How to use public PCs safely with Linux

Public PCs aren't safe, so what's a PC user to do? Carry a Linux distribution on a USB stick in their backpocket of course!
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I've always been wary of "public" PCs in hotel business centers and libraries. It turns out I had reason. The Secret Service recently discovered that hackers are using keylogger Windows malware to steal your personal data.

If you, as I do, often use public PCs to print out boarding passes for return business flights, this is bad news. I've had airlines ask me for not only my frequent flyer membership ID, but for my name, address, phone number, and, oh yes, my credit card number.

Live Linux distributions can help. As security expert, and my colleague, Larry Seltzer pointed out, the one way you can be sure you're safe from any virus on a PC is to boot it off CD or USB key with an operating system image you control and trust.

Seltzer, while acknowledging that there are many live Linux distributions, doesn't think Linux would be practical for most people. Instead, he recommends Windows to Go, a version of Windows 8 that's available only to Windows volume license owners.

I disagree. You don't have to know Linux at all to use a live Linux USB stick, CD or DVD for the tasks you're likely to be doing on a public PC. These jobs include, printing tickets, checking an address, reviewing your schedule, and reading e-mail. In short, for most these chores all you really need is a web browser.

Trust me, if you can run a web browser on Windows, you can run one on Linux. 

For this tutorial, I'm going to presume you're a Windows user. The techniques I describe, however, will also work for Mac and Linux users.

The only real work you need to do to run Linux off a CD, DVD, or USB stick is to place the distribution on the boot-media in the first place. I recommend making both a USB key drive and a CD/DVD Linux boot disc. That's because there are still a few older PCs out there that won't boot from USB sticks.

The first thing you need to do is to download a live Linux distribution. You can find a comprehensive list of such distributions on the LiveCD List. Really, though, almost all desktop Linux distros come ready to run in live mode.

Once you select a distribution and download it, you'll have an ISO file. This is a special file type that you must "burn" to a CD or DVD. You simple can't copy it to a blank disk. If you do, you'll just end up with an unusable disc.

To burn an ISO, you need a CD/DVD burner program that can handle ISOs. Many programs can do this, but if you don't alreadyhave one you use, I recommend a freeware program like ImgBurn, or PowerISO 6.0, a full-featured commercial program that costs $29.95.

Once you have a burning program in hand, you use it to burn the ISO image to your disc. After that's done, use the program to check your newly burned disc for errors. Over the years, I've found that more problems that happen when running Linux from live CDs come from bad media than all other causes combined.

Putting Linux on a USB stick also requires you to download an ISO. But instead of using a disc-burning program, you must use a specialized program to "burn" the ISO to a USB stick.



I recommend one of two programs for this: LinuxLiveUSB, or UnetBootin (which works on Linux, Mac, and Windows). Both are freeware. Both are simple to use but of the pair, LinuxLiveUSB is easier.

With each, you simply pick the distribution you want to install, tell it where to find the ISO, whether you want to make the USB stick "live," then tell it where to install the distribution.

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The one thing you should be careful about at this final stage is that you must make darn sure you're installing the Linux distribution to your USB stick. After all, you really don't want to install Linux on top of what was once your music collection on a USB hard-drive!

The only real decision you need to make is whether to make the USB stick "live" or not. In this context, "live" means that you can not only run Linux from the stick, but you can also save settings, install programs, and keep new files on the USB stick itself. Since you may need to install printer drivers to work with the hotel's printers, I recommend making the drive "live" with a few hundred MegaBytes of space. 

Once you have your disc or USB, stick it in the PC and reboot. The machine should then start running Linux. If it boots instead to Windows, you may need to tell the PC's BIOS or UEFI to boot from the disc or stick. Unfortunately, BIOS and UEFI vary wildly on how you invoke them.

To reach the BIOS or UEFI, reboot the computer and look for a brief message as it starts up that will tell which keys or keys you need to press to get to the BIOS/UEFI. Commonly, these involve one of the function keys, the Esc, or Delete key. Once you have this worked out, you'll end up in a menu interface. From here, tell your system that you want it to boot from your optical drive or USB stick instead of the hard drive.

Once, it's up and running, all you should have to do is to bring up the web browser. On Linux, this is almost always Firefox.

Once you have a web browser up, I think you'll know what to do! Have fun, find the direction to the stadium, check your e-mail, print out your tickets, and know that you're doing all this in the close-to-perfect security of Linux.

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