Photo courtesy Cruzer
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Most cops drive their offices rather than sit in them, but even if you drive a desk, you re probably particular about the way you set up your area. At the start of a watch, you spend time getting your gear placed where you want it.
Your work computer is likely a different story. With good reason, most computers used in law enforcement are locked down as much as possible so users can t load games, politically incorrect photos, foreign applications or viruses onto them. Employers also often take a dim view of their workers using company time and/or facilities to pursue their avocations at the cost of productivity.
But there are methods by which you can work with confidential files, take them with you when you re done and leave no trace of the files behind on the computer. These strategies all involve the use of flash drives, also called thumb drives and USB drives. These solid-state memory devices, usually smaller than a pack of gum, plug into a computer s USB port. Most computers these days have one or more USB ports on the front for convenience, and they all have ports on the back or side. Once you plug your flash drive in, the computer sees it and interacts with it accordingly.
These days, flash drives feature capacities up to 64 GB, although the high-capacity drives remain expensive (unless you consider $4,000 inexpensive). You can get 4 GB drives for around $25, and low-capacity drives have become so inexpensive some vendors are distributing their software on them. I ve picked up several at trade shows at booths where the vendor was giving them away as freebies. Of course, once you ve used or decided you don t want the software preinstalled on such flash drives, you can delete it and use the drive for whatever you please.
I ve been using two 4 GB flash drives for travel. One holds all my e-mail for the last 90 days, and the other holds a copy of most of my My Documents folder. Unless you need to cart some really large databases around, a 2 4 GB flash drive should be plenty.
There s software available that allows you to download, read and respond to e-mail, create and edit documents, and perform other tasks without leaving a trace on the host computer. You typically accomplish this by creating an encrypted partition on the flash drive that may even have its own drive letter. Although there s only one piece of hardware involved, the flash drive could contain several such virtual drives.
When you insert a flash drive containing one of these encrypted partitions and its associated software, the program either loads automatically or asks you if you want to load it. You then enter your password to unencrypt the partition, and a window opens that allows you to access your portable files and applications. If you forget the password and those files aren t backed up elsewhere, well, you re a hurtin unit. The folks at the National Security Agency could probably break the encryption, but good luck getting their help.
There are several applications to choose from: Reach-a-Mail, Carry It Easy, Dmailer and my personal favorite, Migo, among others. The most expensive of these applications costs $40, and all have free or trial versions. These particular applications load your e-mail, going back as far as your preferences and the capacity of your flash drive permits.
You can also load non e-mail related files or folders onto the flash drive. When you open the encrypted area, you ll have access to all of them on a desktop display that looks a lot like your home machine.
If your e-mail or other files use an application not installed on the guest computer, you won t be able to do much with them unless you have a compatible application loaded onto the flash drive. An outfit called PortableApps (www.portableapps.com) offers free, open-source software that will mimic most of the functions of standard applications like Word, PowerPoint, Excel and others. Other e-mail clients and browsers can handle your e-mail and Web preferences, all running from the flash drive.
When you re done with your flash drive-resident files, you close the partition, giving it time to re-encrypt the files before you unplug it. This can take a minute or two, and if you remove the flash drive prematurely, you re liable to scramble everything. You can go back to your home machine and start over, but you ll lose any changes you made in the interim.
When you get back to your home machine, open the encrypted volume again and synchronize the files with their pals. Synchronize the file sets every time you make changes in either set.
The u3 System
You can also take advantage of a kind of mini-operating system called u3. u3 must be installed on a flash drive by the manufacturer you can t put it on a non-u3 flash drive. If you want to use u3, make sure the flash drive you buy carries the u3 logo.
When you insert a u3 flash drive, the u3 software loads automatically and places an icon on your desktop. Clicking the icon opens the u3 launchpad, which displays the applications loaded on the drive. You can adjust settings in the launchpad that determine whether u3 applications load automatically when the drive is inserted, or wait until you call them up.
u3 applications load a little faster than apps running outside of u3, but try them out to see if they re sufficiently reliable and easy to use. Don t assume an application will work smoothly.
What to Buy
Don t buy a flash drive from those advertised on the u3 site. Those are generally overpriced. Discount online vendors like Buy.com usually offer better choices.
One feature I recommend is a loss-proof cover you want whatever mechanism that protects the USB male plug permanently attached to the drive. The little pull-off covers are too easy to lose. A cover that rotates or otherwise remains attached to the drive is better than one in which the male USB connector slides out of a housing. The sliders don t protect the connector from dust and dirt, which can cause problems.
The drives are fairly hardy. I know of people who ran them through a washing machine and dryer, and the drives still worked afterward. Some ruggedized flash drives feature hardened cases or cushioning. SanDisk offers a line of flash drives with titanium cases, and they don t cost much more than the standard plastic variety. I once had a 4 GB flash drive fall off my desk, whereupon I promptly ran over it with my desk chair. It didn t take that well.
Beyond those caveats, I haven t found that one manufacturer s flash drives work better than another s. The freebie drives I have run as fast and as reliably as my brand-name Lexar and SanDisk models.
Any time you leave confidential files on a networked system, there s a chance the network will be penetrated and your information revealed to unauthorized persons. Keeping that information on an encrypted flash drive protects it, providing, of course, you re diligent about removing the drive from the computer when it s unattended, and that you don t lose the flash drive itself.
On that note, if you re going to come up with your own password, don t use the same one for all your applications, or one that s easy for anyone who knows you to guess. Use a password generator that comes up with truly random combinations that use upper and lowercase letters, numbers and punctuation symbols. If you can t remember those, make an acronym of a phrase you know, substituting numbers for letters where possible. For instance, You have the right to remain silent might come out as Yhtr2r5.
If you don t have a wireless network or some other means of getting reports from a car-mounted computer to the network in the station, you can write them to a flash drive and sneakernet them into the station for download. You can store digital photos or video clips on a flash drive and move them onto a desktop machine or bring them into court. Many courtrooms now feature computers and projectors for attorneys using PowerPoint or displaying digital photos of exhibits. These machines will display your photos or play your video.
Flash drives are excellent ways to carry your medical records around with you. Even a low-capacity flash drive can probably hold PDF versions of recent lab tests, EKGs, medication lists, living-will documents and other information you would want a physician unfamiliar with your medical history to have if they were treating you in an emergency.
Use a scanner to create PDFs of your relevant records, and label the drive with a red cross or some other symbol alerting medical personnel to its contents. PDFs are becoming the default format for carrying both text and graphic content because the free Adobe Reader application installed on most PCs will display them. Note: Do not encrypt this information, and keep it up to date.
It might be a good idea for a department to create a standard location for officers to carry flash drives with this information (e.g., the bottom of a glove pouch, the right shirt pocket, etc.) so paramedics can locate the information quickly if an officer is injured. These drives are small enough to wear around your neck or on your keychain, so you can take them with you in the field or when you travel.
One last thing: Also include some non-encrypted identifying information on the drive in case you lose it or leave it behind. One way to do that is to create a folder in the non-encrypted portion with a title like Please return to Officer John Doe. File and file folder names can run up to 255 characters. Within that folder, save a simple text file that gives specific address, phone and/or e-mail information.