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Simple and Secure Computer Access While Traveling

Posted in Firefox and Greasemonkey, Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on July 28, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

There are no great solutions for accessing the Internet while travelling. Bringing a laptop has the convience that it is much easier to find free wi-fi than it is to find a computer with Internet access, but then you have the pain of bringing a laptop with you.

One solution is to use a USB key (USB thumb drive) to store your commonly used applications. So long as you have access to a computer with Internet you’ll be able to access the net with the applications, passwords and settings you’re comfortable with even if it’s at a pay-by-the-minute café, the business center at your hotel, or dial-up at a relative’s house. You don’t have to worry about your login information getting stolen because you aren’t leaving anything behind — everything is stored on your USB key.

You may even want to do this for any personal computer in a corporate environment. Lay offs could be around the corner, and you’ll be secure in the knowledge that your work PC won’t have any personal traces left behind after you’ve left the company because there was nothing personal on it in the first place.

This guide will show you how to:

  • Build an Encrypted PortableApps Drive
  • Download Portable Apps on to Your Encrypted USB Drive
  • Installing Firefox on your Encryped USB Drive
  • Installing a Live USB Linux Distro
  • Portable iTunes on Your iPod
  • Portable Remote Desktop Using LogMeIn

USB-Flash-Drive by _ES.
Photo by endlessstudio

How To Build an Encrypted PortableApps Drive

The one problem with storing everything on a USB key is what happens if you lose it? You save yourself any worries by setting up an encrypted partition on the USB key so that you have to type a master password before you can access any of the files.

Step 1: Format your USB key, or at least remove the crud that has collected on it.

Step 2: Download CryptableApps. Here is a direct link: http://www.interiority.org/geekstuff/images/cryptableApps.zip

Step 3: Unzip the file and follow the instructions in Readme.html to the letter.

You may want to override the version of TrueCrypt that comes with CryptableApps (4.3a) with the latest version: http://www.truecrypt.org/downloads.php (6.0a at time of writing).

Follow the cut-and-pasted instructions from CryptableApps. My edits are in italics.

  1. Unzip the contents of cryptableApps.zip to the root of your USB drive.  This installs the CryptableApps application as well as the TrueCrypt software.
  2. (Optional) Overwrite the version of TrueCrypt that comes with CryptableApps to a newer version.
  3. The first step is to set up your TrueCrypt volume  These instructions walk you through creating a reasonably secure volume; however TrueCrypt allows you to chose many options that will increase the security of your drive at a cost of performance.  For more information on the many options available to you, visit http://www.truecrypt.org/docs/.
    • To do this start TrueCrypt from the TrueCrypt folder on your USB drive.  For example, click Start.. Run and type F:\TrueCrypt\TrueCrypt.exe.
    • (Choose “Create a file container” if using TrueCrypt 6.0a)
    • Choose “Create a standard TrueCrypt volume” and click next
    • Click the “Select File” button and create a new file in your USB drive.  The location on the drive is not important, but it is probably better to tuck it away in a folder rather than leave it in the root, so that it is less visible.  For example, “F:\Source\store.dat”
    • Click Save, then Click Next
    • For an Encryption Algorithm, I recommend Twofish, which is reasonably fast and secure.  However, any algorithm will be fine.  Any Hash Algorithm is also fine, you can just accept the default and hit Next.
    • Select the size for the Volume (the Free Space on the drive is shown).  I recommend that you leave enough space to carry around some files on the unencrypted space on the drive- the correct amount here depends on too many variables for me to make a recommendation.
    • Type a password.  Read the recommendations on the screen for passwords on the screen.  If you want to add an extra layer of security, you can choose to add a keyfile.  If you don’t know what a keyfile is, then skip this for now.  TrueCrypt will allow you to change the password and the keyfile for your encrypted store at any time.  Hit Next
    • You may get warnings about password security. Read them :)
    • Click the “Format” button to format the partition.  When TrueCrypt tells you that it has created the volume, click OK, then Exit.
    • Make sure to ues a size smaller than the total drive so that you can still use it as an unencrypted file store.
  4. Now you’ve got TrueCrypt configured, so it’s time to configure CryptableApps.  You can do this by just clicking running cryptableApps.exe from the root of your USB drive (Start.. Run.. F:\cryptableApps.exe).  A warning pops up that you need to answer a few questions.
    • The first question is what drive letter you’d like to mount.  Choose a letter that is not in use on any of the systems you regularly use (the default is X).
    • If you chose to create a keyfile, enter the path to the keyfile.  If you did not, leave this choice blank.
    • Enter the path to the encrypted Volume File from the root of the USB drive.  If you chose to follow the example above, choose “Source\store.dat”.  Do not include the drive letter.
    • Choose if you’d like TrueCrypt to cache the password and keyfile for the volume in memory.  This adds a bit of convenience at the cost of some security.
    • CryptableApps may ask you if you wish to delete some unneeded TrueCrypt files.  If you choose yes, CryptableApps will delete the PDF documentation file and the “TrueCrypt Setup.exe” file- neither of which are needed to run TrueCrypt in traveler mode.  This will save (minimal) space on your USB key.
  5. At this point, CryptableApps will mount the drive letter for you.   You can now download PortableApps from http://portableapps.com/ and install it on your new drive, or restore your files you moved to your desktop.
  6. Once configuration is complete, you can specify applications to automatically run from the encrypted drive when it is mounted if you like.   To do this, create a file called “autoRun.LST” on the root of the encrypted drive (Start.. Run.. “notepad x:\autoRun.lst”)
    • Type a line for each application that should run from this drive when it is inserted.  Be sure to include quotes around any path that includes spaces.  You can also specify parameters to pass to the application.
      • For example, to automatically start Miranda,  \PortableApps\MirandaPortable\MirandaPortable.exe
      • If you want to start an application minimized, you can add a “-” in front of the path.  For example:
        -“\PortableApps\putty\putty.exe” -load sshProxyTunnel
  7. Now when you insert your USB drive, you should be prompted if you would like to Run TrueCrypt in Traveler mode.  When you want to remove your drive, you can go to “My Computer” and right click on the “TrueCrypt Traveler Disk” and choose “Exit all apps from Crypt and Dismount”.  This will attempt to close all applications running from the PortableApps drive and dismount the encrypted store.  Once that is done, you can safely remove the drive.

