Just drive: How to remain (relatively) anonymous

Technology Decoded IMAGEBy Paolo Chlebecek

What if I told you that you could take your computer with you anywhere and use it in safety and convenience anywhere in the world? Too good to be true? Last year, in this column, I mentioned a Live Boot Environment or Live CD or USB.

With all of the concerns with privacy, security, and tracking, a Live Boot Environment may be a viable solution. But as we get in to a few of the details, you’ll have to decide if it’s for you. So just what is it and how can you use it?

Essentially, a Live CD or USB is a way to use a computer another way than how the operating system that came with that computer does. When you power on a computer, it’s programed to look for an operating system, then whatever is loaded inside is what starts. There is a simple way to interrupt that process and start your own operating system. When you do, and if the computer had that option unlocked, then you can load whatever you like. Meaning, it’s impossible to prevent what could be called unauthorized use of a computer. So be warned, use this method at your own risk.

While this is an ideal way to compute and surf privately at a library computer for example, it may not be allowed. That being said, it absolutely doesn’t harm the computer. In fact, it is safer for everyone because it doesn’t use any data on the computer or leave anything behind when you are done. So, for practical purposes, a Live USB is the logical choice as it has the ability to save data easily and is more portable than a CD or DVD.

Typically the operating system that is more universal is Linux. (Pronounced line-uks or lin-uks) There are many varieties or distributions or “distros” of this operating system. Most have the capability to operate on most any hardware. Even very old systems can run better then whatever version of Windows that it originally came with. Why? Usually, because it loads only what is needed to operate the computer. The newer distros are very robust and can look and feel like the familiar Windows OS that we are used to. There is an option with some Windows 8 Enterprise users called “Windows To Go,” but most people don’t have access to that option. Besides, with just a little time and a low cost USB you can be up and running quickly, rather than pay for an expensive Windows license.

The process is relatively straightforward. A 32 Gigabyte or larger USB 3.0 drive is always recommended for ease of use and startup speed. Downloading a version you like may take some time; there are enough distros to make the choice difficult. The program called “Universal USB Installer” is one option that can make it very easy for a beginner, or an expert, to start the process. There is a catch though; some hardware may not be compatible with the operating system. Sometimes I can’t start a Macintosh computer with a live USB, even though UNIX, the father of Linux, is behind OS 10, the Operating system most Mac computers use.

Once you make a decision, the program will format and install the necessary files on the USB drive. Then, when the target computer is off, plug your newly created USB drive in a free USB port on the computer. Press the power, and if the computer is set up right, the USB drive will begin to load the data and now you have a “new” computer. On some systems, you have to press one of the Function keys like “F2” and select your USB to have the computer recognize it so it can boot from it.

So why do this?

You’ll be getting peace of mind that you aren’t leaving your personal data on a computer. Or, for example, a technician like me can start up a computer and diagnose and repair it. I had a successful incident when a customer’s server was badly infected. I started with the Live USB and found and destroyed the virus on all of the drives. They were up and running that same day.

You, too, can take your computer with you wherever you go if you are willing to do a little research and spend a little time on it.


Paolo Chlebecek is founder and owner of PaoloTek, which he started in 2003. He loves to be helpful to people and our animal friends. Feel free to contact him at Paolo@PaoloTek.Com.

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