Ed. note: On Tuesday, Google responded to cyber attacks aimed at Chinese human-rights activists by ending search-result censorship in China. An anonymous reader with experience living and travelling where privacy isn't respected writes in with tips for keeping your data safe in these situations.
The author asked to remain anonymous and preferred to skip mentioning any countries by name — again, for privacy reasons. What follows is how the author keeps a tight leash on privacy when travelling in a country where the government actively monitors online communication.
Two things have really changed the face of independent backpacker travel in the last decade: digital cameras and — even more so — the internet. While some people can afford the luxury of travelling with a laptop or even a netbook, a real backpacker doesn't want to have to carry the extra weight nor the responsibility of carrying expensive equipment that would be difficult to lug around, relatively easy to steal and expensive to replace.
Internet cafes proliferate all throughout Asia and other remote countries, which makes getting online very easy and cheap. That said, as much as I love "the cloud", keeping data online comes with security concerns, especially in places where internet restrictions and heavy government monitoring are commonplace.
Here are a list of items from my arsenal — many from Lifehacker — which made my own backpacker travels much easier when in remote places:
Lifehacker has already sung the praises of Gmail, and it's impossible to understate it. With Google's recent announcement that accounts will connect using the more secure https by default, Gmail reigns supreme as the best possible email app for travellers logging in on dicey computers in strange places. On top of that, Google Docs, Google Calendar and now Google Wave are a wonderful and secure set of cloud based apps to really allow you to do what you need to do from practically anywhere.
Two USB Sticks
Online options are getting better every day, but we can't quite always access everything we need on a computer straight from the cloud. Choosing the right USB stick to accompany you on your travels is in itself a chore. The secure Ironkey thumb drive is certainly very impressive, but it is also quite costly. It's definitely out of range for most backpackers, myself included. Corsair makes a padlock drive which is far from completely secure, but it has a more reasonable price and assures you that if you lose it, someone can't simply just plug it in and start using it immediately.
I keep one USB stick around my neck, the other in a zipped pouch under my pants next to my passport, emergency cash, etc. Both sticks have exactly the same files on them, and core files can easily be synced using DropboxPortable.
On your USB drives, you want to carry software that you need, and for that the PortableApps Suite really is outstanding. It's almost like carrying your own computer with you, without the hassle of actually doing so. Log in to any strange machine, and you are armed and ready with all of your favourite software available to you.
If I had to choose one single Portable App that was most important to me, it would be KeePass. Keepass provides tremendous security advantages and Lifehacker's looked at protecting your passwords in general. This is even more true and relevant when travelling in remote places.
I keep two KeePass databases with me at all times: my primary database with all of my passwords which I use constantly, and another that only contains scanned PDFs of all of my most important travel documents, including:
- Birth Certificate
- Travel Visas (if I have them)
- Health/Travel Insurance info
- A list of vaccinations I've had and when I had them
- Medical Records
- My Driver's License
In that they are in a KeePass database, they are all stored encrypted while on the USB. Truth be told, no digital copies of those documents will stand up legally in place of hard copies, but sometimes the information on them is all you need and enough to cover you while a hard copy replacement is sent overnight from home.
With the possible exception of Google Wave (which I'm excited for but not quite ready to switch to), Skype is still the best way to chat and talk securely (but of course don't let the app permanently store your login and password or history).
Travellers in China should beware of "Tom-Skype", a legitimate Chinese version of Skype which was developed in conjunction with one of China's phone companies. That version is not secure, but other versions, such as the one you can get from PortableApps, are.
Hardcore backpacking is a wonderful adventure, but it isn't always restful. Sometimes you want to kick back, relax and catch up with the latest TV shows and movies. uTorrent now also exists as a portable app, so depending on the friendliness of the staff of the internet cafe where you are logging in, you could — in theory — download things for your listening or viewing pleasure to watch the next day on your portable version of VLC.
When it comes to encrypting your files, there is nothing better than TrueCrypt. It is possible to bring along with you a portable version of TrueCrypt, but you can't mount TrueCrypt encrypted drives without admin privileges on the computer you are using. Ideally, I would love to use TrueCrypt to encrypt my USB drives in their entirety, but since having admin privileges is always hit or miss when travelling, it's a risk I can't afford to take. Any documents on my drive that I feel need to be encrypted, I can just store in a KeePass database. But I still carry TrueCrypt with me and it has come in very handy on occasion.
Some people use TOR, for example, to do things like access Facebook from work — which really should be strongly discouraged. As events of recent days have proven, some governments around the world censor websites from their citizens. You may be curious to see your friend's latest updates at work, but there are people in places who's lives — without exaggeration — might truly depend on TOR. TOR, and especially the Portable version, provides a way for travellers to those locations (and citizens who face privacy invasions every day) to be able to access whatever websites they need to.
However, take note: It's very important to realise that TOR does not encrypt your data for you — it only allows you to access blocked sites anonymously.
Lifehacker has covered a variety of great cloud based backup services. Mozy is the one which has served this traveller well. While my backpack and I are running around the world, my hard drive is still safely at home, turned off and under lock and key. Fortunately, I backed up my entire system (well over 1TB these days), and if in a pinch I need a file that I don't have with me on my USB, in my Google Apps or even in my Dropbox, I can "restore" that file from my MozyHome account to whatever machine I'm on at the time. Mozy stores my data encrypted and downloads it encrypted as well.
Xubuntu Live CD
But what if you've covered all of the above and the only computers you have access to are all malware, spyware and virus infected, but you need to get online as quickly, safely and securely as possible?
Then there's the Xubuntu Live CD. I always carry a few Linux live CDs with me. In a durable plastic case, they fit well in the pockets of cargo pants. Ubuntu itself is great, but Xubuntu is even more streamlined and runs smoothly and well even on computers with a minimum of memory and hardware. Go into the internet cafe, put your CD in the drive and restart it. More often than not, the computer will then boot from the CD and automatically connect to the internet. You're running your own, safe Linux system on a compromised Windows PC.
Of course on the USB stick I also have Linux versions of my favourite Apps: KeePassX, Skype and TrueCrypt. I don't carry a Linux version of TOR with me, but it downloads and installs just fine on Xubuntu. Flash doesn't come installed on Xubuntu either, but I carry Flash with me and wrote a little script to install it with one click off of the USB drive.
Truth be told, someone could probably compile a great "Traveller's Xubuntu" CD that would come with all of the necessary open source apps already installed, but I'll leave that to another forward-thinking Lifehacker reader.
Travellers should always be aware that no security system is ever going to be foolproof and 100 per cent secure. Hardware and software keyloggers are great threats which are very difficult to avoid. Still, by taking proper precautions and arming yourself with the right tools, you can turn the odds in your favour and still accomplish whatever you set out to online, no matter where you are.