Download Portable Apps on to Your Encrypted Drive

You can download Portable Apps from http://portableapps.com/download. Choose the apps individually or grab them as a bundle.

I installed my apps a la carte. I recommend installing the following Portable Apps on your USB key:

  • Firefox
  • Filezilla Client
  • PuTTY
  • Sumatra PDF
  • Abiword
  • GIMP (for photo editing, unfortunately Paint.NET isn’t legally available as a portable app)
  • 7-Zip
  • Notepad++
  • PortableApps Backup (to save your portable drive)
  • If you’re looking for mind mapping software, there’s XMIND or the mind42.com website.

For more portable software see Wikipedia.

Installing Firefox on your Encryped USB Drive

Close Firefox before launching Firefox Portable. You can start a local version of Firefox on the PC after loading Firefox Portable.

Make sure you read the tips on the official Firefox Portable page for performance before you start. There’s some good advice there about copying over your profiles, and disabling sessions store / caching and history to improve speed. You may want to do all your tweaking on your local hard drive and then copy it to your USB drive when you’re done because it will be much faster than writing to the USB drive every time you install an extension.

You may want to change the default download directory to go to your USB drive.

Firefox Portable and Profiles

Firefox Portable doesn’t support the profile manager. If you want to use multiple profiles (I do so that I can have multiple gmail logins open at the same time) you can copy Firefox Portable multiple times for different profiles.

Copying Profiles

The easiest way to get up and running with Firefox portable is to copy over your existing profile(s). DO NOT COPY OVER A FIREFOX 2 PROFILE TO FIREFOX 3 PORTABLE. It’s a pain in the butt. You’re better off setting it up from scratch.

Make sure to follow the performance tips for Firefox Portable after copying over the profile.

Must Have Extensions

Make sure you go to Tools >> Add-ons >> Password Hasher >> Options and that your options match between both computers.

If you’re planning on using features like Google Gears for WordPress Turbo then you can test them with a Google Gears sample app.

Installing a Live USB Linux Distro

I haven’t tried this myself yet, but you should be able to put a Linux distro on the USB key as well for access to Unix if you boot from a USB Device.

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a good/free way of using virtualization to run Linux inside of Windows off of a USB drive without administrator access. For more information check out MokaFive (needs admin), MojoPac (pay, needs admin), or VMWare ThinApp (pay). Qemu Manager might be an option.

Portable iTunes on Your iPod

If your portable device is an iPod, you’ll want to install YamiPod directly onto the device so that you can edit the songs on your iPod on computers that don’t have iTunes installed.

Portable Remote Desktop Using LogMeIn

If you have a computer at home that is always on, you can use LogMeIn.com to access your computer at any time.

  1. Visit LogMeIn and install the software on your home PC.
  2. Open your Firefox Portable, visit LogMeIn and install the necessary plugins.

