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USB FlashDrives The New PC?

Zonk posted more than 8 years ago | from the for-limited-amounts-of-functionality dept.

Portables 305

olddotter writes "Yahoo has an article about how large capacity USB drives might be redefining the concept of the personal computer. The article is windows specific, but think knopix on a flash drive." From the article: "When you check into an average hotel room and find -- alongside the alarm clock, hair dryer and DVD player that once were bring-your-own items but now are as standard as the furniture -- a cheap PC for guests to plug into, as our truly personal computing environment travels with us."

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Don't Forget.. (5, Funny)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752146)

Yea, but you still have to bring your own virus and spyware. It will be years til they provide that.

Oh? (5, Insightful)

temojen (678985) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752179)

I wouldn't trust a hotel (or net-cafe) computer with a USB stick with my private keys, certificates, or banking password. Even if you boot off your USB stick, how do you know it's not booting under Xen? I think it's more likely that the hotel computer has malware already. chambermaids are not sysadmins.

Re:Oh? (4, Insightful)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752207)

This is referring to a computer with NO operating system at all. You have to provide everything, it's completely diskless, just a usb port. If they did anything, it would have to be at the proxy or some kinda tftp boot.

Having a whole operating system on a flash drive isn't that unusual. I have been using Knoppix for years, like a million other people. The flashdrive would just be faster and smaller, and you could write to it and save some files if you chose to.

Re:Oh? (4, Insightful)

temojen (678985) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752230)

How do you know it has no OS?

Re:Oh? (1)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752246)

Try to boot it without your flashdrive installed the first time perhaps? Or run fdisk as soon as it does boot to see if there are any other drives that the hardware detects? Or kudzu? Use a screwdriver if you must, but don't put it in your carry on luggage.

vmware with no HD image perhaps? (5, Interesting)

tepples (727027) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752263)

Then how do you know it's not a virtual machine that's emulating a diskless PC?

Re:vmware with no HD image perhaps? (1)

DeusExMalex (776652) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752384)

Because virtual machines still have to boot. Lemme put it this way - reboot and in the BIOS, make sure that flash drives boot before hard drives. This is a non-issue.

Re:vmware with no HD image perhaps? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752406)

What about a modified BIOS?

Re:vmware with no HD image perhaps? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752586)

You sir, are a dumbass. And a troll. Anyone that is actually that stupid should not be allowed to be near a computer.

Even the BIOS is emulated (2, Insightful)

tepples (727027) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752594)

Because virtual machines still have to boot. Lemme put it this way - reboot and in the BIOS, make sure that flash drives boot before hard drives.

...the BIOS screen you think you see isn't the bare hardware's BIOS screen. It's the virtual machine's.

Re:vmware with no HD image perhaps? (1)

DavidTC (10147) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752603)

So it's your contention that VMs don't have BIOSes?

Have you ever seen VMWare, or are you just talking gibberish?

The only clue you're in VMWare is the screen mode changes sometimes result in you seeing past it for a second. And, of course, it says VMWare during the boot.

It would be rather trivial to design a VMWare that is completely invisible that operates with a fake power button. I bet the NSA is working on exactly something like that, with the ability to even boot up an existing hard drive in the virtual machine. Plug it into their USB port, make sure the computer boots off it, and they sit down at 'their' computer. If you're really clever, put it inside their USB keyboard. They can even reformat their hard drive and boot off CD, and as long as they don't uncheck 'Boot off USB device', they're still owned.

Of course, something that would be much easier would just be to hack a USB port that copies all data from any USB devices hooked up to it, and copies all your keystrokes while it's at it.

They already have network sharing devices for USB drives, so I know sharing them is possible. I think I saw a 'USB keyboard switch' that said it could take USB drives, and I think they were shared. If not, you can rig USB drive network share inside the box and use boot-from-network.

And I know they have keystroke loggers...hell, that's just a keyboard switch without the actual switch part.

Put that between your panel USB ports and your motherboard. And, of course, users aren't allowed to open the case.

Re:Oh? (1)

DeusExMalex (776652) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752268)

Hold down the power button until it shuts down. Press the power button again. If it sticks at the BIOS then there's no OS. CS 100 strikes again!

Re:Oh? (2, Insightful)

Jace of Fuse! (72042) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752362)

That won't help you one bit if the keyboard has within itself a hardware keylogger.

Some keyboards themselves are keyloggers.

Sometimes keyboards are attached to keylogger adapters or dongles.

KeyGhost.Com [keyghost.com]

So, remember, either bring your own keyboard or just bring a laptop.

Re:Oh? (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752585)

This is referring to a computer with NO operating system at all. You have to provide everything, it's completely diskless, just a usb port. If they did anything, it would have to be at the proxy or some kinda tftp boot.

Or just hook up as this: USB drive - hidden USB inside box - USB connector. The hidden USB could read yours, but keep or send a copy off somewhere. I'm sure you can do more variations on this. If this gets significantly popular people will find a way and it's popularity will plummet down to nothing.

