Personal Information Hidden in Plain Sight, by C.C.

Saturday, Jul 9, 2011

Information is what makes the World go around, or at least it seems that way at times. Any Government  organization, blog or web site worth a grain of salt will suggest that you keep copies of important documents such as Birth Certificates, Drivers License,  Bank Account Information, List of Medications etc. in your emergency kit. It  is also suggested for people that are going on trips that they have this information available as they travel just in case wallets or purses are lost or stolen. If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen it is going to be to your advantage to have the information available to lock out your credit card and checking accounts quickly.

My wife and I are going on a cruise later this year and I have been looking for a way to have that information available, close at hand but not visible, and yet as secure as I can make it. After all, with identity theft what it is today, you sure don't want to take a chance of all that information falling into the wrong hands.

The first thing I wanted to do was find a way of keeping a USB drive, flash-drive, thumb drive, or whatever you choose to call it on my person but be discreet about it. I went on eBay and did a search on "flash drives" and wow!  There are a multitude of drives that don't look like drives at all. There are USB drives that look like soda can key chains, transformer toys, broaches, jewelry, Legos, etc...etc... and they are cheap. You can also get the Gold Standard of  secure USB drives made by Ironkey, if you can afford that. For my purposes I wanted something that looks like it can be worn with casual clothing and not be to dressy or flashy. After all I am seeking to be discreet and I don't want something that screams “Look at Me!” I sure don't want anything that stands out enough to make me a good candidate for a mugging while on vacation.

There are many programs available both free and for purchase that will encrypt your data, your USB, or both.

There are USBs that come with Password protection built in, such as the 1GB Cruzer Micro U3 Smart USB 2.0 Flash Drive but, with  these you will lose the “hidden in plain sight” factor but you may gain in the ease of use category. You can find many Secure USBs by many different companies by doing a web search for “Secure USB”

I would also suggest you do a web search on “securing USBs” and see what the real experts have to say on the topic. Several of the articles I read by security experts said they actually prefer buying the cheap USBs and then using their favorite encryption programs.

I chose two different styles of shall we say "camouflaged" USBs for my wife and I. For myself I chose what looks like man's bracelet with a leather band a nice looking metallic top on it. The top has enough room to have  “Dad” or maybe a name on the top to more personalize it. I suppose if you need a hint for the password for the encrypted files (more on this later) you could have a cryptic hint only you would understand engraved on the backside. For my wife I also got her a matching bracelet but she thinks that it is too big for her wrist, That's okay, I have a backup plan, I also bought a drive that looks like a
gift card/credit card. I stayed away from the cards that actually looked too much like a credit card and went with a card that has Snowy Country scene on it but no name or numbers. This card can be stored in my wife's purse or it has a slot cut in the top and it would fit nicely on one of those shoe string lanyards that you see badges attached to.

The Men's bracelet pulls apart at the top, the clasp seems to be strong and secure so I am not worried about it just coming apart and falling off under normal conditions.  The Credit/Gift Card USB has an almost invisible tab on the edge in the center of the card. To open the tab you push on the back side of the card to create a slight bend in the card and the working end of the USB folds out from the card.

To make my USBs secure I have done several things. First I put a few files on them that you might expect to see on a USB.  There is a Music folder, a Picture folder, and various otherwise useless .pdf files but, I also have included a small portable program that will open the .pdf files should I need to access any of my personal  information and for some reason the host computer does not have Adobe Reader.

The second thing I have done is to hide the encryption program, in this case “True Crypt”, inside a music folder with several albums. To me the title “True Crypt” sound like the name of a modern day band and therefore might escape initial scrutiny if found.

The Third thing I did was  encrypted each .pdf file with a different password from the one used by True Crypt to access these files. So that I can remember The passwords for each folder encrypted, the password contains the folder name plus a random password I have memorized. You not only have to open the encrypted portion of the USB (also known as a container) with a password but, to see the files you must have the password for each folder that has encrypted files within it.

Fourth I use a keyfile in addition to the password that enables access with True Crypt. You can have the correct password but if the keyfile you choose does not link to the correct file on your USB drive there is no access granted. I chose a keyfile from a folder with pictures in it. More than one keyfile can be chosen to help secure your files.  The keyfiles can be .jpg, .mp3, or many other type files. The first 1,024 bits of information in the keyfile must remain the same to be a usable keyfile so don't choose a file that will be altered in anyway if you should choose to add this extra layer of protection.

All of the programs that I have loaded on the USBs have been downloaded from www.cnet.com.
All of the programs that I have chosen to use are free. I download from CNET because they guarantee malware and virus free downloads. I know there are some programs out there that you could pay for and they might be a little easier for the more computer challenged among us but, for a free program True Crypt get high marks from both the customers and the CNET editors. None of the programs other than the encryption program are hidden on the USB. All of the other programs on the USB that facilitate either opening or viewing my files are out in the open in the first layer of info that you can see when exploring the USB.

I have a program called Open Office Portable. This is a open source program that will read and save spreadsheets, word documents, etc. whether in the Open Office format or the Windows Office format. It is capable of going back and forth between the two. The “Portable” means it is a scaled back version and made to run from the USB. When you have lost your I.D. or boarding papers you  can't afford to have documents that will get you home or help at an embassy sitting on your USB unable to opened because they don't have a program on the Host computer that would allow viewing.

This is the list of programs I keep on my USB in unprotected mode:

Open Office Portable- This program is a free alternative to Microsoft Office and it will read and save documents in either format.

SumatraPDF 1.6- This is a .pdf file reader that is small and does an excellent job of reading .pdf files without all the useless extra bells and whistles larger programs will have.

True Crypt- With True Crypt there is an option in the tools menu to set up a “Travelers Disc”. This option allows you to set aside a portion of the USB for encrypted data storage or encrypt the entire drive.  With True Crypt I can tailor the passwords for access to the folders on my wife's USB to passwords she will be able to remember and not have to depend on her remembering my particular process for choosing passwords. The section of the USB set aside for encrypted data is referred to as a container. True Crypt allows you virtually hide a second layer of encrypted information by creating a container within a container. I haven't done this but I have read about it. I am not carrying National Security secrets so I don't see any practical application for me with this option at this point.

I hope this article has been a way to get you thinking about how you can keep your important personal information with you, hidden in plain site and secure at the same time. There are many options available, and you can spend a few dollars or you can spend hundreds of dollars making your information secure. Unless you are a government agency, a spy, or are carrying around banking or corporate information, you probably won't have to worry about your information if it is encrypted and you lose the USB, after all how many people walking around out there have the knowledge, the tools, or desire to try and crack into your password protected or encrypted files. Chances are if a USB is found it will be reformatted by anyone who finds it when they come up against the security measures you have put in place to protect your USB. - C.C. in East Texas


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