Portable Computing Envronment

mubs

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I do a lot of banking and bill paying through the 'net. I travel from time to time, and have the need to do this on the go sometimes. I don't have a laptop and don't intend to buy one; it would sit idle 98% of the time. Almost everywhere I go, I have access to a desktop or laptop but the secure status of the machine is a huge problem. These people are not tech savvy and most machines are not even up to date with Windows, and riddled with nasties.

I'm wondering if I can have a secure computing environment on a USB stick - 32 or 64 GB, or if more is required on a 2.5" external HDD. I would boot from it, do my stuff and shutdown. I would need to use a contemporary browser for internet access and need to open Word files and print to PDF. Once I am back from my travel, new files created and files that may have changed need to be copied over to my desktop. My main concern is how to keep the OS - Linux? - updated to keep it secure. I could do this from my desktop at home before / after travel.

Other than the OS, the data portion would reside in a TrueCrypt container for security. I have 3 TrueCrypt partitions on my desktop where my sensitive files and their backup on another spindle reside.

Advice, suggestions, pros / cons, alternatives all gratefully accepted! Thanks.
 

Mercutio

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You can do that easily with Linux, including Word document editing. You can also do it with Windows, though I'd tell you that it doesn't run all that well unless you have a 64GB+ USB 3 flash drive because there's a setup process that has to be re-initialized every time you use it on a different machine and it takes a while.
I have no idea how well that works with TrueCrypt and I've never bothered to try it for anything but Windows 8 (not 8.1, just 8).
 

ddrueding

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Merc's suggestion was the first to come to mind, I hadn't thought of Coug's. The problem with that one is that it still puts some trust in the existing install. Keyloggers could cap your data for one.

To steal from both, Maximum paranoia would be to have a bootable Linux install and your entire Windows environment as a VM in a TrueCrypt container.
 

Handruin

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Something like this is what Coug/DD described. I don't know if it's still around but VMware used to offer a product called Pocket ACE for such a task. I can't enumerate the pros/cons of using that vs doing the virtualbox free solution I linked to above.
 

mubs

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Thanks all.

Using a VM sounds like too much work. And I positively don't want to boot from the host PC. I have to boot from my own USB stick.

Why not straight Linux with Truecrypt protecting the sensitive stuff? I know zero about Linux, so You folks will have to tell me which distro to use. I'll try it out at home first, of course.
 

Mercutio

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I hate to says it because it because I still think the GNU people are pricks and therefore all things derived from Debian are suspect, but Ubuntu probably has the biggest collection of support resources for someone who doesn't know exactly what they're doing.
 

Handruin

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Thanks all.

Using a VM sounds like too much work. And I positively don't want to boot from the host PC. I have to boot from my own USB stick.

Why not straight Linux with Truecrypt protecting the sensitive stuff? I know zero about Linux, so You folks will have to tell me which distro to use. I'll try it out at home first, of course.
I personally run Xubuntu. I recommend any Ubuntu variant.
Using a VM is pretty easy these days. Many even have automated installers with the more popular Linux variants and get the job done quick.

If you must boot straight from the USB device then I also recommend Xubuntu or one of the Ubuntu version. I also personally use Xubuntu on four systems at home of which three are VMs and one is physical. Would this article help with your Truecrypt install?

If you decide to go Ubuntu, you may want to start with 14.04 LTS for long term support up until 2019.

 

Howell

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Don't forget to make accomodations for UEFI and BIOS. What about taking a mini pc around with you? NUC, HP mini, etc.
 

blakerwry

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I've had good luck using a Patriot or Sandisk extreme USB drive with a live Linux distro like Fedora/CentOS or Ubuntu for similar stuff. Just install your favorite browser and favorite pop-up blocker and you're good to go. These systems have auto-update mechanisms similar to Windows. However, I wouldn't be too concerned with updates as long as they get updated at least quarterly. Your biggest challenge will probably be the initial installation (if you're unfamiliar with the process) and ensuring that the machines support USB boot and have good driver support in Linux.

Personally, I never put my credentials into someone else's machine. I typically use my phone (iPhone) connected over LTE, if possible. Otherwise, I wait till I have access to a PC I control.
 

sedrosken

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Perhaps something like a NUC, like Howell mentioned, or maybe one of those Compute Sticks Ars has been looking at in recent memory? Ah, wait. Compute stick = needs HDMI, which isn't exactly guaranteed, while NUCs can still have VGA to my knowledge. Personally for the least amount of expense and headaches I'd just go with a USB stick and a live Linux distro like almost everyone here has suggested.

I don't have anything that I would call sensitive information out on the web yet, so I have yet to be introduced to this world of fun and lollipops that people always seem to want to steal.
 

Mercutio

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NUCs aren't THAT small either. The HDMI Stick type machines are massively underpowered for anything more than basic document editing or browsing in a small number of tabs. They're not pleasant and they tend to be both RAM and CPU constrained. That's not a winning combination.
 

mubs

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Thanks all, very valuable info. Booting directly from a USB device into a Linux variant may be best. I have to keep in mind that the machines I will have access to will be fairly old / low spec, so an OS that is leaner on resources will help. Driver compatibility is a worry, though.

Since the vote, even from Merc (!) is for Ubuntu, I will go with that, the 14.04 LTS version. I will install Libre Office or some such for MS Office compatibility.

Would this article help with your Truecrypt install?

If you decide to go Ubuntu, you may want to start with 14.04 LTS for long term support up until 2019.
Thanks very much Handy, this is very helpful.

Don't forget to make accommodations for UEFI and BIOS.
Pray, how would I do this? The host machine could be a 3-year old laptop, or a 4-year old desktop, etc. Branded or locally built.


Can't you just use a phone or tablet on travel?
Being the Luddite and paranoid person I am, you will have to drag me kicking and screaming before I will use a mobile or tablet to do sensitive stuff like internet banking or bill-paying. With all the malware floating around and new vulnerabilities discovered everyday, using a desktop / laptop is risky enough for me. Android especially is something I don't trust, and my mobile is Android.
 

mubs

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Thanks, download almost completed. I'll install it into a VM on my desktop first so I can play with it and get familiar, then put it on a bootable USB drive. Strangely, nowhere could i find system requirements for it in the documentation.
 

mubs

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I used VMWare Player to install Xubuntu; easy as pie, actually shocked at how easy it was. I also downloaded Chrome as a browser (didn't know it already came with FireFox) and Libre Word and Calc (didn't know it came with Abi Word). It wanted to install updates; that was pretty awesome that it checked.

Now I have to figure out how to install it to a flash drive so it can boot from there. I guess when installed this way it will install all necessary hardware drivers - at least drivers that work in compatibility mode so it will work on most any hardware.

Thanks a million, all, especially Tim.
 
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