Re:Oh? (2, Interesting)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752688)

Or just hook up as this: USB drive - hidden USB inside box - USB connector. The hidden USB could read yours, but keep or send a copy off somewhere. I'm sure you can do more variations on this. If this gets significantly popular people will find a way and it's popularity will plummet down to nothing.

First, Knoppix doesn't mount any foreign disk by default. Second, if it was a drive that was "interupting" my keydrive, knoppix would likely see that and tell me. No such drive exists today, writing the code to view it would be very trivial, its hardware and knoppix reads ALL the hardware on every boot.

I would be more worried that they have cameras in the smoke detectors and watching your keystrokes. THIS would actually be easier to pull off because the gear exists to do it.

Ironically, I will bet you anything the majority of people who are being all paranoid about this 1) Dont travel anyway 2) Use wireless routers, no password and/or 3) Use Windows XP and the free version of Zone Alarm.

So pardon me if I'm a bit nonplussed by all the "security experts" posting their invalid concerns. Most of these concerns can be easily overcome with about 10 seconds of thought. There ARE some potential issues, but not a single valid one is expressed in the comments.

Right... (2, Funny)

xeon4life (668430) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752148)

Yes, because Knoppix is so much more familiar to the Slashdot crowd than Windows...

Re:Right... (2, Funny)

gl4ss (559668) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752165)

for being easily booted from usb.. damn right!

would you conduct your business from a windows pc.. sitting in a hotel room? thats like using old sheets.

Bleach Time. (1, Funny)

twitter (104583) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752680)

a windows pc.. sitting in a hotel room? thats like using old sheets.

Ewww, a keyboard in a motel room. Now Wash Your Hands.

The difference between the sheets, keys and Windozed is that Windoze lets 250,000,000 13 year old punks put their seed on the machine from anywhere. Now that's dirty.

Or you can go one better... (5, Informative)

Afecks (899057) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752156)

...check out VirtualPrivacyMachine [nyud.net]. DamnSmallLinux made completely anonymous with Tor.

Re:Or you can go one better... (5, Insightful)

temojen (678985) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752204)

Or just bring your own Laptop. Putting your confidential information in someone else's computer is not safe. ever.

Checkout the screenshots (1)

matt me (850665) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752232)

You can see them posting on Slashdot. That's some Anonymous Coward!

You'd think at least they'd be spreading dissent against governments. Not worried about being flamed.

Re:Checkout the screenshots (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752415)

You can see them posting on Slashdot. That's some Anonymous Coward!

You'd think at least they'd be spreading dissent against governments. Not worried about being flamed.

You insensitive clod, I'm an Anonymous Coward!

Well, that's great (4, Insightful)

the-amazing-blob (917722) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752160)

It would be nice to have that accessability in hotels, but I have one small problem with USB drives. They're too freaking small. I keep losing them.

Re:Well, that's great (3, Funny)

Xeo 024 (755161) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752210)

I don't think over-sized USB drives would sell very well.

Think about it, if you had a USB drive that was the size of your car, you'd look really stupid if you lost it.

"Damn! Where did I park my USB drive again?"

Re:Well, that's great (1)

the-amazing-blob (917722) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752301)

Good point. "Honey, someone keyed our USB again. Now I have to get it repainted. That's the third time this month!" :P

I think a better way (thinking in sense of being useful to the average user, and not necessarily cheapest) would be wireless access everywhere combined with a safe way to access one's personal files over the internet.

Re:Well, that's great (4, Funny)

nizo (81281) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752433)

One solution would be to sell flashdrives with a builtin lcd monitor and keyboard; not only would they be hard to lose but the extra functionality would be awesome!

Re:Well, that's great (2, Funny)

HermanAB (661181) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752454)

So? Just add a chain and a paint bucket filled with cement on the other end. You'll never lose the key again. BTW, I saw that on a farm...

Re:Well, that's great (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752628)

www.portablefreeware.com should get you started

Re:Well, that's great (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752657)

I too have recently started using a flash drive to keep all my files. Trillian, firefox, thunderbird, logicworks, lc3 emulator, securecrt. I can almost run cygwin too but I have to add some registy entries, some computers at school do not allow registry modification.
Brings me to my question
Right now I am using simple Batch files to execute the programs, is there a better way to do this? some kind of interface? Some kind of program that can create an executable shortcut that works with relative paths?

I like this concept (5, Informative)

technoextreme (885694) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752162)

I have always been fascinated by the programs that can boot off a flash drive because I don't own a computer yet. These programs are quite useful and so far I know of three. (Open Office, Mozilla, and an HTML editor) Does anyone else know what programs can be booted off such a drive?

Re:I like this concept (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752194)

you don't boot open office, mozilla, and html editors off a flash drive. You boot an os off of a flash drive and then run those programs off of the bootable os.

Re:I like this concept (2, Insightful)

tepples (727027) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752292)

You boot an os off of a flash drive and then run those programs off of the bootable os.

