When To Use Linux Live CDs

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Linux live CDs are the best solution to secure online transactions on public computers, but there are a few limitations on when they can be used.

The best conditions for using Linux live CDs are these:

The Internet cafe doesn't use billing software
If the Internet cafe uses billing software you will not be able to boot your live CD, unless they give you permission (which is unlikely). If they keep track of your Internet usage time on paper, then this requirement is met.
There is an "Always On" Internet connection
Using a live CD is much easier if you are on a computer with a high-speed "Always On" Internet connection.

If those two conditions are met, you can probably boot up your Linux live CD successfully.

Browser Security

If you are using the Windows operating system, try to use the Firefox Browser because it is more secure. If the computer doesn't already have Firefox on it, you can download Portable Firefox to the desktop and run it without needing admin rights to install it.

Turn Off Auto-Complete

Make sure that the browser is set so that it does not remember your passwords. You can set that option in the settings from one of the menus. The exact location of those settings is different for each browser.

Create Strong Passwords

It is important to create strong passwords.

Tips for creating strong passwords:

  • Don't use words that can be found in a dictionary
  • Don't use the same password for every site
  • Do use a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and at least one symbol

Password Examples

password (WEAK) — Never use the word password as your password. Believe it or not, this is one of the most common passwords out there.

Bank Cards vs. Credit Cards

If you have a choice, it is usually better to make online transactions with credit cards rather than bank cards.

Bank cards deduct funds directly out of your bank account and if someone steals that card number and drains your account you may be stuck with no money while you are sorting out the fraud claims with the bank. I have seen this happen before.

If you use a credit card and someone steals your credit card number, you still will have your cash in your bank account to live on while your sort out the fraud claims. Just make sure before you use your credit card that the credit card company provides protection against online fraud.

Use Virtual Account Numbers

Another precaution that may help increase your security is to use something called virtual account numbers, which is a feature offered by several credit card providers including Citibank, MNBA, and Discover.

You should already have made sure that your credit card provides 100% liability protection if someone steals your credit card number and makes purchases on it. The virtual account numbers just add another layer of protection as you send your credit card number through the network.

With virtual account numbers, you can login to your credit card account and generate a unique credit card number that can only be used for one purchase before it becomes invalid. So even if someone steals the virtual account number, they can't do anything with it becuase it can only be used make one purchase from a specific vendor.

Note: if you login to your credit card account on an compromised machine then someone can steal your login information. It is still better to bypass the operating system on a public computer with a Linux live CD.

Who Wants Your Credit Card Number?

PBS.org has an interesting interview with Richard Power on their web site where he talks about some of the bad guys in the world of computer security. In the following quote, he mentions rise of organized crime on the Internet.

"I think we have to take organized crime much more seriously than we do hackers. Organized crime goes where the money is, and the money is moving to the internet. And if you can go on the internet and steal people's credit card numbers, and steal identities, and steal phone numbers, and steal products and money and possibly sell faulty goods, organized crime will move to that. They're going to move to it as long as it's profitable. And organized crime is likely to be better funded, better skilled and better organized than lone criminals, than hackers are. . . . I think organized crime is a big worry, and I think it's going to get worse, as criminals realize that there's money to be made on the internet. . . ."

Skype on the Mepis Linux Live CD

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Skype on the Mepis Linux Live CD

Mepis is a Linux live CD that includes Skype by default. This screenshot is the default Simply Mepis 3.4.3 live CD, running Skype, Kaffeine media player, and the Firefox browser. The open menu shows that there are a large number of included applications, including the entire OpenOffice suite. OpenOffice is useful because it can open and save files in Microsoft Office file formats as well as its own Open Document Format.

Mepis is a full-featured desktop Linux that is designed to be installed to the hard drive. The CD is maxed out at a full 700MB and runs more slowly from a live CD than smaller live CDs like Damn Small Linux or Slax.

Skype Runs on Linux

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Skype runs on Linux. Mepis Linux is a live CD that includes Skype. You can download a Mepix Linux ISO file from their download page and burn it to a cd just like any other Linux ISO disk image file.

Knoppix running Fluxbox

Knoppix running Fluxbox

This screenshot shows Knoppix Linux live CD running the Fluxbox window manager. The entire operating system fits on one CD-R, and it bypasses any spyware, trojans, and viruses on the hard drive of the computer. In this screenshot I am browsing the Web with Firefox, logged into Yahoo Messenger, listening to an MP3 file, and editing a digital photo with a Photoshop replacement program called the GIMP.

Applications running:

  • The GIMP — editing a photo from my digital camera.

How to Secure Windows

It is not always possible to run a Linux live CD on a public computer. If you are stuck using a public computer that is running Windows there are some things that you can do to make it more secure. These are steps that you should also take if you run Windows on your own computer. Some of these steps will also expose some of the trojans, spyware, and viruses that may be lurking on the computer.

The following pages will describe the steps on how to make a Windows computer more secure. Ideally these steps should be done immediately after a fresh install of Windows. If you do them after Windows has become infected with trojans, they may not get all the bad stuff out of the computer.