Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Camouflaging an OS?

I'm a journalist, and I travel extensively throughout Asia commentating and reporting from hot-spots. A colleague of mine last week was arrested and had his laptop taken by the police in this specific Asian country, and interrogated, he was accused of "sedition" because of his articles, but whats weirder, he was accussed of software piracy. Despite the fact our notebooks are given by the news company we work for, and we dont install or uninstall anything from it. It was a mere pretext to haul him in, this is backed up by the fact that no credible anti-piracy laws exists in this ultra corrupt nation.
As a result of this incident, I'm seeking to take all measures possible when travelling abroad.
I know there are software to hide files, and i'm trying out the trial versions at the moment. But is there such a thing as software to hide program files, and all the shortcuts that accompany it in the start menu and desktop?. I'm using windows xp, I was thinking if there was such a thing as a decoy operating system that I can use?.
From now on, I'm leaving nothing to chance.

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Two points:

Firstly, if the laptop was just a pretext, what makes you think that having a more secure laptop will keep them off of you?

Second, 'hiding' files usually means steganography. It is worth noting that, as far as I am aware, every method of steganogaphy devised thus far is detectable. Even if it was undetectable when it was invented, I believe an attack has always been able to be created after the fact.

Meaning that a competent party that thinks you may actually have data hidden will be able to find it.

Your other option is encryption: Sure, they'll know the files are there, but without a key, they can't get at it.

In any case, I doubt there's any method that can stop a rogue government from coming after you: if they only need a pretext, it can usually be found.

The only good solution I can think of is to establish anonymity, however, for a journalist, that may be impractical.

Mike Swieton
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

You could always encrypt with Solitaire. ;)

Flamebait Sr.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

What was the country?

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

If you believe that encryption will save you then:
You don't need anything more.
Covert your file system to NTFS.
Then from the folder properties you choose 'Encrypted'.
So without your password the folder is actually unreadable even if used from another PC.

Boris Yankov
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

An encrypted file obviously means that it is subversive.

Get a sattelite connection, and send your files out of the country as soon as you can. Leave nothing on your laptop.


Tuesday, July 1, 2003

I've never used VMware, but I understand it uses a single file to store its snapshots, so you can use both encryption + stenography on it.

Maybe this is a solution?

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

This obviously falls under the heading of 'security through obscurity', but you could have a dual-boot setup with a boot loader (such as LILO) configured without a menu.  The default choice would be Linux (or BSD, or some other OS that's impossible to pirate because it's free), but you'd also set up WinXP under some not-trivially-guessable option, such that if you typed in "MicrosoftSpyware" (sorry, couldn't resist the dig; I'm still using Win2k) you'd get your "real" OS.

Of course, if the person inspecting your laptop knows Linux and you let them log in*, they could check the configuration of your boot loader, or inspect the partitions and see that there was a Windows partition, or something.  You might also need to demonstrate some sort of familiarity with the decoy OS to make it convincing as well.

* Note that withholding login information, or encryption keys, from law enforcement personnel could easily land you in jail.

Sam Livingston-Gray
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Hmm.  Sounds like a request for a bribe to me.  "Look, I'll pay *you* for the software and we forget about it, OK?".  But I've never had to deal with these types.  Encrypt your data and hope.  If they want ya, they gotcha. 

That said, what I do sometimes is to have one OS boot from a floppy and the other OS boot directly from the c: drive.  (Win2k does not play nicely with other OSs.  The floppy keeps everybody happy)  Without the floppy in the drive, it just boots straight into the second OS.

Keeping a floppy in the drive when you're going through an airport is a good idea, too.  If they make you turn on the computer to prove it's "real", they're perfectly happy with the "Non system disk error" and you don't have to worry about interrupting the boot cycle.

Steve Smith
Tuesday, July 1, 2003


How about this: you get an IBM Microdrive (postage stamp 1GB hard drive) and install VMWare and a VMWare OS on the microdrive.

Keep the microdrive separate from your laptop unless you're actively using it. It's small enough to hide just about anywhere. Put it in your digital camera and pretend it's film.

Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

I agree with ee.

