do a little better. Thanks Google!

On a security note, listener Norb sent along a phishing scam that you might want to look out for. Phishing (with a ph) is a way in which people send fake email messages to try and gain your access information. A typical one would be from someone impersonating PayPal with a link to their site that looks like PayPal to try and get you to login with your account information and bam – they’ve got your PayPal login and password. Bad idea. How do you protect yourself? Watch for key clues.

One key way is to watch for grammatical errors. Things like “we have determine that your account is at risk. Please login to confirm account information.” Another way is to check the links before clicking

Once you become aware that most services like your bank, eBay, and so on don’t send out messages that say “You’ve won”, or “You need to validate your access”, you can  just delete these, or better yet, use the Gmail option to report phishing so it can learn and block these messages so other people don’t receive similar messages.

The message that Norb sent me appears to be sent from Google Service and goes like this:

Our science & technology team has recently launched Google web software to protect and secure all Gmail Accounts. This system also enhanced efficient networking and fully supported browser. You need to upgrade to a fully supported browser by filling out the details below for validation purpose and to confirm your details on the new webmaster Central system.   Account Name:      Pass word: Country:  Date of Birth:   Note: Your Account will be disabled permanently if you failed to provide the details below within 72hours. Gmail will not be heard responsible for your negligence. The Google web Service.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Again, the first giveaway is the grammar. Don’t be taken in by threats of your account being deactivated. Just report it as phishing and go on with the rest of your day.

Finally, I wanted to pass on a neat feature that I hadn’t noticed until recently. If you’re a Google Calendar user like me, then you may have noticed that Gmail will put a short alert message in the lower right corner of the screen when an appointment alarm goes off. If you’ve got a browser window open with Google Calendar running, it will fire an alert there and change your browser focus to that window. However, if you only running Gmail, then you’ll get a little alert in the lower right with the name of the event, the calendar it is from, and two links; one to view the appointment in your calendar and the other to close the short alert message. This is far less annoying than Google calendar hijacking your browser and forcing you to look at the appointment in the middle of typing something!

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Disable Conversations

Staying away from Gmail because you don’t like threaded messages (aka conversations?)

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I tell lots of people about Gmail and by far, the biggest reason I’ve heard that some people don’t like is that all the messages are threaded. All messages, replies, and replies to replies are displayed as a single entry in the conversation index.

Well, not any more. As of Wednesday September 29, 2010 Gmail is offering a feature to allow you to disable the conversations mode and use it like a  legacy email system with one line per email message on the index.

If you’re one of the people who stayed away from Gmail because you don’t like the conversations view, you can now find an option to disable this by clicking Settings in the upper right corner. Look for the section that says Conversations View and choose the way you want it displayed. Save your changes and that’s it. If you prefer, you can always go back to the conversations view.

While you’ve probably read all that from the press releases, I wanted to see it, test it, and let you know how this feature really behaves. My questions included:

  • What happens when you go to individual messages?
  • Does archive, label, star, etc. allow you to manipulate just one message?
  • What then happens when you go back to conversations?

The first thing I noticed is that the help screen is not dynamic between the words conversation and message. Everything is still referred to as a conversation.

As for the shortcut keys, they still work the same, j to go down one message, k to go up, x to select, and so on.

Regarding message management, I picked an example with a conversation containing two labels. Removing a single label from one message in a thread and going back to conversations view shows all applicable labels to the thread. if you go back to non-conversation mode, the individual message label settings are remembered. In short, it seems the application does what you expect it to do.

As for me? I love conversations view and plan to stick with it. With so many email messages going back and forth, it’s just made it so much easier to manage in conversations (especially the mute feature.)

If you’re new to Gmail and you’ve just discovered this podcast because now you want to use it because conversations can now be disabled, welcome aboard! I encourage you to go to chuckchat.com and visit the Gmail Podcast website to find out dozens of ways you can be more effective with Gmail.

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Disabling Conversation Mode

Today Google announced that you can now disable the conversation mode in Gmail. This is huge news. Many people dislike the feature (and I’m being polite when I say that.) That segment can now be silenced and enjoy all the features Gmail has to offer.

I am preparing a Gmail Podcast on the subject as soon as I can. I am currently waiting for the feature to be turned on for my account so I can answer a few questions first. I want to bring you more than just the press release – I’ll get you the real story of how G-stuff works. Be patient.

Two Factor Follow Up

George Starcher joins me to share his real life experience with Google’s new security feature.

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In the previous episode of the Gmail Podcast, I mentioned that Google has a two factor authentication available to keep your login information more secure than just using a password. Shortly after I released that, I got an email from my friend and fellow Friends In Tech member, George Starcher to discuss his first week of experience after working with the new security method in his day job.

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