These days I cannot imagine traveling without a smartphone or tablet. Everything happens on these small devices: researching the next location, booking flights and hotels, looking up train times, posting pictures to keep my friends’ envy levels high and calling my parents to let them know how I’m doing.
That’s not even mentioning the convenience of GPS and offline maps. I don’t want GPS! I get my best stories by getting lost! But I do want GPS because getting lost sucks.
Getting lost at its best: Read The River Less Traveled and Stranded
But sometimes, for whatever reasons, your internet access might be limited to internet cafés or a hotel’s business center. This guide will tell you how to best stay safe on a public PC and how to limit your exposure to malware and the like.
Use your own device or a public PC?
My experience with the quality of phone reception and wifi coverage has been excellent in recent years, in developing countries even more so than in Europe or North America. This might sound surprising, but it makes sense if you think about it. These countries were too poor to join the electronic era with the start of the PC desktop generation, but when smartphones and tablets became powerful enough to offer a much cheaper alternative they completely flooded the market. Infrastructure demands skyrocketed and the result is that some online services like banking can be way superior in those countries, and that wifi coverage is almost total.
But we, as a global community, are not fully there yet. There are still corners of the world where your phone might not work, your hotel does not offer wifi, free or otherwise, and you really need to get some work done.
Internet cafés are the answer to all of those questions. They are cheap and convenient. They can range in style from a ramshackle backyard with plastic seats to the luxurious, all-inclusive palaces with food and even beds. The one thing they all have in common is a PC and internet access, available for anyone to use.
And here lies the problem. Like airport bathrooms internet café computers might not be the most sanitary, digitally speaking. You don’t know who used it last and where they have been. Likely, a computer at an internet café is infected with spyware, adware and potentially even viruses or trojans, unless the owner runs each session write-protected and sets up a clean image after every user.
Obviously this applies to any public computer, like business centers in hotels or public libraries.
How to minimize exposure
There are a few ways that you can keep yourself a little safer, by keeping your data off any public machines as much as possible.
The easiest way to do this is to bring a USB stick with portable apps, like Firefox and Office, that run off the USB drive directly. You can use wiping tools to erase any temp or cache data you left behind
Set up your drive before you travel and keep it with you when you need to use a public computer.
Simply plug in the drive and only run software from there.
What programs should you take?
It depends on what you think you will need to do, but at the very least I would recommend an internet browser and an anti-spyware tool and antivirus.
The easiest place to find all the portable apps that you need is at https://portableapps.com/apps (no affiliation) but there are many more out there, so you can simply google “programyourelookingfor portable”.
The apps are installed directly onto your USB drive and can run independently from there.
The following list of the programs is what I consider essential.
Note: I am not affiliated with any of the below and recommend solely based on my own experience with no compensation.
I have to admit that I’m partial to Firefox, but Chrome does the job just as well. The absolutely essential app to take though, especially if you’re visiting countries with restrictive internet policies, like China, is the TOR browser. If you haven’t heard of TOR yet, look it up, it’s quite fascinating! But in short, it’s an anonymous, hard to trace overlay network that makes it hard to track your location and which contents you’re viewing.
TOR stands for “The Onion Network”. Because it has layers.
Important: Make sure to launch the installed browser at least once before, so you can add useful extensions like AdBlockPlus or Ghostery from the safety of your home.
Fortunately, the portable antivirus (AV) and antispy (AS) market is well saturated, it being the number one category of program that people need portable even just in everyday life.
I’m taking ClamWin, which is slow but free and full AV, but I’m also running Avira PC Cleaner which is more of an emergency checker, and Spybot as my Antispy. Spybot is extremely thorough and will list every registry change for example, so if you don’t feel like a power user, stick with Avira.
If you find an infection, make sure it’s not a false positive by uploading the affected file to https://www.virustotal.com which will check it against pretty much every AV on the market.
Important: Make sure to launch each installed AV/AS at least once to download the latest virus definitions.
Note: Always keep your virus definitions up to date! And always scan your own drive as well.
Erase all traces of your existence
… at least in the context of your current session.
CCleaner is my wiping tool of choice, with Disk Cleaner running backup. These programs take care of cache, history and temp file cleaning.
I also use Eraser to really delete specific files.
The multi-tab file manager Explorer++ might look like it just about survived the Windows 95 era, but it is fully functional and allows you to use your own file browsing software
I have long been a fan of 7-zip and fortunately my favourite archive program comes in portable. Zip, unzip, compress – it does everything and supports multiple formats.
While I really wanted to recommend GIMP, longterm free brother-from-another-mother to Adobe Photoshop, as an image editor I never managed to get it to run reliably. With long loading times and many crashes, it turned out to be unusable.
Instead I’m running IrfanView, technically an image viewer not editor, but still it offers all the necessary basic functionalities like rotating, resizing, some image corrections and even some basic effects.
Yes, you can get a full portable office! I’m taking OpenOffice with me, but Google’s online office equivalent (Docs, Sheets, Slides) is equally appreciated. The advantage with OpenOffice is, that you can use it even if the PC is offline. OpenOffice is Microsoft compatible and has the usual suspect: word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, a formula editor and even a database manager.
Another big name: VLC media player is available as a portable version. It plays pretty much every format you can think of, including streams and has support for every platform imaginable.
This one is not guaranteed to work as it will need to install a driver on the desktop machine that you are using, which in turn requires administrator rights. While old, OpenVPN is still going strong. You need credentials to your VPN provider, such as Private Internet Access (PIA) to log in.
Make sure to run each program after installation in case you need to adjust settings, such as installing browser add-ons and download virus definitions. It is also a good idea to have a rough idea how to use each program and what exactly it can do.
How safe does this make me?
The moment your drive is mounted on a public PC it is vulnerable – there is no way around it. But you can minimize the risk by keeping your antivirus up to date and scanning each system and your drive before you continue.
There is another option, much safer, that I will not cover but that I can recommend you look into if you are really concerned. You can set up your drive with a portable bootable version of Windows or Linux and boot the PC straight from your own setup. Just google WinToUSB. It requires that you have access to a Windows install disk, but if you don’t: most Linux distributions are free and some even have native boot-from-USB support or good tutorials. Ubuntu is popular and well supported, check out this tutorial on their website.
The drawback, and reason why I’m not covering this, is that you must have the option to boot the PC yourself and that booting from USB is or can be enabled in the BIOS. This is possibly not the case for a lot of public machines.
Any further questions?
Let me know in the comments. I hope this will be useful for you.