This is a guest post and entry in our non-fiction writing contest by E. Evans
Upon hearing the word “survival,” a computer is probably not the first item that comes to mind, but having a small, portable computer system ready for use in times of need can be a handy device for communicating with others over a network, retrieving digitized scans of important documents, or for entertainment.
Three points are key: low-power, common parts, and portability.
All hardware runs as long as possible from the computer’s battery. External hard drives and devices obtain their power from the netbook’ USB ports. The idea is to be as free from electrical outlets as possible.
Only easily available parts are used to make it easier to replace failed hardware. Proprietary hardware and software are avoided as much as possible to avoid any dependencies. USB tends to be more available than FireWire or eSATA, so USB is preferable.
How portable is the whole system? AC adapters, external backup drives, extra batteries, and external peripherals all increase the amount of computer gear. We want the entire package to consume as little space and be as lightweight as possible, so small, portable components are chosen.
An Example Computer Kit
A computer kit need not be fancy or expensive. Here is a reliable kit that continues to perform well.
- Netbook with 9 hour battery and a spare 6 hour battery. Running Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit
- External Samsung DVD-RW drive (USB-powered)
- Two external USB drives containing all data, backups, and software necessary for a complete system installation
Zonet wireless router/access point
- Spare internal drive with anti-static bag
- External USB mouse
- USB sticks. One with bootable Linux OS
- Screwdriver for opening the netbook
- USB cables, AC adapters, RJ-45 network cable, earphones, wipe cloth
- Colored CD-ROMs to locate installation media quickly
- Small, lightweight netbook travel case (not shown)
- All software used is open-source, which eliminates the hassles of dealing with CD keys, activations, and license agreements.
Even though this looks like a lot of computer gear, everything packs compactly into a netbook storage case the size of a small school bag.
The computer is the heart of the system, and since its purpose is to function for as long as possible during a power failure, it should be chosen based upon one important factor: Battery life. Most computing tasks (checking email, reading files, writing documents) require little computing power, so battery life becomes more important than processor speed. A netbook is perfect for this purpose since it offers long running times from 4 to 9 hours depending upon its battery.
Netbooks are lightweight, inexpensive, and extremely portable, making them easy to slip into a backpack and cheap enough to replace. There are enough input/output ports available on today’s units to allow almost any kind of connection to external devices, so if the keyboard and touchpad are too small, then a full-sized USB keyboard and USB mouse can be connected.
The operating system used on a netbook affects its speed, stability, and ease of use. Linux and Windows both run on a netbook, but the operating system you choose can make the difference between a snappy system and a sluggish one.
A Linux-based operating system, such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint, runs exceptionally well on a netbook and can feel as responsive as a desktop system since Linux runs well on low-powered hardware. In addition, Linux provides excellent built-in security, stability, and eliminates the need to run antivirus and defragmenting software, making more processing power available for programs.
By contrast, Windows XP and Windows 7 tend to feel sluggish and consume more memory and hard drive space (especially if unnecessary software is installed by default) due to their higher hardware requirements. Also, keep in mind that if the hard drive fails and a Windows reinstallation is necessary, Windows requires activation by telephone or through the Internet in order to use Windows beyond a certain number of days, and these services might not be available during an extended crisis.
The hard drive is the most likely component to fail, so plan ahead with preparations to restore the netbook to full functionality.
Keep a fully prepared hard drive on hand to replace the failed hard drive inside the netbook. This is an internal 2.5″ hard drive, not an external one, and when not in use, store it inside an anti-static plastic bag with a silica gel desiccant to absorb moisture.
A replacement hard drive should contain a fully installed operating system with updates along with the software and duplicate data you would normally use. This way, if the internal netbook drive fails, you can swap it with the replacement drive to get up and running as quickly as possible.
Include the operating system installation media with the kit in order to reinstall the entire operating system from scratch in case you obtain a blank drive or completely wipe your old one. A Windows installation will usually be performed from a CD-ROM or a DVD-ROM, so have an external USB drive that does not require an external power supply. Ubuntu can be installed from either a CD-ROM or a bootable USB stick, so for Linux, have one of each: A CD-ROM installation and a bootable USB installation in case one or the other fails.
A wireless networking device, such as the Zonet ZSR4174WE that obtains its power from a USB port, allows many netbooks within range to network together wirelessly. This spares the need to carry extra network cables and allows many users to connect to the same wireless network in the great outdoors away from electricity. Using USB power may decrease the netbook’s battery life, but it eliminates the need for a separate AC outlet that might not be available around the campfire.
Be sure to properly secure the access point by hiding its SSID, changing the default administrator username and password, enabling MAC filtering so unauthorized devices are refused access, and enabling WPA/WPA2 Personal-AES security. After all, there might be a rogue hacker concealed in the treetops.
The entire system is merely a support structure for your data, and nothing is more important than your data and the time spent creating it. Make backups!
A backup is a copy of your data, and all data should be backed up to at least two external USB drives, such the Seagate Freeagent GoFlex. These drives obtain their power from the USB ports, so they eliminate the need for external power supplies. They are also small enough to fit in a shirt pocket for concealment during transportation.
Never rely upon a single hard drive as the sole source of your data. Always have at least one backup drive of your main backup drive, and store the two separately–keep the main backup with your computer kit, and store the second backup in a separate, waterproof, hidden location. This way, if your computer kit gets lost, damaged, or its backup drive fails, then your data can be recovered from the second backup. Keeping the two backups together risks losing both copies lest a calamity befall your computer kit.