Or you boot an "oe" (operating environment) off a flash drive. An oe is an os plus some bundled applications. If you load an oe advertised as containing OpenOffice.org Suite, Mozilla Firefox, and Nvu, then it doesn't matter whether it's running a FreeBSD or Linux os; what matters is that your apps run.

Re:I like this concept (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752338)

I think most people call those "distribution" (ie: Knoppix) not "operating environment" but what do I know, only doing computing for a living for 20 something years.

Re:I like this concept (1)

DavidTC (10147) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752644)

The only people that ever use the term 'operating environment' is Sun, that I am aware of.

Re:I like this concept (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752583)

I have at last count 105 apps that can boot off a thumb drive. A lot of programs that are installed on PC's can simply be copied onto a thumb drive and executed with little or no modification. I don't really bother installing that much on a fresh installation of windows anymore because i just run the stuff from a portable drive or copy it all onto a seperate partition.
I've also found that Java, yes, the jre and the JDK can run off a portable drive. As a result i can also take "heavy" apps such as Jedit with me.
i also have GAIM, gimp, opera openoffice and some utils such as erunt running from there

Flash Drives Make Any Computer 'Personal' (0, Redundant)

lababidi (879163) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752167)

Flash Drives Make Any Computer 'Personal'

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer Fri Oct 7, 9:09 PM ET

Students at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Wash., are getting class materials in a new way this year: on a tiny flash-memory drive that plugs into a computer's USB port.

Small enough to wear on a necklace, this "digital backpack" can hold textbooks, novels, plays, study aids, the dictionary, graphing-calculator software -- almost anything, really.

Falling prices in computer memory have made these little flash drives -- also called pen, thumb or key drives -- into enormously powerful tools that are on the verge of changing the concept of "personal" computing.

With a gigabyte of flash memory now available for less than $100, these inexpensive digital storehouses can hold not just important data but also entire software programs. The information they carry can be encrypted and accessed speedily, a benefit of faster microprocessors.

What this all means is that computer users are no longer at the mercy of the machine that happens to be nearby. Everything we need to interact with computers -- even down to the appearance of our home PC's desktop -- can be carried with us and used on almost any computer.

"What's your personal computer, anyways?" computing pioneer Bill Joy said in a speech that touched on the trend at a recent conference. "Your personal computer should be something that's always on your person."

A few years ago Jay Elliot was looking for a way to help doctors move medical information securely and decided that flash memory -- which has no moving parts, unlike hard-disk storage -- was the perfect solution.

But as memory prices kept falling, he realized there was room for more than just data. So he invented Migo, software that lets removable storage devices such as USB drives and iPods essentially function as portable computers.

Plug a Migo-enabled device into a computer and enter your password, and a secure session launches in which you can send and receive e-mail and work on documents, with the background desktop and icons from your own PC rather than the ones on the host computer.

When you're done and remove the drive, all traces of what you did are removed from that computer. The next time you plug the drive into your home computer, data on each are synchronized.

Multiple people can share one USB device, with separate password-protected profiles for each. So when Elliot recently went on vacation, he, his wife and two sons each called up personalized desktops on a hotel computer -- all through a drive smaller than a cigarette lighter.

"People are carrying very expensive devices with them, but they only use 4 or 5 percent of their capability. What a waste," said Elliot, who heads Migo's maker, PowerHouse Technologies Group Inc.

Instead, he said, the model should be that "your data goes with you, in whatever form you want it. You just find a place to use it."

Another reason this flexibility is now possible is that software makers and flash-drive manufacturers relatively recently settled on technological standards that let programs be stored and run off the tiny drives.

Two hardware vendors, SanDisk Corp. and M-Systems Inc., formed a separate company, U3 LLC, to license and facilitate that technology.

Now a spate of U3-enabled drives have hit the market, preloaded with everything from photo-management software to the Firefox Web browser and instant-messaging programs.

Skype Technologies SA's Internet phone software is also available, meaning almost any computer can be used to make free calls over Skype, even if the computer owner never bothered to download Skype.

"The next time you go to install software that's going to be locked to the hard drive, your first reaction is going to be `Man, I want this on my U3 so I can have this anywhere,'" said Kate Purmal, U3's CEO.

The only big missing element for now is Microsoft Corp. software.

Although its popular productivity programs such as Excel or Word are common on office PCs, traveling workers still might not find the programs on a home or public computer.

So the ability to launch Microsoft software from a flash drive could be a big help. Microsoft and USB companies are still discussing potential licensing arrangements.

In the meantime, though, several new devices are emerging to take advantage of this shift in computer use.

For example, by tweaking the tiny processor in its flash drives to enable copyright protections, SanDisk created a drive called the Cruzer Freedom that lets students download reams of educational materials when they plug the device into a PC. Because each drive has a particular numeric identifier, teachers can put assignments and materials online that are accessible only to members of their classes.

That enabled Eastside Prep's new flash-drive project in Washington. Mark Bach, who heads the upper school and teaches at Eastside, plans to use the drives to disseminate primary source documents and other materials he's gathered for a unit on regional history.

