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Fun With A Decoy Drive

by Bill Rounds Esq. on January 15, 2012

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

I am not talking about collecting hunting decoys for needy hunters.  I am talking about swapping out a sensitive laptop hard drive with a hard drive that has no sensitive information (a decoy drive) to protect your privacy from snoops.

Privacy Tactics

A great tool for protecting privacy is misdirection. Misdirection can make others believe you have nothing of value, reducing your risk of theft, invasion of privacy, etc. Misdirection can also include using decoys. Privacy predators that find a clever decoy, of no value to you, will be prevented from invading your real privacy and they won’t even know it.

Misdirection does not mean lying or committing fraud. Such tactics actually reduce your privacy because when a lie or fraud is discovered your affairs will be even more closely scrutinized, possibly by law enforcement.

Misdirection Helps People

To illustrate the difference between lawful misdirection and fraud, take the case of a celebrity who would like to go out in public without being recognized. A simple misdirection tactic that they might use would be to wear frumpy clothing, a hood and cheap sunglasses. This obscures many of their features so that, hopefully, they can pick up some toilet paper at the store without being hassled by hundreds of fans.

If that same celebrity were to use a fake ID to carry their disguise even farther, they would potentially be committing a crime.

As an example of effectively using a decoy, I turn to the wisdom of Mel Brooks. The folks in Blazing Saddles used a decoy town to protect their real town from the ravages of savages.  If they were to use a decoy town in some settings, such as when selling the real estate,  they might be committing a massive fraud.

Using A Decoy Drive With A Laptop

Us common folk can apply the principles of legal misdirection and decoys with the data on a laptop. Removing the hard drive of your laptop and replacing it with another hard disk is a great way to use misdirection to protect your data privacy.

There may be a million reasons why you would want to use a decoy drive to prevent access to your main laptop hard drive. You might be crossing a border where you and your data will be searched.   You are not required to provide encryption keys, assuming you have encrypted your data, to enter the US, but other countries like Great Britain will require you to disclose those encryption keys.  Only by removing a sensitive hard drive before traveling to Great Britain will your sensitive data be protected. Maybe you suspect a keylogger has been surreptitiously installed and you want to access an online account without tipping off the snoop.  Or, you are just a fan of personal liberty and you want to try out a cool tactic.

Decoy Drive Steps

First, make sure you are fine with the consequences of swapping out your hard drive. Some warranties might be voided if you do it yourself.

Second, purchase an appropriate hard drive for your needs.

Third, follow the instructions in your user manual to remove the hard drive. Make sure to remove the battery so you don’t get zapped.

Finally, install the new hard drive and you are in full decoy mode.

Advanced Strategy

If some snoop were to discover your decoy drive, would they believe it was the only hard drive you have? If your decoy drive has no activity on it, a snoop might realize that they have not truly uncovered what they were looking for. Upon realizing you have used a decoy, they may be even more interested in finding out WHY, leading them to investigate you even more than they would have.

Just like deer hunters spray their decoys with scent, you need to do more than make your decoy drive look like it is the real thing.  Please do not spray your computer with anything. To make it look like your decoy drive is your main drive, engage in some meaningless activity on your decoy drive regularly.  Save some innocuous documents there, save some harmless family photos, do some meaningless web surfing or play solitaire once in a while.  This will help you sell your decoy as genuine.

Conclusion

Swapping out your sensitive hard drive with a decoy drive at the right times can help protect a lot of your data privacy.  Snoops will have to be very sophisticated to recognize what you have done if you are doing a good job selling your misdirection. To learn more about this and other ways to protect your privacy, check out the book How To Vanish.

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10 comments

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Rounds, Esq. is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting from the University of Utah and a law degree from California Western School of Law. He practices civil litigation, domestic and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and financial freedom and civil liberties. This is merely one article of 123 by .
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paul January 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm

That’s interesting that you mentioned the UK. It doesn’t quite surprise me that the law requires you to disclose encryption keys. I have traveled to many countries (including countries with poor human rights record such as Syria and Egypt) and I have to say that the UK border control is BY FAR the most abusive I’ve come across. I’ve been to that country 4 times and every time I’ve come, the border officers have drilled me with ridiculous questions. I am a law abiding US citizens with no criminal record. However, I am not Caucasian. Upon the latest entry, the officer reviewed every stamp in my passport, asked about my job, asked to see a copy of my bank statement (didn’t have that with me, but who does?), asked to look at my credit card to see the expiration date, asked for my driver’s license, and lastly wanted to make a copy of my ATM card. I am not making this up. After an hour of interrogation, the officer let me enter.

2 JdL January 28, 2012 at 8:59 am

Did I miss the part where you describe what to do with the REAL hard drive? If crossing a border and subject to a rigorous search, I would think that the presence of a hard drive with no computer attached would raise more suspicion than just going through with the real drive in the laptop.

