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  • Alex Coyne

How to Use the Internet While Avoiding Hackers & Big Brother

Take a minute to think about what you’ve looked up on the internet over the past, say, six months. How many people do you think have access to the information you’ve read, searched, and discussed? More than you might think. Internet security is becoming a growing concern for many, especially with a recently signed bill by US President Donald Trump that will, in short, allow your Internet Service Provider to sell your personal data.

Even popular sites like Cracked are advocating the use of precautionary measures like VPN servers. Here’s how to secure your system, run a portable system from a flash drive, and change your browsing habits for the better…

Change Your Habits

A system’s main vulnerability is usually the people running it. The name for this is called ‘social engineering’, and anyone reading this might’ve been a victim of it themselves without even realizing it.

The first thing you’ll have to change about PC security is yourself. Don’t write down your passwords, don’t tell anyone what they are, and don’t click on embedded links that might not be an e-mail from the bank. (You wouldn’t believe how many people would give up passwords to a random person who just claims to work for IT, even over the phone.)

Change your search engine to something like Duck Duck Go, which tracks much less user information than its competitors, and remember that incognito browsing only hides your search history from yourself, not your internet provider. Be careful with social media and make sure your privacy settings show only what you would like them to.

Consider storing at least some of your digital information on secure cloud servers. (Yes, this sounds contradictory, but there are ultra-secure cloud options out there – and should something ever happen, you have legal recourse against the company who promised you security.)

Also consider changing to a secure e-mail server like MailFence or Tutanota. Disposable e-mail addresses (that automatically erase themselves) like ThrowAwayMail or Mailinator are handy when needing a sign-up or test e-mail.

Some especially sensitive data – family documents, for example – can be stored on a flash drive and kept in a safety deposit box.

Got all that? Okay, great…

Get a USB Operating System

An operating system (OS) such as Tails that runs directly from a USB as opposed to the computer’s hard-drive as it normally would has several advantages. It could come in handy if…

  • You work on the move and want to carry around a basic computer system that has everything you need.

  • You need to check or fix a PC with a corrupted hard drive, or just want to fire up an old PC that you can’t find a replacement hard-drive for.

  • Sometimes you need another operating system for another job: All you have to do is pop in the flash drive containing the OS you need and there you go.

  • Safety: Things like virus checking, file extraction and research are suddenly safer.

More about Tails

Tails is one of the first operating systems designed specifically to run from a flash drive or DVD, and it was created with security and total user anonymity in mind. Pop it in, do what you have to do, and once you remove it, no traces are left on either the computer or USB. Everything you do remains secure. If you’ve kept tabs on Edward Snowden, you might know that Tails stands as one of his personal favorites.

All sorts of handy encryption software come bundled with Tails, including Nautilus Wipe (for permanently erasing files), LUKS+ (for disk encryption) and HTTPS Everywhere (for HTTPS encryption online). What this means is you can get around forced censorship or surveillance and keep everything you do completely secure.

According to the official website for Tails, “Tails is configured with special care not to use the computer's hard disks, even if there is some swap space on them. The only storage space used by Tails is in RAM, which is automatically erased when the computer shuts down.”

Take care, though, because the website also mentions that the capability of Tails becomes restricted when using the computer's hard-disks within Tails.

If you don’t want to use Tails and security online is not such a big issue, you can also consider other systems that’ll run just fine on USB: These include Tiny Core Linux (12MB), DamnSmallLinux (50MB), Slax Linux (210MB) or Puppy Linux (132MB).

That’s not all of them, but those have all been tested to work just fine. Generally, if it can fit on a USB, it should work just fine. Make sure that you use a formatted (or empty) USB for this and not something with precious family snaps on it..

How to do it…

Step one is to download the installer files for your operating system. These are usually available on the official website and come in the form of a disc image (or .iso file). Don’t worry about that too much yet – just download the file and save it where you can find it again later.

Then pick the flash drive you’ll be using for this job. Ideally, buy a blank flash drive. Do not use one with any important personal information on it, since this process erases the flash drive’s content.

After you’ve selected your flash drive, you’re going to download a little tool called Rufus.

Rufus is made to create bootable drives – that is, something the computer can boot up with. It’s one of the best tools out there for the job and other options during our testing phase were either too slow, didn't give results or were damned confusing. Rufus was straightforward.

Now, plug in your flash drive and open up Rufus.

Select the drop-down menu next to “Device” and select your flash drive. Then, select the option “ISO Image” next to Create a Bootable Disc Using. Click on the little icon right next to that and it’ll prompt you to select your ISO file. Remember the operating system file you downloaded up there? Select that.

Then, click start.

That's…well, that's pretty much it. Congratulations!

Now, start up your chosen PC with the new memory stick in it. When your computer starts up, you want to bring up the boot menu. This is usually the F12 key, though if it is something else, your screen should show you “Press (key) for boot menu.”

From this, select the memory stick and press enter, because you are looking to boot up using the operating system on the memory stick instead of the hard-drive.

