Safer Computing in Internet Cafes

/ Sunday, 26 December 2010 / Nerd

In a previous post, I discussed potential issues when traveling with electronic components, and ensuring that your data was secure. But what if you don’t carry a laptop or netbook but instead rely on internet cafes during your travels? It saves on weight and minimizes your risk of becoming victim of theft or robbery, gives you the opportunity to interact with locals, with a trade off of reduced privacy. Internet cafes computer’s are notorious for being infected with spyware or malware that record your personal information as you do various internet tasks which could result in allowing unintended access by criminals to your banking information, email accounts, or any other websites that you visit. Since these public terminals are used multiple times per day, the installed software may also be in a disarray, not updated, broken, which can impact your overall experience.

If you have $10 and an hour of time, I can show you how to create a portable computing environment that you can take with you and use on any public computer, whether it be in a cafe, your friends computer, or at the library. We will focus on three areas:

  1. Create an encrypted area on the removable disk, so that you can protect your important data (documents, passport photos, whatever) inside a secure container.
  2. Create a bootable operating system so that if you have access to the reset button on the computer in general you can boot into a whole new operating system further increasing your protection.
  3. Create a Portable Environment allowing you to run various tools (Internet Browsers, Word Processors, Image Editors etc.) allowing your settings to follow you from computer to computer

This tutorial was written for those using the Microsoft Windows operating systems.

Lexar Media 16GB JumpDrive TwistTurn USB 2.0 Flash Drive

First, head to the store and pick up a USB flash drive, they can be had for as little as $10 for something with a decent size capacity. I carry around a 16GB device and find that it has more than enough space to suit my needs.

For additional costs you can purchase disks with embedded security technology, and portable application support (known as U3), but we can do the same thing with freely available software.

Step 1 – Making your Flash Drive Bootable

If you have access to the reboot the system, you can load your own customized operating system off the USB Flash Drive – this can be beneficial by ensuring that your system is safe from any malware or software based key loggers installed on the café’s computer, and ensure that your computing experience is uniform. You can’t load your Microsoft Windows installation off this disk, but there are small lightweight operating systems that are easy to use that should universally work on most computers made in the past 10 years. We’ll want to keep this installation light weight so that the computer can use all the features properly without it slowing down or failing. Let’s choose Ubuntu Netbook Edition, a popular operating system that is simple to use, works on a wide variety of devices, and is actively supported. It has all the features you would need in a modern operating system, Internet Browsing, video editing, photo manipulation, transferring files to and from your portable media devices, word processing – best of all, it’s free!

  1. To get started lets download the Universal USB Installer – It’s an easy to use program that allows will download the Ubuntu Netbook Edition software onto your USB key and make it bootable. Things like this used to be a tedious process resulting in a lot of trial and error, but thankfully the developers of this software have made it as easy to use as possible.
  2. imageLaunch the Universal USB Installer program after downloading and review the terms of usage heading into the main screen before clicking “I Agree”

  3. image On the main screen, click the drop the drop down box in “Step 1 and select ‘Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.10’. Since writing this document the version may have incremented.

  4. imageBeside the drop down is a box that asks if you want to “Download the ISO”. Check this box, and select yes to have the program launch your web browser to prompt you to save the file. Save it to a location that you can remember, and wait until the download finishes.

  5. imageOnce the download is complete, click the Browse button in Step 2 and find the Ubuntu ISO file you just downloaded.

  6. imageSelect your USB Flash Drive letter in the drop down box (it should auto detect it properly for you) and check the box to “Format Drive” so that we can make sure it can boot properly. Make sure if you are using an old disk that you’ve backed up your contents on the device.

  7. imageSelect if you would like to use “Persistence” – Persistence allows your settings and work that you do in this new operating system to be saved on the device, to be used from computer to computer. If you have a large drive, choose the largest size, but typically I’m happy with 2GB. Finally, click create to start the process of making your own disk.

  8. imageFinally, Click Create to start the process of making your own disk. A series of warnings will give you the opportunity to cancel the process and make sure you are installing to the correct drive letter before commencing. Since we’ve verified it already, Click “YES”

  9. Reboot your computer and set it to boot from your USB Device (Typically Pressing F12 at boot up before anything else loads will give you an option to boot from a difference device) and watch Ubuntu load before taking you into its own Desktop.