As the drives' memory expands even further in coming years, he expects to augment the text with video.

"It becomes very, very malleable, and very creative on the part of the teacher, because the teacher can go beyond textbooks," he said.

For the business world, startup Realm Systems Inc. soon plans to roll out its own USB-based "mobile personal servers," with several gigabytes of memory for a few hundred dollars a pop, that could be plugged into any PC to let mobile employees do their computer-related work.

The Realm device will have a fingerprint reader to restrict access. It also clears its tracks from the host PC for privacy.

Of course, any portable storage device with significant memory, whether it's a "smart" cell phone, a digital assistant or an MP3 music player with a miniature hard drive, can do this trick of making any computer personal. That's more reason to believe the PC will soon fade into the background.

International Business Machines Corp. researcher Chandra Narayanaswami offers a good illustration of how we'll know it's happened:

When you check into an average hotel room and find -- alongside the alarm clock, hair dryer and DVD player that once were bring-your-own items but now are as standard as the furniture -- a cheap PC for guests to plug into, as our truly personal computing environment travels with us.

Flash drives don't last forever (3, Informative)

heptapod (243146) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752174)

They crap out after so many read/writes. If a company can make a better flash drive all the better.

Re:Flash drives don't last forever (1)

Skowronek (795408) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752212)

It is not that bad. Most NAND Flash chips I have seen are specified for 10^5 - 10^6 writes. Sure, it might be too little for a swap file, but it is enough for documents.

There are also techniques that balance the wear on NAND Flash cells; they are probably implemented in every USB Flash drive to date.

Re:Flash drives don't last forever (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752316)

I don't know anything about flash drive architecture, but aren't the uses suggested in this article read/write intensive? I thought that the entire point of this article was that you could bring along all of your own programs along with your data. How do you get a program on your flash drive to use swap space on the OS disk without installing it on the computer anyway?

Re:Flash drives don't last forever (2, Insightful)

00110011 (917752) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752375)

Another question would be how secure would it be to even consider using swap space on someone else's hard drive? Think about it...your entire program's memory could be swapped out, without notice, including any sensitive information stored in there such as passwords and encryption keys and such.

Re:Flash drives don't last forever (3, Informative)

big daddy kane (731748) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752328)

With a a proper and flash specific file system the write limit problem is almost non-existant. Wear leveling can allow the memory to last for years. One of the reasons for the semi-crappy performance/dependibility of these flash drives is because they use FAT over a flash translation layer, which uses more writes than nessesary and doesnt include wear leveling. A real flash filing system such as YAFFS [aleph1.co.uk] is far more robust. The only problem is it requires support in the OS, which isn't included by default in any popular desktop operating system.

Well, neither do hard drives (1)

Weaselmancer (533834) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752388)

That's what the MTBF rating is all about. It's just that flash drives do it sooner. But we all know what to do about it, right? Have a tight schedule of backups. Take your pendrive home and back that sucker up. Every time.

Re:Flash drives don't last forever (4, Interesting)

v1 (525388) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752392)

There are "spare" cells in flash drives just the same as there are "spare" blocks on hard drives. There are usually two controller chips in a USB drive (plus the flash chips) - they include the memory controller and a usb (or firewire if you happen to have one) bridge. The memory controller manages the memory and remaps cells that go bad, transparent to the usb/fw bridge. Anyone with a flash drive probably has some bad cells in it, just like hard drives 10 years ago that came with a label printed on the top listing all the bad blocks the new drive shipped with.

Parent talks about "wear balancing" - interesting concept though I have not heard of it used on flash drives before... would be a nice idea but not too fun to implement.

I use my flash drive several times a day at least, it's a 4gb SanDisk Cruzer Mini. Perfect for hauling around all the maintenance, repair, and update software that I use daily. I don't know why people buy those giant drives that don't fit well in a pocket and block adjacent USB ports. SanDisk also has a lifetime guarantee on their drives, so if mine ever does use up all its spares, I'll just trade it for a new one. Lacks a write protect switch though, which would kinda be nice.

Also a less known factoid about USB drives... the fast ones - USB 2.0 "High Speed" (not to be confused with the "Full Speed" snails) only work in powered USB hubs. Can't plug them into the keyboard ports. I wish they'd fix that. I'm tired of having to crawl behind a computer to jack into one of the powered ports. Thankfully most manufacturers are placing a powered usb port on the front of their machines nowadays. (sometimes two)

Would be nice too if Apple would fix OS X so it didn't reset all the #@*& USB buses 1.5 seconds into boot, so we could boot X off our flash drives.

Two words... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752183)

...came to mind as i read the article - keystroke logger. One could be embedded into the "cheap hardware" and you wouldn't necessarily even know it.

Re:Two words... (1)

xornor (165117) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752287)

Would it be possible to make a dongle that sits between the ps2/usb cable on a keyboard and the computer that encrypts the keys pressed, the OS would then decrypt the keys as they were being typed in. Of course the "cheap hardware" could do screen captures using the video signal.