Encryption is stupid. That just 'proves' to them you are a spy. Don't forget encryption is illegal in their country, so you 'really are' a criminal then. Don't forget that they will simply torture you until you give them the password. ee's suggestion to email all your work out of the country immediately and then delete your mbox is the correct one. Have a plain vanilla computer with a few pictures you've taken of tourist spots and a few emails to your sister about how wonderful the country is and how friendly the natives are. Make sure yours installation is a bare bones one and you have a friend back home who can fax in your receipt from Dell.

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

I seem to racall a USB watch that had a gig of storage, but alas the link was deleted.

Wonder what Q has to say?

Our team of programmer
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

"ee's suggestion to email all your work out of the country immediately and then delete your mbox is the correct one"

Close. If you've got a connection to email, then you have a web connection. *Webmail* your work out of the country, then simply clear your IE cache.

However, I think Joel's suggestion is a better one - load linux, run Windows in a VMWare partition loaded from a microdrive or flash card.


Tuesday, July 1, 2003

I agree with the e-mail the files solution, or set up a web server with something along the lines of moveable type or a WIKI on it and just "blog" your articles from anywhere with an internet connection. You can SSL it in between points, and there should be no record of it on your computer, even less than with a deleted e-mail.

Hopefully this will allow you to not keep any subversive programs on your computer, and a bare minimum of text between your online sessions.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Why do you have to use a PC? What is wrong with (say) a Sinclair Z88, or a Psion Series 3/3a/5/7?

Well, probably plenty, but there's limited installable software, longer battery life, and if you don't install the lithium backup battery you can erase the internal memory by just pulling out the AA batteries.

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

I can't help thinking of a certain scene in "Pulp Fiction" to do with a watch, and being a POW...

Geoff Bennett
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

If it was a pretext then any attempt at decoying wil just put extra fuel on the fire, and can be hauled in as "proof" of obstruction/subversion. I would in such cases be very carefull with some of the suggestions that have been made here.

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Hiding or encrypting files won't help.

If the police are willing to falsely accuse you of software piracy, what makes you think they won't also falsely accuse you of having "subversive" files on your computer.

In that environment the truth is irrelevant.  Even if you could hide every file on your computer, they would just find some other excuse to arrest you.

Common Sense Guy
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

I would also think that "hiding" things on a postage stamp drive would also look mighty suspicious -- and if found, would lend credence to the rogue government's claim that you are up to no good.

Even if what you're hiding is perfectly innocent.

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

I think you have to ask what would be an acceptable OS to these people.

Linux?  That's certainly do-able.  You can even use it as your primary OS.

I agree with some of the other posters though, a pretext is a pretext.  They are just as likely to accuse of piracy if you were using Linux.

As far as the microdrive, it has its attraction.  It'll be easy to hide on your person, and easy to drop/destroy if the need arises.  Heck, you could probably swallow it if necessary (beware of heavy metals poisoning).

I don't think you have any safe way to do it though.

Good luck! And let us know what you decide and what happens.

Steve Barbour
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

I'm attracted by Steve Smiths idea, of using a floppy disk to result in a non-system disk error. While I do like the idea of linux as an option, windows xp should not be a visible option. It would be good to have a way to conifgure it so I can select xp without visibly being given that option on the screen.
While many argue that they will find any pretext no matter what I do,,its best that I reduce those chances of them finding a pretext, no matter how sooner or later they find one. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

I'm missing something here -- can't you use just about any OS and then not tell them the login password? (And don't store it either.)

If they ask, tell them you forgot it.

If it's the kind of country where they hold you indefinitely until you remember the password, a confiscated computer is the least of your worries.


Joe Grossberg
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

It shouldn't be too hard to bypass the login, either BIOS or OS if you were motivated, or simply knew how to do it.

I think the best defense is simply to not have any of that stuff with him. A computer with a bare minimum install of an OS you can prove you have the right to use with a few internet tools, whose ownership you can also prove, so you can e-mail anything out of the country and delete it as soon as you have access.

Isn't China that country with "The Great Wall" - that big firewall that prevents anyone inside the country from getting to certain websites? One might assume they have their own versions of TIA & Echelon and track you as you move about the internet anyway.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

If they stopped your friend then it was for a reason; and if they pulled him in for software piracy then it means they can't get him for anything else so they've invented a holding charge that will play well with Western diplomats.

Some of the advice here might be of use for passing through Western Customs though.

You really ought to tell us the country.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, July 6, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home