And there you go. You should be starting your PC up with the new operating system from the flash drive. If not, go to the next part…


Something went wrong? If everything's plugged in and flashing the way it should, start the troubleshooting process by re-downloading the ISO file from the developer's website and going back to the last section. Any trouble I had on the first try was sorted out on the second re-installation. If that doesn't seem to fix it, here are some things you might spot…

– Not Detecting USB

Make sure that you have selected “boot from flash drive” from the computer’s boot menu – explained above. If that doesn't work, you're back to creating the flash drive from scratch.

– Hanging on Startup

One of the major headaches when I started using this system was that it would, occasionally, start-up completely fine and then hang – completely. It took me a while to figure out why: Remove any other flash drives from the system before startup. If you don't, it seems like the system gets a little bit confused about what it's starting up, and gets stuck.

– Saved Files Disappearing

I could've sworn I saved that file… Yup, you probably did. Be careful when you're saving something onto another USB drive (from within the system). Take special care in right clicking on the second flash drive and then on “unmount” – that is basically the system’s version of “safely remove USB”. What happens if and when you don't? Well, plug it into another PC and you might find your files missing. Whoops.

– Picking up Wireless

Setting up wireless internet on systems like Puppy Linux isn't a complete nightmare. If your laptop has a switch for wi-fi, switch it on before you click “Scan” for any nearby wi-fi networks. I'm not sure if it's an isolated issue, but the wi-fi has a tendency to turn itself off during setup. Afterward, it is fine.

Another note, you might have to click “Save Profile” before it lets you actually access the Wi-Fi network you've just set up.

– Keyboard and Mouse Issues

This one took me a while to figure out, and in the end turned out to be the most basic of them all: Have you turned it on and off again? If your mouse and/or keyboard refuses to work on the system, make sure it isn't turned off anywhere on the keyboard itself; then reboot. When prompted to select your keyboard settings, select QWERTY (USA) and you should be fine.

– Multiple Boots

If you want a pair of boots instead of just one (see what we did there?), go ahead and install several of them: You'll be prompted as to which you're starting up right at the beginning. Just make sure that there's more than enough space on the memory stick to run the operating systems.

You always want a flash drive that's a little bit bigger than what you need – but not too big. Running a system from an external hard-drive, though I haven't tried it myself, can be unstable and lead to data loss and eventual corruption.

– Datedness

Make sure you're downloading the absolute latest available version of the OS you want. If not, you might have some serious compatibility issues when trying to access things, including documents saved in formats like .docx and websites that are heavier on resources than the OS (or, for example, the OS' stock browser) can handle.

– Saving Session

If you'd like to save what you were working on anyway, Puppy Linux offers the option to Save Session upon exiting. When you select yes, you'll be prompted to enter how large you want the storage for sessions to be:

Select what makes sense for the selected USB drive's size. It's particularly useful for settings that you don't feel like changing around every time you use it.

More useful tools for security

Your quest for internet security doesn’t start (or end) with a USB operating system. Nor should it.

Technology is an ever-changing field, so keep yourself updated with what’s happening in tech news or you might find yourself victim to a new tech exploit that puts you and your personal information at risk.

There’s a lot available to keep yourself secure. Here are some further tools and tips…

  • Virtual Private Networks or VPN’s keep information like your browsing and search history secure and your IP harder to track. It's a service that’s more than worth paying for. You can find some suggestions for which VPN service providers to go with from Cloudwards, Wired, and Lifehacker.

  • Secure Cloud Servers store your information in the digital realm where it can be much safer than it would be on a hard drive. Recommended cloud servers include SpiderOak, Wuala, and TresorIt. Most offer several GB’s of storage for free, after which you have to sign up for a small fee.

  • Image Search Engines like Google Reverse Image Search or TinEye will let you use an image to search any information related to the image available on search engines. Useful for checking out whether anyone has been copying your images online.

  • EXIF Removers strip the identifying personal information from photographs you load online, and it’s highly recommended that you do. Try ExifPurge to remove this info, or EXIF Data Viewer to spot what it’s revealing.

  • Online Virus Scanners can help you check a file or link for malware or viruses without having to access it. Try VirusTotal for starters: It checks through several antivirus sites so you know you’re secure.

  • High-Tech Locks can keep your computer safe from prying eyes or unwanted access, and we really do mean high-tech. This is the stuff of spy movies. Check out EyeLock, or invest in a fingerprint lock for your system.

  • Search Engines can literally search for almost anything these days, and you’re wise to search yourself every once in a while to check what information about you is floating around the internet already. You might be unpleasantly surprised.

  • Password Generators add an extra level of security to your chosen passwords by making sure you don’t choose them to begin with. Use something like Password Generator to ensure your passwords are truly random.

  • Password Managers are also recommended by many IT experts for keeping your passwords organized in one place – yes, even though it might sound contrary to the rule of not writing your passwords down. Here’s a piece on Wired about the best password managers out there and why you need one.

  • Just Delete Me is a searchable online database of links to delete your account. Some sites make it nearly impossible to remove your user account and associated info, but Just Delete Me gives you the direct link to sites that many of you will have forgotten you registered on.

  • Clear your history after you’re done browsing, especially on public computers. It’s the one place you don’t want to leave a personal account logged in (many Facebook statuses to the effect of “I left my account open at the library, now here’s some gross porn” can tell you that).


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