My own solution to snoopy government thugs is to use steganography. I can hide data inside a music file or photograph in such a way that it’s impossible to tell anything is hidden there.

3 Bob in California January 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Good suggestions. You can also use a USB flash thumbdrive or an SD flash card to boot your computer with Puppy Linux and bypass the Windows Hard Drive installation. Puppy, and other distros like Knoppix, Slax, etc. have a full suite of web browsers, file viewers, players, and editors so you can do the same things you do on windows. When you’re finished, just turn off the PC, take out the flash drive, and stick it back in your wallet. I always keep the Windows drive cleaned up and ready to go for guests or if I have work to do using an app that only runs on Windows. Also, you can put a selection of portable apps on the same flash drive. You can find a good description of such programs at portablefreeware.com or at portableapps.com and I’ve found the selection at both sites to be excellent. I especially like the comments made by other users comparing different programs that perform similar tasks, such as browsers (Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Iron, Tor?) Portable apps are good for situations where you can’t boot from a different device, since you run programs on the installed Windows and not leave alot of junk on the PC you’re borrowing.

Hope this helps,

Bob

4 Bill Rounds Esq. January 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Great suggestions! Thanks Bob in California.

Bill

5 JdL January 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Bob in California, is it unusual to be asked to empty your pockets when crossing borders? Is the information on the flash drive hidden or password-protected? I can see that if only the laptop itself is inspected, having a separate flash drive is advantageous. But are the odds of getting through without the flash drive being scrutinized really that good?

6 Bob in California January 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm

JdL,

The last time I crossed an international border was when I went to Mexico and they didn’t ask me to empty my pockets then, but maybe things have changed. I like your idea of using steganography. If I had some text with usernames, passwords, business info, or other private data, I could put in a picture, zip it up with some other pictures, and then send it to an email account for later retrieval when I reach my destination.

With the USB or SD flash approach there are some interesting angles. The micro SDHC is used in cameras, mp3 players, ereaders, smartphones, etc. I don’t know whether or not border-crossing personnel take apart and closely inspect the contents of each electronic device you happen to be carrying. The flash devices come formatted in a standard file system: Fat32. That means you can easily put a “live-distro” (Puppy, Slax, Knoppix, etc.) and a folder of “/apps” and a folder of “/data” together on a little chip slightly bigger than your thumbnail. It’s been amazing to watch prices drop in the past year: you can buy micro SDHC flash in capacities ranging from 4GB to 32GB for about $1/GB from places like Amazon.com or newegg.com or Fry’s or Best Buy, etc. The little micro-SD to USB adapters give you the flexibility to use whatever ports happen to be available on the device you have handy.

Check out pendrivelinux.com for an automatic setup program called YUMI that automatically sets up Puppy and/or dozens of other live distros on your flash device from Windows with only a few clicks of your mouse.

You’ve probably already done this, but it’s useful to explore the results of a web search for “encryption and plausible deniability” and to check out http://www.schneier.com and the good ideas from a guy who is arguably the modern master of the topic.

7 MoT January 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm

The usb solution with a bootable distro or virtual machine is the easiest to implement. Steaganography is great so long as your machine doesn’t get corrupted. Besides… it’s downright insane to keep vitally important, and potentially life threatening, material on such a thing. Using something simple, and encrypted, and at least two copies, should do the trick in making sure you don’t lose everything. Just keep your laptop for gaming and idle nonsense. Email address? Make sure only throwaway addresses are used on the main drive. There are scanning devices out there now that can pull your personal info straight off of smart phones etc., without so much as having to dig around for passwords, so the trick is in being as wise as serpents and as gentle and innocent looking as doves.

8 DB January 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Mr. Rounds,

What about the following case, wherein a judge ordered a woman to decrypt her hard disk? What if she simply said no? A simple obstruction of justice charge?

http://technolog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/01/23/10219384-judge-orders-woman-to-give-up-password-to-hard-drive

9 JR February 15, 2012 at 11:43 am

Re. cell phone privacy, what about a simple metal box, slightly larger than the phone itself, to eliminate the tracking piece? I realize taking the battery out is one option, but I’m not sure if the tracking option still works with what I call the small CMOS battery (not the main battery).

Love your posts! I really have nothing to hide at all, but the surveillance society is a very slippery slope. Did you know there are “security cameras” on George Orwell’s old residence? (You can google this). More proof that leviathan does not have a sense of humour.

10 Bill March 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm

In that women’s case cited above, the government already had her (via wiretap) admitting that incriminating evidence was present on her hard drive.

Since she has already admitted to its presence, there is no privilege.

If they didn’t have her prior admission, she would not have been legally compelled.

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