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Why I Use Jungle Disk and Tarsnap

by Jeremy L. Gaddis on April 20, 2011 · 3 comments

in Security

xkcd: security

Two weeks ago, Derek Newton wrote an article entitled “Dropbox authentication: insecure by design” after discovering that one could take Dropbox’s config.db file, copy it to another host, and gain access to that Dropbox account.

Dropbox is a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs, and videos anywhere and share them easily.

Dropbox has been criticized since Derek’s post for that but a new round of Dropbox bashing started Tuesday after Dropbox updated its terms of service. The updated part reads:

As set forth in our privacy policy, and in compliance with United States law, Dropbox cooperates with United States law enforcement when it receives valid legal process, which may require Dropbox to provide the contents of your private Dropbox. In these cases, Dropbox will remove Dropbox’s encryption from the files before providing them to law enforcement.

This is exactly the same as damn near everyone else who does business in the United States, including Gmail and Hotmail. If you use the service for anything illegal and they get a subpoena, Dropbox will turn your files over the government — as they are legally required to do.

Here’s an idea: don’t store your private or confidential files “in the cloud”. If you must, encrypt them yourself.

A long time ago, I started looking into backing up my personal files somewhere besides in my home. If something were to happen and my home, computers, etc. “went away”, I wanted to make sure that certain data was going to survive: there’s pictures, videos, financial and legal documents, etc., that I don’t ever want to lose.

Blindly moving this data “to the cloud”, however, was not an option — not when I don’t have control of it.

I looked into a number of “cloud storage” services but was not comfortable with the fact that somebody somewhere would have access to my files. Even though Dropbox’s website states that “Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files”, we know that’s not true.

So what’s a guy to do? I found two solutions that I use.

On the desktop

One of the services I discovered was Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk is very similar to Dropbox, with one important feature that Dropbox doesn’t have: the ability to encrypt files with a key of my own choosing before the files leave my machine for “the cloud”.

The Desktop Edition of Jungle Disk expands the functionality of Simply Backup to include file sync and file sharing among multiple computers. It’s a great solution for people who work at home and need to access the same files from multiple computers. Desktop Edition users can also manage and access their data via the web. The Desktop Edition also supports Mac-, Windows-, and Linux-based computers.

During setup, you specify your own encryption key which remains known only to you (assuming you choose to encrypt). When you save a file to your Jungle Disk drive, it’s encrypted using AES-256 and the key that you chose. Jungle Disk (now a subsidiary of Rackspace) has absolutely no idea what your encryption key is and, as a result, would be unable to access your files (and subsequently, unable to turn them over upon receipt of a subpoena).

I’ve been using Jungle Disk for just over three years (my receipt shows that I purchased it — for a one-time $20 fee — on April 13th, 2008). I have about 3 GB of data stored there and every month Amazon charges me $0.42 USD for storage (Jungle Disk uses Amazon S3 for backend storage).

On the server

About 15 months ago, I moved my websites from 1and1 shared website hosting to a VPS at ARP Networks. Not being a n00b, one of the first things I did was to get automated backups set up. I did this by setting up a nightly rsync of my data from the VPS to a server at home. After that rsync job runs, a tar archive of all those files is made and backed up off-site using tarsnap (“online backups for the truly paranoid”):

Tarsnap is a secure online backup service for BSD, Linux, OS X, Solaris, Cygwin, and can probably be compiled on many other UNIX-like operating systems. The Tarsnap client code provides a flexible and powerful command-line interface which can be used directly or via shell scripts.

The tarsnap code is written by Dr. Colin Percival, the FreeBSD Security Officer. The separation of authentication keys and encryption keys, “ensures that even if the Tarsnap service is compromised (say, if big guys with guns turn up with a search warrant), your data will be safe from disclosure and tampering.”

Yeah, that’s what I was looking for. Tarsnap also uses Amazon S3 on the backend, but pricing for that storage is included in what I pay every month (which is mere pennies for the couple of 100MBs of storage that I use).

If the G-Men want a copy of the data I’m storing using either Jungle Disk or Tarsnap, they won’t be able to get it from either of those services — they’ll have to come up with another method.

Disclosure: I still use Dropbox, but I don’t store anything there that I consider private.

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