A Tech Trifecta

Feb 12, 2011 • alan


Dropbox + KeePass + VeraCrypt

I would like to introduce three software packages that are profoundly useful in their own rights, but then go a step further and show how these three tools can be used together to revolutionize how you keep track of your secrets & finances in the digital age.

DROPBOX

The first tool is Dropbox, a cloud service where you can store a folder of your own personal files. They offer a free service where you can keep 2GB of files, and you can pay for more storage.

You can access the files from anywhere using a web interface. Or better, you can install the Dropbox program, and it will automatically keep a local copy of all of your stuff up to date in a folder on your computer (Windows, Mac or Linux). If you’re offline for a bit, no problem, because you still have your local copy of the files.

The real magic happens when you connect multiple computers to the same Dropbox account — say, your home PC and your office PC. Dropbox keeps the files in sync for you.

There is even a Dropbox app for your iPhone, so you can access your files on the go.

KEEPASS

If I asked you how many passwords you have, you might think that you have a dozen or so. One day, I decided to make a list of every password I had (including multiple accounts where I happened to use the same password). I was shocked to find that I had more than 100.

PRO TIP – Most people use the same five passwords over and over… they don’t bother remembering which ones they used for a particular web site… they just try all five of their “not so important” passwords. That means that if I want to steal something from you, I can just set up a service and invite you to log in. I make your next login attempt fail, so you’ll get confused and enter all five of your “not so important” passwords, and possibly your “good” ones, too. Then I can go to eBay and PayPal and Amazon with your username and all of your passwords, and I have a pretty good chance of logging into your account.

For this reason, you should use a different password at EVERY web site.

KeePass is an open source program that stores your passwords. The program stores all of that information in a single data file that you lock using a single “master password”. This should be the only password you ever remember. The rest of them should be long strings of gibberish characters.

Keepass has a nice “generate” feature which will come up with really good passwords like “an@aiph5Ph”.

KeePass is available for Windows, Mac and Linux (KeePassX), and there are a couple of iPhone variants (I recommend “MyKeePass”).

Keepass stores four main fields: the browser URL address, user name, password, and notes. That means that I can store an entry like this for my bank:

URL = https://www.FirstFederalLovesYou.com/personal/login
name = alan_porter
password = uG7pi~ji9a
notes = security question, pet’s name = teabag

These days, it’s really easy to get confused about the main web address that you’re supposed to use to log in to your bank. They make things confusing by using fancy URL’s like “FirstFederalLovesYou.com” instead of “FirstFederal.com”. If you have not had your coffee one morning and you type “FirstFederalLovesMe.com” by mistake (“Me” instead of “You”), you’ll find yourself logging into a phishing site, which is trying to steal your password.

With keepass, there is no room for this sort of error. You double click on the URL and a browser opens on that site. You double click on the user name and it copies the user name to the clipboard. Paste it in the browser. Similarly, double click on the password and paste it in the browser. If your bank uses “security questions”, you can store your answers in the notes section.

PRO TIP – Don’t use truthful answers for “security” questions… treat these as extended passwords, just like you’d see in the old spy movies (he says “the sky looks like rain”, and you answer “that helps the bananas grow”). The answers do not even need to make sense… they just need to be remembered… in your head (bad) or in your KeePass file (good).

And no, I have never had a pet named “teabag”.

VERACRYPT

The last tool I would like to talk about is VeraCrypt*, a free package that allows you to create an encrypted volume on a file or a disk.

NOTE: the original version of this blog post recommended TrueCrypt, which has been discontinued — VeraCrypt is a drop-in replacement with several improvements, most notably it is open source and it has undergone very close scrutiny and security audits.

You can create a VeraCrypt file with a name like “mysecrets.vc” that you store on your desktop. You give it a size and a password. Then when you open that file, you’ll have to enter the password, and then it will appear as a Windows drive letter. On a Mac or Linux, it will show up as folder in /Volumes or in /media. When you close it, the drive letter is gone, and your secrets are stored, encrypted, in the “mysecrets.vc” file.

You can store this “mysecrets.vc” file anywhere you want… on your desktop, on a USB flash drive, or even on your Dropbox account.

You might also want to use VeraCrypt to encrypt an entire device, like a USB flash drive or SD card — nice.

THE TRIFECTA

Using these three tools together, suddenly we have a very secure way to do our online banking.

Regardless of what computer you’re using — Mac, Windows, Linux, desktop, laptop, at home, at work, whatever — you now have access to your passwords, and all of the other files that you need: Quicken or GnuCash, the PDF files of your bills, personal files, etc.

EXAMPLE 1 – PAYING BILLS FROM A WINDOWS PC

A typical online bill-paying session might look like this:

  • Look in your Dropbox for your KeePass password file, say D:\mypasswords.kdb. Open it with KeePass.
  • Look in your Dropbox for your VeraCrypt volume, say D:\mybills.vc. Open it with VeraCrypt. It will be mounted as drive V.
  • Use your normal accounting package (Quicken or Gnucash) to open your checkbook, say V:\checkbook.qdf or V:\checkbook.gc.
  • Find your bank password in KeePass. Click on the safe URL, copy the username and password from KeePass to the browser.
  • When you need to save a statement or a bill, save into the VeraCrypt volume on the V drive, like in V:\statements.

EXAMPLE 2 – LOOKING UP A PASSWORD FROM THE IPHONE

Say you’re out and about, and you want to use your iphone to log into a web site that you don’t know the password for (of course you don’t… because you use GOOD and UNIQUE passwords like “taeYi#c6We”, right?).

  • First, you use the iPhone Dropbox app to locate your KeePass file. Click on the filename, and the app will say “I don’t know what kind of file this is”. But it will show you a little “chain link” icon in the bottom. Click this icon to get a web URL for that one file. The URL will be copied to your clipboard.

  • Next, run MyKeePass and click “+” to add a new KeePass file. Select “download from WWW” and paste the URL that you just got from Dropbox.

Now, you can open your KeePass file from anywhere! You’ll have to enter the file’s master password that you set up earlier. After that, you’ll be able to browse the information in the KeePass file.

Note that you can only READ the file using the “download from WWW” method. If you need to save a new password or some other information, you’ll need to write it down on a piece of paper until you are back at your PC (no biggie — that’s pretty rare).

A NOTE ABOUT SECURITY

Some readers might note that we just shared our KeePass password file with the entire world, when we told Dropbox to give us a URL. Someone else could use that same (random-ish) URL to download our KeePass file. Since this file is encrypted using the master password, it will look like gibberish to anyone but you. For this reason, we should make sure that we use a VERY STRONG password for the KeePass file… not your dog’s name (remember, mine is “teabag”).