Step 2 – Creating the Encrypted Area

I wrote about TrueCrypt before, a powerful on the fly encryption engine that uses a sophisticated level of cryptography that cannot be broken with today’s super computers. It’s available for free, open source meaning that the entire world can review how it was written to ensure there are no backdoors embedded into it, and its performance is fast enough that you shouldn’t notice any slowdowns on your computer while using it. For this section we are going to create a container that can be copied back and forth from your USB Flash Drive, stored on the internet somewhere for safekeeping, or what have you. This is a good place to store things like passwords, credit card information, copies of your passport, passwords to some of the many sites that you access. If you need to open this in an internet cafe environment, you can either run TrueCrypt from the flash disk itself in their operating system, or reboot the system to access it via your Ubuntu Netbook operating system we created above.

  1. Download TrueCrypt from the website. Install it regularly onto your system and then launch the application.
  2. imageNavigate to the Tools Menu and select ‘Traveller Disk Setup’.
  3. imageClick the Browse Button and select your USB Flash Drive, In my case it was Drive G. There are some other options below that control what happens when you plug the disk into a computer, at present in my picture it is set to ‘Do Nothing’, however you can set it up so that a menu appears and prompts you to either load TrueCrypt or mount the encrypted partition. I’ve set it to disabled in this example as I don’t always access the encrypted data when I am using other peoples computers. You can always load TrueCrypt by navigating to the folder on the USB Flash Drive and running Truecrypt.exe.

  4. imageClicking Create will show the process has completed and bring you back to the page again, press cancel to get to the main interface again and we’re going to start creating our encrypted volume now.

  5. imageClick the ‘Create Volume’ button as shown in the picture to start the process.

  6. imageSelect the default option ‘Create an Encrypted File Container” and click next. The other options are self-explanatory and are used if you would like to try other encryption methods like securing your entire hard disk. Use with caution and make sure you back up first before you start getting adventurous!

  7. imageSelect “Standard TrueCrypt Volume” – and select next. For this purpose a hidden volume might be taking things into “way too paranoid” land.

  8. imageClick the Select File Button and select your USB Flash Drive and type a name for your encrypted container. In this example I’ve called my file “encrypted” on the root of the G:\ drive. You can place it anywhere, or even do it in a different location, copying it onto the USB Flash Drive for later if you’d like as well.

  9. imageThe next screen gives you the opportunity to choose your encryption algorithm and Hash Algorithm. By default it is set to AES – a presently unbreakable crypto scheme that is used by governments to secure their classified data. For the ultimate in paranoia, you can choose multiple encryption algorithms should one be broken, but this comes at a cost – your performance will suffer with your computer. Clicking the ‘Benchmark’ button will allow you to see how fast your computer computes various encryption schemes. Higher numbers are better. Leaving it at AES and the default hash algorithm of ‘RIPEMD-160’ is more than secure for what we are doing.

  10. imageIn this next page, you will choose the size of your newly encrypted container. I am creating a 2GB file, which should be way more than I will ever need. Keep in mind if you wanted to back this file up to the internet it would take an awful long time to upload/download regularly using services such as Dropbox, so perhaps a smaller container of under 100MB would suffice if you only have a few documents you want to back up? I store another encrypted container inside my 2GB file that is 5MB, which holds all of this information to be backed up to an online service.

  11. imageImportant! This is the password creation screen. Passwords should be as long as possible and using a mixture of symbols, numbers, and capital letters. The longer the password it is, the harder it is to break. Now, as long as you don’t forget this you should be OK! How to choose a secure password.

  12. imageThe next screen allows you to choose which file format you want inside your encrypted container. FAT is generally a good idea as it can be universally read by most operating systems if you need to mount it under an Apple OSX based computer, Linux, or what have you. Cluster size is good to be left at default, this is purely for advanced users who want to maximize their storage capabilities, and I won’t bother getting into detail of how it works. This website discusses the pro’s and con’s of cluster size. Move the mouse around a bit to randomize the key generation before clicking ‘Format’. The process shouldn’t take much more than a minute depending on the size of the container.