The key issue (4, Insightful)

putko (753330) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752192)

There's nothing magical about USB, or even a local disk.

The key issue isn't that the data is on a USB disk, but that it is easy enough for you to carry around all your data (including OS and apps). E.g. compact flash would suffice. Or serial flash.

Furthermore, just having secure access to the data (perhaps over the internet) would suffice. Imagine a system where to boot up, the PC fetches your data off the web. Perhaps you use a kind of use-once key to access some of the data, with which the PC computes.

The thing I've not been satisfied with yet is the idea that the PC itself would engage in a man-in-the-middle attack. E.g. it stores a copy of whatever data you've accessed (off your USB, compact flash or network storage) -- and the bad guy gets that stuff later. There's no defense against this attack, because the PC is doing the processing.

E.g. imagine a compromised PC running something like bochs. It emulates a real PC, but gives away your secrets.

Re:The key issue (1)

game kid (805301) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752269)

And yet, I'd still not mind it. One USB cameras, printers, flash drives, CD/DVD drives, monitors [xkeys.com]...anything that can take off the space wasted on internal PCI and non-USB ports is fine by me. I don't like those. I'd not know jack-shit about writing a USB driver, but hey, I can Google for that...

Re:The key issue (2, Insightful)

Kjella (173770) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752277)

The thing I've not been satisfied with yet is the idea that the PC itself would engage in a man-in-the-middle attack. E.g. it stores a copy of whatever data you've accessed

Or if your USB key is your computer (I presume some of these can be offline), why not just copy the entire USB drive? At 512mb each, you'd fit 500 on a 250gb drive (actually you wouldn't since 2^10 != 10^3), then just search... any interesting jpgs? videos? license keys? confidential data? certificates? Take your pick.

Re:The key issue (1)

ucblockhead (63650) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752317)

Internet connections go down. It doesn't make sense to me to trust your data to something you might lose access to.

CF vs. SD? USB handles both (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752395)

The key issue isn't that the data is on a USB disk, but that it is easy enough for you to carry around all your data (including OS and apps). E.g. compact flash would suffice. Or serial flash.

The key issue is that you have a reader available for the type of flash memory you carry. If you carry your life on a CF Microdrive card, and your hotel's card reader just has an MMC/SD (SPI serial flash) slot, tough sh**. At least USB is all but guaranteed to be on every PC motherboard manufactured since 1999.

You are talking about trust. (2, Interesting)

twitter (104583) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752579)

The thing I've not been satisfied with yet is the idea that the PC itself would engage in a man-in-the-middle attack.

That's why I'm going to keep carrying my laptop. I don't trust non-free software, especially Microsoft junk. I'll use a windoze box in a pinch, but I won't put a password into it. There are just too many key loggers out there and the platform is too open to abuse. As long as there's a network, I have full OpenSSH access to my data from my cable box. It's rare that I need all of it, but what I need is unpredictable. That's not something the average Windoze box can do and I would not trust it if it could.

Would I trust a free computer? That depends on my trust of the owner. I trust my friends and their computers. Do I know a hotel chain? No, and so the laptop saves the day again.

My trust in businesses has been shattered by the last decade of data mining they have done. The grocery store tracks my spending and spits out coupons. The credit card company tracks my spending even the gas station want's a piece of the "action". This is only the tip of the database nation iceburg.

Trust? (5, Insightful)

wtown (880570) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752195)

Assuming that you are willing to trust that this machine isn't (either by design or by tampering) just grabbing and logging all of your data.

Granted, I'm sure protection mechanisms would be built in to address this, but I think I'd still be a bit skeptical.

Re:Trust? (1)

Skowronek (795408) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752274)

The "Trusted Computing" might be billed as a solution to this problem. And indeed, restricting the software so that it can not emulate another computer / perform man-in-the-middle attacks might be the only way to secure this.

So, the Flash-disk based systems might in the end turn out to trade convenience for freedom.

I know, I'll get moderated to death for suggesting this :)

Re:Trust? (1)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752278)

Hardly insightful. Any version of Linux can be configured to automatically scan for other storage devices in about 3 seconds. This is trivial. The hotel proxy is another issue, but that is what encryption is for, so yes, they could capture your encrypted messages, but good luck decrypting them.

This would be easy to deal with. The hard part is getting hotels to install the diskless boxes in the first place.

Re:Trust? (1)

Eli Gottlieb (917758) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752571)

These things would be far more trustworthy if you could cold boot the machine off of a flash drive, which I think you can do on some newer systems. You install an OS of your choosing (it can be assumed you trust the OS) and boot wherever.

Of course, this means hardware configuration and driver checking would have to be done every boot, which is why I think the idea of carrying a complete computing environment and data with you won't catch on. Too much adaptation for EVERY operating system.

On the other hand, that adaptation could open the market to new systems or distros if carrying your computer's contents around with you becomes popular.

Re:Trust? (1)

lgftsa (617184) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752617)

Very insightful, not to mention obvious.

