Power Tips [part 3] – Portable software
Nowadays computers are becoming increasingly popular, and you are very likely to come in contact with a computer everywhere you go – university or school, at your friends' places, at work, internet cafe's, etc. Technology keeps gaining new territory at amazing rates; perhaps, in the near future, phone booths and cash machines will be replaced by diskless workstations with a fast Internet connection. The same can be applied to any public institution which uses any kind of authentication equipment. In a hi-tech environment such as this one, instant access to your personal information is crucial. The ability to read your emails or browse your documents in any situation can save you a lot of time and money.
The USB flash disks of today are a very efficient solution for this problem, as they can be attached to a key-chain, or reside inside your iPod, in a digital camera, in a handheld PC; they have a very low cost, and since not that long ago – large storage capacities.
However, several issues remain unsolved:
- What if the disk is lost?
- What if the disk is stolen?
- What if someone makes a copy of the data while the disk is connected?
All these problems can be handled with ease if encryption software is used. Private Disk offers on-the-fly data encryption, which can be used on any computer which runs under any version of Windows (95 or above).
This guide will cover the internet-related tools which can be used directly from the USB flash disk, combining mobility and privacy; so that you can get ready for the ultra-technologic society of tomorrow – today. Before you start packing your bags for the trip to the future, you must ask yourself what the features you need are.
So, what is the Internet about?
- Accessing your favorite sites
- Being able to search your email archive
- Remembering the passwords for all the web-resources you use
- Getting in touch with your friends
With these details in your mind, you can easily make a list of the tools you need: a browser, a mail-client, a password manager (could be a part of the browser) and an instant-messaging (IM) application.
Here are our candidates:
- Browser – Portable Firefox
- Mail client – Portable Thunderbird
- IM client – &RQ, Miranda
So, what does Private Disk's encryption have to do with this?
Private Disk Light is a small, reliable and easy-to use on-the-fly encryption application. Its flexibility makes it the perfect companion of a traveler, because it can act as an additional security layer that stands between your data and the system. In plain English, it is an optional component that seamlessly integrates into your activities, bringing encryption to any application.
How much does it cost?
Absolutely nothing. The purpose of this tutorial is to prove that improving one's existence can be done without investing a cent, using free software. All the applications described in this guide (Private Disk Light, Portable Firefox, Portable Thunderbird, Miranda, &RQ) can be freely downloaded from the Internet.
There is no official definition that explains what "portable software" means. To a developer it probably sounds as "software that can be easily ported to a different platform", but in our case, by "portable software" we assume the following:
A program built in such a way that it can be copied to a different location, executed from there, without causing any harm to the system or losing any data.
In other words, any of the following statements is true:
- Moving the program from one folder to another will not make the system unstable, nor render the program unable to run correctly
- Copying the program to a different computer will not alter that computer's system registry or add any extra files to the system folders (i.e. "garbage the system")
- The program can be executed from any media (CD, USB flash disk, etc) with the same rate of success
- Copying the program from one folder to another is as effective as using the official distributive
- Copying all the program's files and folders to a different location will preserve your custom settings and archives (interface customizations, contact lists, bookmarks, etc)
- Deleting the program's folder guarantees that the program will be completely and cleanly removed.
Browser – Portable Firefox
Today, Firefox is one of the most popular browsers due to its flexibility, and the fact that it is free. Being the result of the efforts of the open-source community, it is very successful at taking a great share of the browser-arena from Internet Explorer. The person behind the portable edition of Firefox is John Haller, you can download the program from his site.
What you get:
- Your bookmarks are always with you
- The browser keeps its cache in its own folder, meaning that others won't be able to see the sites you visited
- The passwords you save are stored on the disk, so that you won't have to type them over and over
- Nobody can see the history of the sites you visited, so that your privacy is intact
- All your interface customizations such as themes, or toolbars are preserved
Portable Email Client- Portable Thunderbird
Thunderbird, Firefox's sibling, is another successful project that can be applied in our case. This is a free, open-source mail and news client that comes with a great load of handy features. It supports POP and IMAP, HTML formatted messages, multiple accounts, a built-in spam-filter; its look and feel can be customized too. The software can be downloaded from this location.
What you get:
- Your address book is always at hand
- The entire mail archive is available, you can search your email database any time
- Your mail accounts' configurations are preserved, so that you do not have to enter your password each time you check your email
- The installed themes and extensions are kept as well
- All the data is kept in the program's folder, which means that nobody can read the emails you send or receive.
Portable Thunderbird is the ultimate solution for the "multiple locations" problem; i.e. if you use your email at home and at work, you will not have to re-download your messages from the server, or sort them again whenever you go to a different location. People who heavily rely on email communication will find this very useful.
Portable Instant Messaging programs
A lightweight ICQ client that despite of its small size supports all the features implemented in the ICQ v7 protocol. It is a highly customizable application, you are able to control every aspect of the communication process. The program's appearance can be modified by using various themes; its functionality can be enhanced with a multitude of available plugins.
&RQ offers several visibility modes, you can be invisible to everyone at any moment, even to those who are in your visible-list. An extended list of &RQ's advantages can be found here.
Another small instant messaging application which overcomes the fact that &RQ works only with ICQ. Miranda is compatible with ICQ, but it also allows you to chat with your friends who use MSN, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Jabber or IRC. Just as &RQ, Miranda is highly customizable, and it supports a broad range of extensions. Advanced users will have a great time playing with all the options available in this program.