  13. imageOnce you are at the screen the process will be complete, so click ‘Exit’ to be returned to the main TrueCrypt interface, where we will talk about mounting your newly created container.

  14. imageBack at the main TrueCrypt interface screen, click the “Select File” button on the bottom right corner and find your newly encrypted container. Choose a drive letter to be used when mounting (I’ve select H: in this example), and finally press ‘Mount’.

  15. imageRemember that super secure password we weren’t going to forget? Now this is the time where you can enter it. When done, press OK. The drive will mount, and you’ll be able to open up explorer to see the contents of this file. Use this drive to store your important files.

  16. imageWhen you are done working with the encrypted container, you’ll want to remember to select ‘Dismount’ to avoid any file corruption. Click the ‘Dismount’ button and everything should be good to go before you remove the USB Flash Drive to put back in your pocket.

HP 8Gb USB 2.0 Flash Drive(Pack of 1)Step 3 – Creating a Portable Application set

A portable application (portable app) is a computer software program that is able to run independently without the need to install files to the system it is run upon. Portable applications can be run on any computer system with which they are compatible but typically require a specific operating system (such as Microsoft Windows XP or above). Your favourite application may offer a portable package, where all settings are stored with the file, not on the computer for ease of use and familiarity. There are a few sites that specialize in the delivery of Portable Apps such as and LiberKey that you can use to download individual apps. These sites also offer a package with many pre installed packages installed to make your life easier. For example, some computers in internet cafes do not have basic photo manipulation programs, video editing tools, or an up to date version of your Internet Browser. In this step we will create a portable operating environment with the LiberKey system.

  1. imageHead to and download the latest version from their servers. Once downloaded, start the installation program and select ‘Next’.

  2. imageChoose the location where you want to install the Portable Apps suite. You can even install it inside your newly encrypted TrueCrypt container if you wish if you want to keep things really secure. Because I don’t want the hassle of having to open my encrypted container for things such as web browsing, I’m going to install it into GL\Liberkey. Click next. You’ll be prompted if you want to add a shortcut to your Desktop or not – I’m not going to, as I don’t plan on using this on my own personal computer, but for portable purposes only. Once complete, Launch LiberKey.

  3. imageThe LiberKey menu will open on your system with no information in it. Click the ‘LiberKey Tools’ Option, navigate to the “Manage Portable Applications’ section and select “Install an Application Suite”.

  4. imageThe wizard will appear to make the process easier, so please select “Download the list of available Suites”.

  5. imageYou’ll have the option of selecting 3 different suites, each with their own set of pre-installed applications. See what is included in each suite. I am going to choose the “Basic” edition and install further applications a la carte later on. Click the button that says “‘Install all applications of the selected Suite” and LiberKey will start downloading it from their servers and performing the installation automatically.

  6. imageOnce Complete, your LiberKey Application menu will be populated and you can run some of the various programs installed. At first an information page will launch per application, but you can disable this by unchecking the box that says ‘Show this Information Automatically’. Your program will then run from your flash drive, your settings will be retained for the next time you use it on any computer.

  7. imageWhen you are done working with the applications in LiberKey, you should close it so that it doesn’t remain running on the guest computer. There are a few ways you can do this, by clicking the Power button as shown in the image, or heading back into the “LiberKey Tools’ option and selecting ‘Disconnect your LiberKey’ which will close all running applications, shut down LiberKey, and eject your USB Flash Drive safely from the computer to avoid Data Corruption.

Installing applications onto the LiberKey is easy using their online catalog, and you can perform other sorts of customizations in the Program Options.