Do Not Trust Anyone Else's Hardware

Pull apart a few USB keyboards. You'll find a lots of ASICs. A popular flavour is an 8051 core with USB and matrix switch interfaces, plus a few GPIO pins for designers to get fancy with.

The chips generally come in three basic models, a version with flash program memory and programming support, a One Time Programmable version with programming support, and a factory-programmable version. The first is most expensive, and is targetted at designers who will have to re-program the chip many times before the design is finalised. The next is much cheaper and used for final testing and short production runs. The last is extremely cheap per unit, but because of the setup cost from the manufacturer it is only feasable for many thousands of units.

So, find out which chip your target hotel is using, buy a few of the developer version and a few hundred or thousand of the OTP version and add a serial flash chip onto some spare GPIO pins.

The cheaper keyboards(like you'll find in hotels) will be using firmware very close to the code examples provided by the chip manufacturer, so re-writing the firmware would be fairly straightforward.

The biggest problem is the changeover. You could probably do it in 15 minutes or so, but getting to each keyboard with a soldering iron for that time in a busy hotel would be difficult if you don't want to rent each room in turn. Finding an accomplice in the supply/service chain for the units would be easyest, and retrieval would be as simple as a housekeeper plugging a flash key into each unit, and typing a code on the keyboard.

I think it would be technically simpler than the ATM prosthetics scammers are doing, but requiring more social engineering for installation.

Is the network the flashdrive? (5, Funny)

cgrand (852896) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752198)

I'm puzzled: once I was told the network is the computer and now I learn the flashdrive is the computer.
I'm totally at a lost.

Windows? (4, Interesting)

Libor Vanek (248963) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752203)

Now only if Windows can correctly boot on completely different box... Author probably never tried to take his Windows XP disk and boot in different box with different mainboard, video and network card...

Re:Windows? (4, Funny)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752227)

Author probably never tried to take his Windows XP disk and boot in different box with different mainboard, video and network card...

Piece of cake. Just install flashdrive, answer Yes and NO alot, reboot 12 times, download two drivers each time, then call for authorization to activate your computer yet again. Setup time would be less than two hours each time. This is much better than bringing your own laptop....


masterzora (871343) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752480)

WTF? How in the world did this get modded insightful? It's a flippin' joke without a bit of insight at all. Mod it up funny!

Soaps and towels (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752206)

Yes, of course, but how long does it take before you can without too much risk do to them what you once did to those soaps and towels now in your bathroom?

Subnotebooks ... (2, Interesting)

gst (76126) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752237)

I already have my "Personal Computer" in form of a 1.2kg subnotebook. While 1.2kg is still not the ideal weight the new models get better each year (unlike some years ago when notebook manufacturers only cared about the performance and not about the size). All I need is an open accesspoint so that I'm able to check my mails when traveling. If there's no AP nearby I can still use bluetooth to connect to my mobile and then use GPRS to get onto the net. And when I'm at home I just put the notebook into the docking station and I have a "normal PC" with a large monitor and a connected soundsystem.

Re:Subnotebooks ... (1)

geminidomino (614729) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752304)

All I need is an open accesspoint so that I'm able to check my mails when traveling.

Over an open AP? I sure as hell hope you use SSH or SSL/TLS...

Re:Subnotebooks ... (1)

gst (76126) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752354)

I'm not that stupid ;) For mails I usually use IMAPS and SMTP with STARTTLS (the client is setup to cancel the connection if it can't connect or if the certificate is wrong).

Computing Freedom (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752240)

Am I the only one who was disturbed to hear that the Cruzer Freedom seems to be some sort of DMA-enabled disk? Yeah, it's great that textbook companies can sell their books digitally and completely eliminate that pesky hassle of buying and selling *used* textbooks.

USB would need a security layer. (5, Insightful)

G4from128k (686170) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752247)

This sounds like a security/privacy nightmare. What stops the host PC from copying the drive or infecting it with malware from the prior user. Even if the USB drive uses an encrypted filesystem, once you type your password into the PC to access any file on the user data partition, you have no guarantee that it won't access every file on the drive. I can also see this giving corporate security managers the screaming heebie jeebies over the thought of returning road-warrior executives bringing infected USB drives inside the the corporate firewall (yes, you can scan for malware but you're still susceptible to zero-day attacks and delays in AV updates).

Perhaps this would work if the client machine were truly memory-less (no HD, no NVRAM, no flash ROM, etc.). Then the machine could be a secure blank slate for whatever the USB user needed to do. Given the prevalence of flashable firmware on everything (and the need for persistent machine configuration data), I doubt this is very feasible.

Re:USB would need a security layer. (2, Informative)

misleb (129952) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752452)

Definitly the ideal would be to run the whole OS off the flash drive and have no storage or OS on the computer itself. Of course, this would currently only work with Linux (limited by Linux hardware support) and Macs. And Macs already have a good head start by being able to boot off of USB. And they don't generally have problems booting the same OS on different hardware. There are many modern PCs that cannot boot from a USB memory stick. And even if you could, we all know how picky Windows XP is about its hardware. I once wrote DamnSmallLinux and the Debian base installer to a USB stick hoping it woudl prove to be a universal recovery/install media. I was horribly disappinted to find that most of the PCs that I tried to boot just couldn't. They didn't have the option in the BIOS. Back to static data on CDs...


