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9/17/2008
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12 Tricks To Teach Your USB Thumb Drive

A USB drive can be used for more than just porting data -- it can carry entire bootable applications, lock down a PC, and even call for help when lost.

9. Use Your USB Drive To Secure Your PC




Rohos hooks into the Windows logon system to let you replace or augment passwords with a USB key.
(click for image gallery)

You've probably heard about using a hardware device, like an RFID badge, to lock and unlock a PC. Step away from the computer, and it's automatically locked. It's also possible to do the same thing with a USB drive -- plug it in to log on or unlock the computer, and pull it out to secure everything.

Rohos Logon Key is one commercial package that lets you do this, and even works with Bluetooth devices (like phones) as well. It hooks directly into the Windows logon subsystem, so it can operate as a substitute for or complement to a conventional password-based logon. If you lose the key, you can get back in with a (deliberately long) PIN code. A trial version of the program is available and works for 15 days; the full commercial version is $29 per machine with discounts for multiple machines.

I looked for a noncommercial / open source implementation of this concept and found WiKID, which comes with its own server and can be implemented in conjunction with a great many systems and apps, including Radius, SSH, various VPN solutions, and even GoToMyPC. Any USB drive can be used as a token, too.

10. Mount A USB Drive As A Fixed Drive

You've probably noticed by now that a USB drive is seen by the OS (Windows, typically) as a removable drive -- which, in turn, imposes limitations on how partitions or other low-level structures can be created. However, some drives can be reconfigured to advertise themselves to the system as a hard drive. This can be accomplished by using a utility, BootIt, written specifically for Lexar brand drives. I have tested it with a number of different drives, and it is very finicky -- only one of the 10-or-so drives I used I with worked.

If this does work, one slick trick you can pull (provided you have the space for it) is packing multiple boot-image .ISOs to go on the same drive. The secondary partition on the drive can contain whatever .ISOs you want to bring along, plus the utility used to write the .ISO to the drive.

11. Run Windows Itself

What? Yes. Even though Windows isn't meant to be run from a USB drive, it can be -- it's just an extremely undocumented and unsupported solution. The folks at Ngine.de have a full tutorial for how to do this, and there's another site (in German and English) that has a downloadable and printable set of instructions as well.

Note that in order to pull this off you'll need several things that might not be available by default:

  • An existing installation of Windows.
  • A non-OEM copy of Windows XP, complete with media and licensing, since in order to do this you'll need to essentially create a new installation of Windows.
  • Software that allows you to edit or recreate .ISO files with boot support.
  • A good deal of patience, since the process requires some manual hackery of Windows .INF files in order to work properly.

Another way to accomplish roughly the same thing is to use BartPE (a Windows pre-boot environment mod) in conjunction with the PeToUSB tool to create a bootable Windows environment. Note that you'll need a separate Windows license for this as well, but the process is highly automated and for many people a lot less of a headache than creating a full-blown port of XP. BartPE also has a great many third-party add-ons available for it, which makes it into a convenient rescue / system-auditing tool.

12. Hide The Drive Inside Something

This one's for experts with very steady hands. With a little patience and hardware hackery, it's possible to pry out the guts of a USB drive and conceal it inside something else. Depending on your ambitions and your cleverness, you can use either an existing item that has a USB plug (as depicted in the linked photo tutorial), or something entirely different.

I strongly recommend trying this with a) a drive that you're not going to be too upset about accidentally messing up, and b) a drive in a relatively easy-to-open shell. The latter means that much less exertion on your part when trying to get the casing off.

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