Some alternatives to LogMeIn are UltraVNC, Remote Desktop Control, SkyFex, TeamViewer, or MyIVO.

Lifehacker has a great guide on how to setup a remote VNC (virtual network connection) to your home computer using Hamachi.

But What If You Lose It?

Even if you lose the portable drive, your information is safe because no one can access it without the master password to your TrueCrypt volume. If you use the LogMeIn software to VNC back to your home machine then your network traffic should be safe even if you on an unsecured network.

Make sure to put a plain text file in the root directory of your USB key with contact/reward information if you do lose it so that the person who finds it can return it to you.

Now that you have your USB key drive setup you’re reading to travel with the knowledge that you’ll be able to access the Internet with all your usual applications and settings with no fear of leaving personal information behind.

2GB ChapStick by Andrew Curtis.
Photo by andrewandsarah

12 Responses

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  1. Nuno Teixeira said, on July 28, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Holy cowzers! This is so insanely cool it’s it’s… insanely cool! Thanks for this awesome break down–you just gave me a weekend project!

    Also, I frigin’ love that skull bear USB stick :)!

  2. NunoXEI » links for 2008-07-29 said, on July 28, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    […] Simple and Secure Computer Access While Traveling Take a portable solutions for accessing the internet next time you go traveling. Lighter than a laptop, that’s for sure! (tags: travel, gadget, geek) […]

  3. raincoaster said, on August 09, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Solid info; way more than I’m ever going to use, and I use public computers all over the city! I’m teaching travel blogging in a week and I’m going to give them this URL for sure.

  4. UnitedBySports.com said, on August 23, 2008 at 10:17 am

    This will be very helpful, thank you

  5. geekMenu said, on September 23, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Hey, Just thought I’d point out that cryptableapps is largely deprecated and no longer developed. The author has published geek.menu which is a fork of the PortableApps menu project that adds many more features

  6. Domek said, on October 11, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    That is one helpful article. Many thanks.

  7. Viv said, on December 02, 2008 at 7:27 am

    Cool! So, for the non-geeky like me, would I simply be able to plug this in at any internet cafe? Is there any software on the computer I plug into that could intercept and decode my emails, passwords, etc? Or any malicious software that could secretly copy my files while I’m connected?

    What about Big Brother Cafes like in China? I hear they have hidden cameras and depending on what websites you visit and activities you do (all monitored) that they’ll make secret calls to the Big Eye while you’re unsuspectingly surfing away.

    What about keylogging software? Would anyone be able to track my webconnections (which banks I’m connecting to, etc)?

    Could OpenOffice be installed? Would an 80 gig USB key do the trick? And could all this be done on an IPOD?

    THANKS for answering my questions. I want to teach my students how to do this as well.

  8. Kevin said, on February 13, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I have been using mobile apps for a long time. Most are actualy quite secure, and believe it or not they run very well. When I just purchased my new laptop I made it a point to run everything possible off of my pen drive. I am only using an 8 GIG usb drive and store everything I have on it. I usually make a backup of the drive on my computer (just in case) but have had no problems running everything from dreamweaver, to firefox on it. I would suggest this route to anyone wanting to stay “mobile”

    Nice article….

  9. USA Wii Games said, on March 20, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    I bookmarked this page. I really like your site. I’ll bookmark the other pages when I have time :)

  10. Roger said, on April 07, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Using a USB key is a great way to store personal applications, but as a frequent business traveler, I found ProxyNetworks enterprise software to be the best option for getting into my computer at work. I’ve got way too much stuff to carry around with me and also I couldn’t stand the thought of losing my USB. I lose stuff all the time. Out of my sheer lose-y-ness I’ve had to use remote access software, specifically ProxyNetworks. This is the one my company uses and it’s worked out pretty well for me. We used a different one before but there was an issue with security, especially using internet cafes.

    Any thoughts? How many people out there have lost USBs like this?

  11. Roger said, on April 14, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Oops. I noticed my link didn’t work. Try it here: remote control software. Sorry, all.

  12. Vicky said, on June 28, 2010 at 5:20 am

    Using a USB stick is a great idea for storing personal files when traveling but suposing it crashed or gets stolen.Ooops!it becomes a bummer.I think for all business people or people who love travelling but they can not travel with their laptops,i recommend them to use online backups.It is better because one can access his or her information anywhere at anytime.I mainly recommend safecopy backup.Safecopy online backup is a cheaper compared to other backup systems.I personally use safecopy and in a year i only pay 50bucks for 200GB of space and am also offered a free unlimited 5GB trial version.This has saved me from spending tons of money and now i can access my files from anywhere around the world provided where iam has got internet.

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