Re:USB would need a security layer. (1)

Pharmboy (216950) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752455)

It's like all the people who couldn't pass CS101 are posting on how dangerous this is, not understanding at ALL how computers work. If I boot from my Knoppix flashdrive, even if they HAD a "secret windows drive with viruses and spyware" it wouldn't bother me because it would not be mounted, and it likely won't run on Linux, and even if it WOULD, Knoppix doesn't run everything as root.

If I encrypt everything else I do on the network (ever hear of https?) then there isn't much for them to steal. It is no more dangerous than any other computer on any other network. It's actually safer than your Windows XP box connected to a cable modem. Much.

We are talking about Linux as a remote OS, not Windows. Its not that Linux is bulletproof, but Knoppix is already designed to do this TODAY, and has been for years. No real modification is needed to do this except paring it down to fit on the flashdrive unzipped. Windows Only users just have no idea how configurable Linux is as an entire distribution, and they seem to worry about the wrong things.

Re:USB would need a security layer. (1)

v1 (525388) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752605)

could be secure, sure. But that's what the man at the front desk said. If you are worried about what computer to trust, why do you take HIS word? Saying the computer is secure is fine if you have control over it and know from personal experience that it is secure. But this is like a hotek keosk, not your bedroom. You don't own the machine, you didn't install the hardware or pull the memory. It's sitting at that bios screen when you boot it... who's to say that's not a program that's running? Is there really no hard drive? (being in a hotel, you can almost bet it will have one-way nuts or rivots for case screws, so no peeking either) How complicated of a hardware hack would it be to tap into the bus and log all memory traffic to disk? Or just plain duplicate your entire flash drive as soon as you plug it in? Emulators even have an easy time pulling stunts like this. (which is why we have that silly "press ctrl-alt-del to login" nonsense, to make sure that login screen isn't a keylogger on an already logged in machine)

The whole concept of a trusted system relies on having complete control over all imoprtant aspects of the system, and if joe cool at the front desk is supplying the computer, you've already lost.

Laptop... (1)

Wisgary (799898) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752282)

I'd rather take my laptop... why not just put a bad-ass monitor, mouse and keyboard on hotel rooms for laptop use? I'd use em.

Not a new idea (1)

Aqua OS X (458522) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752334)

I had been doing something similar with my 20gig iPod for a while. At the time, I owned a desktop computer, so portability was a problem. Eventually installed OS X and all of my graphic design applications onto the iPod and used it as a boot disk.

It worked pretty well. Whenever I came to a new mac, I would turn it off, plug in the iPod, and boot while holding down the "T" key to target the new drive. Unfortunately, the iPod's hard disk is not the speediest thing in the world. Moreover, I doubt toshiba drive would last long if it was being used 8+ hours a day, everyday.

But as for the article. They harddrive-less / headless computer is not a new idea. As well all know, it's older then dirt. Yet ballooning operating systems, massive applications, and multimedia content have made it fairly impractical. Although flash drives and micro hard drives will grow in reliability and size, the amount data people use will undoubtedly grow as well.

I doubt we'll go back to harddrive-less computers any time soon. However they might be useful within academic institutions. Diskettes were handy in computer labs back in the 80's and early 90's. Students could carry their applications and projects with them... lab computer's weren't littered with crap like they are now.

Re:Not a new idea (1)

misleb (129952) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752504)

Wait, I thought the "T" key put the Mac into "target firewire" mode and effectively made it an external harddrive for another computer. Don't you have to go into the "Startup Disk" app to select a new disk to boot from?


I'm confused (1)

Duckman5 (665208) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752366)

The article makes reference to this new "U3 technology" [u3.com] that enables a flash drive to run programs. Exactly what is the point of this? Does anybody know. As far as I know, any program should be able to run off any flash drive as long as it doesn't do something like store all its settings on the host computer's registry or something. Isn't that how stuff like Portable Firefox, Thunderbird, etc. work? So why exactly is this concept so hard to do that one needs a special software SDK and specially designed hardware?

Re:I'm confused (2, Informative)

NapalmMan (916246) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752552)

USB Flash Drives don't mount like say, a CD would, meaning you can't autorun anything. I believe that's what this U3 Technology does, it more or less adds autorun capabilities to the drive. I learned this tidbit about Flash Drives when my roommate and I tried to build a USB Game Controller, with a drive with some games on it. The idea was: plug it in and go. Unfortunately, we had the wrong kind of USB drive.