Both these programs have a multilingual interface, meaning that even those who are not masters of English can use them.
What you get:
- Your contact list is always with you
- The entire communication history is available
- All the settings are preserved
- The customizations (themes, skins, plugins, sounds, settings) remain intact, so you won't have to spend any time reconfiguring the program before you can start using it
- Maximum compatibility – you can chat with people who use alternative instant messaging clients without sacrificing any features
- If you use Miranda, you can stay in touch with all your buddies, regardless of the IM network they use (ICQ, AIM, MSN, etc.) Skip to the Encryption and Privacy section.
OK, I am impressed by this list of advantages and I am willing to try things myself. How do I start, and what do I do?
There are several things you have to keep in mind:
- Always install your application on the hard disk first. It will work faster, which means that it will take you less time to test your configuration and make sure that it meets all your standards.
- Before moving the program to the USB flash disk (or any other media you have), try to run it from a different location on the hard disk. If you succeed, it significantly increases the chance that it will work when launched from the USB flash disk too.
- Consult the documentation of the application you plan to make portable. It is possible that the program uses some files located in various system folders, but it will work perfectly if these files are copied to the program's folder.
- Read all the error messages carefully. For example, if the program says "mylib.dll was not found", the first thing you should do is find this file and try to copy it to the program's folder, it might work. Reading error messages can speed up the process and save a lot of time. If programmers thought the message was worth writing, then it is definitely worth reading. (Funny, but true. Only non-lazy coders will not let you read messages such as "error 45X3").
- Try to make all your customizations on the spot, so that you have no changes to make once the application is 'deployed' to the USB flash disk. For example – disable all the unnecessary plugins, and delete their files; remove any data you are sure you will not need in the future: help files (only if you think you're a pro, and you've read the manual several times), unused skins readmes, license agreements, and so on.
If everything is ok so far, you can proceed to the next step, by copying your program to the USB flash disk.
- Don't use fancy folder names. Some applications might have a problem with long paths, or names that contain spaces or certain characters. That is why you should try to name your folders as concise as possible; ex: C:\Firefox instead of C:\Mozilla Firefox.
- Avoid nested directories; ex: D:\Firefox instead of D:\My portable applications\Internet\Browsers\Firefox.
- Enable all the relevant options and make all the obvious changes. For instance, if you see an option called "make the application able to run from a USB flash disk", enabling it is a wise thing to do. ;-)
- If your program allows you to store your settings in different ways, choose the one that suits you best. For example, go for "store settings in a ini-file" instead of "store settings in the system registry"; or "store data in program's folder" instead of "store data in %Windir%\ApplicationData\"…
- Never think that everything works before you see it work. This means that before you decide that everything is done, you should test it several times, varying the conditions of the experiment. A good idea is to run the application from the removable disk after restarting the computer or running it on a different computer, on which it was never installed, etc.
- See what happens if you run the application when you are logged in as a guest (or any other user that has no administrative privileges). This is a very important step, as many applications fail to comply with it.
This is the step you should have performed first, however, its importance made me decide to place it in the end of the Guidelines section
Phase zero – using the AES-256 encryption backend provided by Private Disk
1. Create a virtual encrypted disk – How to create a virtual encrypted disk
2. Encrypt your USB drive – How to encrypt a USB flash drive, CD, DVD…
Here are the highlights:
- This demo contains an animation which illustrates all the steps that have to be performed to create a new encrypted disk.
- Then you have to migrate Private Disk and the image to the removable disk, by copying these data to it:
- The encrypted file-image itself
- All the files from C:\Program Files\Dekart\Private Disk (help files are optional)
- dkar.dll from C:\Windows\system32 (and versnum.dll if you use the non-Light version)
It is now the right time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
If you are a software developer, you should also read the "Guidelines for developers" page.
- Rule of thumb: Always check your files for viruses first. This is very important. You must understand that if a virus-check is not done, your portable pack will be the cause of the infection of all the computers you use.
- Copy Private Disk to your removable drive, as indicated in the tutorial above, and create a virtual encrypted image on the same removable drive.
- Mount the virtual encrypted image to the system (ex: use drive Z:).
- Copy all your portable programs to the encrypted disk (Z: ). Note that it is assumed that you have previously tested them on your hard disk and followed all the advices from the Guidelines section.
- If your application expects that it will always be located in the same place (i.e. same path), it could be a major barrier for portability. However, Dekart Private Disk solves this problem, because you can choose a custom letter for your virtual encrypted disk. In other words, if you choose Z:, it will always be Z: (as long as the letter is not in use), regardless of the computer you use, or the Windows version that runs on it.
- Private Disk's Disk Firewall feature is one of those features you should definitely take into account. The idea behind it is that only the allowed applications are able to access the files within the encrypted disk. This means that foreign applications will be rejected if they attempt to write or modify the data on your disk. This is a 100% efficient measure against viruses, and other 'external factors'. The safest approach is to add to the list of allowed applications only those that reside inside the encrypted image itself.
- If you don't want any changes to be applied to the data on your disk, you can use the Read-only parameter when creating your virtual encrypted disk. Any modifications to your configurations will be discarded. Note that some applications might have a problem when being executed from a read-only disk.
- You can use Private Disk's built-in Autorun option, which will execute the programs you choose. All you have to do, is connect the disk, and your browser, mail client and chat program will be executed automatically.