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USB Thumb Drives – what are they good for?

by tgposzadmin on October 2nd, 2006

Lately, I’ve been exploring how to take my data “with me,” so to speak. The vehicle I’m thinking about is a little “flash memory” USB Thumb Drive. I think they were named for the way you use your thumb to push them into the USB port on your computer. That and the fact that they seem to fit, oh so ergonomically, between thumb and forefinger.

The proliferation of these USB “Thumb Drives” is widespread enough, operating support is good enough, and cost has thumbdropped to low enough levels that on those occasions where I don’t need to or want to travel with my laptop (or for those who have desktops and thus no mobility), but I still want to have some important files with me, they make the perfect vehicle.

(Since I live in California, we take Emergency Preparedness seriously out here).

As technology improves, becomes part of our lives, we find ourselves hampered if we don’t have access to our “information” no matter where we are. Some of our more important information, stored on this kind of technology is just the answer. These standalone USB Thumb drives come in various capacities, 128mb, 512mb, 2gb – and a few sizes in between, with cost going up as capacity goes up. Yesterday’s “dead tree” paper had advertisements from the local electronics store offering a 512mb thumb drive for less that $15, another store had a sale for a 2gb version for $19 after mail-in rebates. Online stores have similar deals, although you’ll have to pay extra for shipping, generally.

So, just how, exactly, can this be useful?

First, maybe you’re at your friend’s house, you want to show him a website you’ve talked about at dinner. You saved it to your “favorites”, but you don’t have your computer with you and the URL was a bit complicated and you don’t remember it exactly. If you could only have access to your Internet Explorer “Favorites”, you’d be able to show him… these little flash memory cards built so that the operating system recognizes them as a small hard drive, and once they are plugged into the USB port, they are immediately recognized as a new hard drive, and you thus have access to all the files on the little flash drive. Just copy the Favorites folder from your PC onto this drive, BAM! You’ve got a copy of all of your bookmarked URL’s in a form factor you can put into your shirt pocket.

Second idea: keep a copy of your Quicken or Microsoft Money files on the USB drive, just in case you’re out of the house and it burns down. Terrible thing to think about, but if your computer went up in the fire, how much trouble would you now be in from the record keeping standpoint? Could you recreate those Quicken transactions?

This is one of the most basic things to think about for Emergency Preparedness of the electronic kind. Don’t misunderstand; full back-ups of your hard drive are still very important to do. Burn this “full backup” to a CD or DVD and keep that copy in the trunk of your car or at your office. But these flash memory USB drives now have sufficient capacity to hold your Quicken data and will also suffice in case something bad has happened to your computer. Just plug the USB drive into a USB port on anyone’s computer, those files become instantly accessible.

Here is another idea: If you do anything on the web, you know there is a proliferation of userids and passwords that can get assigned to you. One for your HMO’s website to order prescriptions; one for the insurance company website; another for your email (sure you can have your email reader remember this, but you should write it down somewhere, too); another for online banking; one for the online newspaper; this list goes on and on…

Now Internet Explorer and Firefox (and some of the email clients) offer to remember this stuff as a convenience for you, but hopefully you’ve been writing this stuff down somewhere. Perhaps in your address book, perhaps on a piece of paper you keep in your wallet, maybe on a sticky you tape to your computer screen or bottom of the keyboard, but just how secure is that? Some people will enter this into a word document and then they keep this file on their computer. OK, but you better back this file up; just in case you can’t remember the passwords and there is a fire at your house. These USB Thumb drives are just the thing for backing this kind of file up as well.

Now a new issue comes to mind, however, in that if you loose this little Thumb drive, all someone needs to do is plug it into the USB port of a computer and all of your files are available to that person. People are going to do this even if your name and phone is on the outside, people are just plain curious. If you don’t label it on the outside, someone who finds the USB drive is going to just naturally stick it into a computer, just to see who’s device this is. Honorable or not, you don’t want them to have full access to your information? Even if you put your little word document of passwords into a file on this USB drive and turn a password on for the document, you’re still not fully protected from someone who is really smart. Cracking and hacking tools abound that allow you to get past this level of security. This is true for the WinZip and related programs which encrypt files as they are compressing them together.

The good news is that there are programs to alleviate some concerns in this area. TrueCrypt is one program which will protect your data, keeping it really secure as long as you pick a good password to protect things. Another example of one such program for userid/password information is PINS, a secure Password Manager which is freeware, meaning that it really doesn’t cost anything. Mike Wojtowicz has done a great job of putting this program together.

So, run this from your hard drive, day to day, editing passwords as you need to, and from time to time, copy the folder that contains the program and data files onto the USB drive, pop it into your shirt pocket, and take it with you. The same would be true for a “virtual drive” that TrueCrypt might be protecting, copy it to the USB drive from time to time.

Since all of these userid/passwords are protected by one overall password, you only need to remember the one password to have access to all of them. Of course, you should choose a password that is not easily guessed, examples that ARE easy to guess are your name or one of your kid’s names and a number (a recent study indicated that this is the most popular password that people will pick). Pick a phrase that means something special to you, like “August21isourweddinganniversary” and you have a 31 character password that includes a capital letter and has numbers imbedded in it. This is pretty secure.

So, there are 3 things you can put on one of these USB “Thumb” drives that can be useful to you.

  1. Your “Favorites” folder so you can browse to your favorite websites, even if you’re at someone else’s computer
  2. Your financial data, so in case the worst happens, you have relatively fast access to your information (don’t forget the installation disk or CD for the program that manages this data, again, just in case). Remember to secure the data so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
  3. Your passwords, stored in a secure form

Just this morning, about 2 blocks away, a house fire occurred at about 815 a.m. and thankfully everyone got out. The fire started in the garage, cause yet unknown, and the remainder of the house is still standing. The lady that lives there picked up her computer and took it with her this afternoon, more worried about thieves stealing it tonight. I asked her if she had backups of the data on that computer, in case the worst had happened and no she didn’t.

So, before something bad happens, do something.

From → PCs

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