How My Key is Setup

The above is a basic example on how things can be done with a removable storage device. I’m doing things a bit differently, and I figured I’d share with you some of the things I’m doing with it:

  1. My USB device is set to boot multiple operating systems.{slide= List of systems booted}
    1. Ubuntu Netbook Edition (For general usage when I want to have my own private operating system to work in)
    2. Darik’s Boot and Nuke (If I’m ever in the situation where I need to completely nuke the contents of my media securely)
    3. Offline Password Editor (To reset my passwords of my computer if I am ever locked out of it)
    4. CloneZilla (If I ever need to clone my hard disk due to potential hard drive failure)
    5. My TrueCrypt Rescue CD (Should my encrypted hard disks get damaged and I need to recover the boot sector with my password)
    6. Microsoft Windows 7 Installation Disk (Should I have to reinstall my Operating System while on the road){/slide}
    7. A TrueCrypt encrypted container (2GB) holding some important programs and documents should my main computer ever fail. Also a small 5MB encrypted container is available that I use to back up the most critical of documents to my online DropBox file sharing account.
    8. An application that runs upon system insertion that appears on the screen stating that my USB Flash Drive has been lost, and should be returned to the be returned to me. It also checks to see if there is a webcam installed on the system, and takes a picture of the computer user, emailing it to me in the event it has been stolen from me. I used the AutoIT Scripting Solution to create an executable program. Contact me for a the code.
    9. I use the LiberKey application suite to run a portable office:{slide=List of Programs Used}Format Factory (To convert from various audio and video formats for my portable media device)
      Audacity (Audio File Editing)
      mp3DirectCut (Quick and Dirty MP3 file splicing and cutting)
      SharePod (Transferring audio and video to and from my Apple iOS device)
      AIMP (Great looking and functional music player)
      BonkEnc (Convert Physical Audio CD to Mp3)
      7-Zip (File compressor/decompressor for many formats like .ZIP, .RAR, .CAB)
      Recuva (Undeletes files inadvertently removed from your hard disk, flash drive, or camera card)
      Paint.NET (Super powerful image editor that reads all formats comparable to Adobe Photoshop)
      EMule (File Sharing Program)
      uTorrent (File Sharing Program)
      Mozilla Thunderbird (Email Client if I don’t want to use the web-based version)
      Tor Browser Bundle (Includes Mozilla Firefox Web Browser, and Pidgin IM client with added security and anonymity features)
      HTTrack (Website Downloader for offline viewing)
      TeamViewer (BiDirectional Screen Sharing Program if I need or need to help someone remotely)
      TeraTerm Pro (Remote console application using telnet or SSH)
      WinSCP (Secure File Transfer application
      OpenOffice (full featured Word Processor, Spreadsheet, etc package similar to Microsoft Office)
      Foxit Reader (lightweight PDF reader similar to Adobe Acrobat Reader)
      Notepad++ (Powerful text editor)
      ClamAV (Open Source Antivirus Scanner)
      CCleaner (System Cleaner)
      Glary Utilities (System cleaner, repair, optimizer)
      VLC (View any type of video)I’ve also got Portable Copies of Mozilla Firefox and Adium for Apple OSX


    If you’ve made it to the bottom of this, right on! You’ve now got a USB Flash Drive that can get you out of computing binds when using public computers. Let me know your comments and how it has worked out for you!


  1. tom
    July 6th, 2011

    LiberKey might be the best thing ever! Thanks for the article, pretty useful.

  2. July 14th, 2011

    thanks so much for this article. I haven’t tried actually doing this yet and hope I’m computer literate enough to make it work for me, but this is exactly the kind of info I needed to feel comfortable relying on public computers during my upcoming americas cycle tour, since I really don’t want to lug around even a netbook. I hope it’s okay with you if I post a link to this on my crazyguyonabike journal – – as well as on my personal website, since I think this would be super useful to lots of people heading off on tours.
    Thanks again and all the best with your continuing bike adventures.

  3. Helladios
    January 5th, 2012

    One thing is not clear or (simply) omitted: Liberkey and its (portable) applications do not run on Linux but on Windows. So, either your installed “Wine” on Linux, which I doubt can be trusted to run critical applications like registry editors and antivirus programs, or the ability to boot in Linux is quite a separate thing from the ability to use Liberkey and its portable applications.

    • January 13th, 2012

      Hi there – You are correct, I wrote this obviously in a haze and missed out on a few key points.
      I use the Bootable Linux Distro when I have access to reset the machine and do what I wish.
      When I can’t reboot, I use Liberkey under a Windows Environment to run my own seperate set of applications. I do wonder if Liberkey works on Wine, but sounds like much complications to achieve. Thanks for pointing this out!

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