Predicted about 10 years ago (2, Interesting)

Flying Purple Wombat (787087) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752380)

About 10 years ago, an engineer from our systems vendor predicted that one day, our computers would be the card-sized. We were looking at a PCMCIA flash card at the moment. Keyboard/mouse/display terminals would be everywhere, and we would just carry the cards around and plug them in wherever. PDA type terminals would be available for portable use. Sounds like it's coming to pass. Wonder if the guy got a patent out of that idea?

Look at Internet Suspend/Resume (2, Interesting)

Doodhwala (13342) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752394)

ISR [cmu.edu] has exactly these goals. It is essentially the concept of running a Virtual Machine that can migrate between different computers. Migration can happen via the network or via portable storage devices such as USB keychains. The ISR project was also covered in a previous Slashdot story here [slashdot.org].

Re:Look at Internet Suspend/Resume (1)

speculatrix (678524) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752667)

it seems to me that the most portable (as in software-wise rather than physical size) solution is to create a qemu disk image, in which you install your entire working environment, copy that disk image to your USB flash drive. Then, on any computer, Mac OSX, Intel X86 (windows or linux, 32 or 64 bit), boot up and run qemu. That way it doesn't matter what the host machine *is*, as qemu provides a complete virtual machine with all the required virtual drivers for basic use.

Qemu allows you to pause the virtual machine, and save its state, thus allowing a sort of "instant-on" effect. It's not as quick as vmware, but it's cheaper, albeit the qemu x86 accelerator is not GPL and does require custom modules to be installed in kernel.

If you're going to be running this for a while, copy the disk image onto the host's own hard drive for speed.

You could also use a hard-drive based MP3 player with USB or firewire if you really need a humongous sized disk image.

Excuse me for being a bit cynical.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13752423)

but how many fucking times to I have to read on Slashdot that the time of the PC as we know it is obviously at an end thanks to [X] technology?? But now I really understand what's going on: Dvorak is a /. mod.

the NeXT big thing... (4, Interesting)

ross_winn (610552) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752468)

This is, for all intents and purposes, what NeXT tried to do in the late 80s. The optical drive they used was ruinously expensive. The software was limited. Now, twenty years later, theidea is coming into its own. Devices like the USB key, the microdrive, and the Palm LifeDrive are actually spacious enough to make all of this work. Twenty years ago Jobs said you should be able to walk up to any personal computer and make it your own. Ten years ago Ellison said that you could access anything from anywhere. In five to ten years these visionary things may just really happen. Funny how the world works, isn't it...

Direction? (3, Interesting)

Mashdar (876825) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752473)

Why wouldn't there just be a monitor and keyboard?

The article assumes that the processor/memory etc are bulky by definition. Movement towards miniturization and disposable computing mean that having an entire system may become nearly as cheap and small as the stick of memory you are booting off of.

The only way to be truly secure is to have full control over the system you are using, so bringing your own entire machine will be a necesity for the crowd for whom inovations in hotels are usually designed for: business people.

Also a USB key with an OS compiled for an alternative archetecture would be useless in a hotel box.

The only two things which a handheld device cannot offer are a full sized display and interface. Why not just make everyone's handheld device interface with a monitor/keyboard/mouse console? Leave architecture compatibility issues to the user. Leave security to the user. Just provide a pleasant work environment.

smartphones (1)

cerelib (903469) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752476)

Isn't the real future the phone/pda? Those are getting good computing power. You just plug it in or dock it to a terminal that provides a better interface and removeable media drives. You can build a gig of CF into a phone and allow for USB( maybe the rise of Bluetooth? ) peripherals. This article just sounds like a good idea for a few mobile users, not a solution for the future.

Trust (1)

Mishra100 (841814) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752498)

I think as long as I can see the computer then I am okay with it. There should be a way to turn the wireless card off, that way you know the computer has no connection to anything but the computer you are plugging into. You would plug your USB drive into the comp, turn it on and it would load your OS. When you are ready to surf the web you can turn on your wireless card that is built into the box, and go.
After reading a few posts on this subject, people are afraid that something might be loaded on the box that steals your information. Well someone also might be sniffing frames wirelessly and steal your information that way. Having personal information on your computer has and will always be a risk. You just have value the convenience vs risk and to what extreme you want to take it.
Someone also mentioned Windows not being able to load well enough on different hardware. This is 100% true and would be a major set back to this idea. Well, the idea of having your own personal Windows OS. You can still tote around your Windows programs if the hotel had personal desktops.

We used to do that with floppy disks (4, Funny)

HermanAB (661181) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752529)

Geez, I must be getting old. These young whipper snappers are so used to networked computers that they all think removable media is a new idea...

Do they need HDDs at all? (1)

astronouth7303 (917253) | more than 8 years ago | (#13752690)

The aforementioned computer at the hotel doesn't need a hard drive to run an OS. Just a boot source, standard hardware, and a lot of RAM.

I see computers every day (they are at my school) that use USB flobby drives. Guess what? They can still boot off floppy disks. And they'll freak the same way if your flashdrive isn't bootable.

So why not carry your OS of choice on your disk and boot off that? The only software that you don't control is the BIOS.

Think about that next time you're traveling.

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