Backup Utility (Windows), rsync (Linux), and tar (Linux) are customizable programs that backup specific data at regular intervals. tar will record a log of incremental backups so only changes made since the last backup are saved. tar and rsync can be scheduled to run at specific times using a program called crontab (Linux) to automate the backup process.
Do not rely upon the netbook’s internal drive as the primary backup source because the risk of losing data during a system installation is too great. Some netbook installations repartition the drive, and repartitioning deletes the data. Ask yourself “If the internal hard drive fails or if I must format the drive and reinstall the operating system, do I still have all of my data?” Think of the internal netbook drive as a scratch pad. As files are created and modified, back them up to the external backup drive.
Netbooks and USB drives are small and portable, so if these devices are lost or stolen, you want any data contained on them to be inaccessible to prying eyes. Encrypting all personal data is always a good practice because if a hard drive fails or if you decide to sell or dispose of it, encryption helps ensure that any data remains private.
Encryption helps protect digitized medical records, credit card numbers, family pictures, and other personal data from prying eyes. Information gleaned from your private data reveals much about your life and may compromise your physical security (such as pictures of your home, land, and possessions). Would you appreciate a thief browsing through your family pictures who could then target other family members through clues obtained from those pictures?
Encryption is different from a system login. Do not rely upon a normal username and password login combination to protect your data since that only safeguards logins. Without encryption, your data is still stored in plaintext on the hard drive–even if you use a login username and password, and it can be accessed without logging in if the hard drive is swapped into another computer. Only encryption will defeat this attack because the data is scrambled.
Full drive encryption using cross-platform tools such as TrueCrypt (Linux/Windows/Mac) is the best way to go to avoid dependence upon a particular operating system for data retrieval. All encryption is handled automatically using secure, time-tested algorithms, and the data can be recovered on any Linux, Windows, or Mac system with TrueCrypt installed. You want your data to be as retrievable as possible no matter what system is used.
Ubuntu and Linux Mint offer the added feature of built-in encryption for each user’s home space on the internal hard drive. When a user logs in, all of the user’s files are automatically encrypted and decrypted making encryption transparent to the user using a regular username and password for convenience. User-space encryption for the internal drive combined with TrueCrypt for the external backup drives makes an effective combination.
Keep in mind that encryption is only one step in the process of data security. There are other things to think about to help protect your data. For example, all of your data might be encrypted securely, but if you write the password on a sticky note affixed to your monitor or underneath your keyboard where others can find it, then you have just defeated the purpose of using encryption in the first place. Avoid shooting yourself in the foot. Think.
When selling or disposing of a hard drive, USB stick, or any other storage device, clear the data first by wiping it. Wiping physically overwrites existing data with random bits, and wiping may be performed on individual files or on entire devices.
Deleting a file or formatting a drive does not erase the data. Data persists until it is overwritten because deletion only removes the pointers to the files, not the data of the files themselves.
Programs such as Eraser (Windows), secure_deletion toolkit (Linux), and DBAN (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) are free software tools that effectively remove data. If a drive is already encrypted, wiping makes data recovery practically impossible. DBAN runs from a CD-ROM, so it is ideal for wiping the internal netbook hard drive.
Once wiped, a drive may be safely disposed of. Keep in mind that the larger the drive capacity is, the longer the wiping process will take. This might exceed the netbook battery life, so it is best to wipe a large capacity drive when AC power is available.
Files can become corrupted for inexplicable reasons, so if a file is bad, how will you know? RapidCRC (Windows), md5sum (Linux), and md5deep (Linux) are free programs that create “fingerprints” of files called hashes.
Integrity checking works by creating a hash of a file and storing it in a separate hash file. To verify the file, the hash is regenerated from the file and compared to the stored hash. If the two hashes match, then the file is good. If not, then you know that the file has been corrupted or modified.
Hashing can be performed on all files on a hard drive automatically with all hashes stored in a single hash file. If a hard drive crashes and you are wondering which files survived, simply perform a hash check on all files. Both good and bad files will be reported. Of course, this assumes that the hash file is intact, but some form of integrity checking is better than none at all.
Lighten Your Load
Avoid the temptation to become a digital packrat who saves every file because it might be useful someday. If you are not using a file now, then you probably never will. Keep only the files you need, and give them meaningful file names. This reduces the space and time needed for backups, and helps save money by requiring lower-capacity hard drives.
Organize all files by categories within a directory structure you understand for quick access. Nothing consumes time and wastes battery power faster than hunting for your latest masterpiece saved under the name “Untitled Document” in an obscure location. During an emergency, time might not be on your side, so you want your files arranged in the best manner possible for quickest retrieval.
Store the netbook in a dedicated storage case along with all peripherals, installation media, cables, and everything else needed to restore, maintain, and run the netbook. Many netbook travel cases exist, so pick one that meets your needs.
Keep a small screwdriver on hand to perform the necessary netbook dismantling in order to replace the internal hard drive. Pack a lint-free cloth to wipe fingerprints from the screen. Keep a blank USB stick on hand for emergency data transfers or as a replacement.
At this point, your computer kit is ready go. Ask yourself “If I need to grab this kit and run, does it contain everything I need to operate it and completely restore the system from scratch?”
Let’s find out. Pretend that there is an emergency forcing sudden evacuation and run! Grab your computer kit and run! Run fast. Run hard. Okay, at least run to the other room or go outdoors away from the temptations of your main system and electricity.
You are on your own.
With nothing more than the kit with you, can you access any file you want? Is all of your important data with you? How easily can you access encrypted files? Perform a file integrity check on your backup files. Create a new file, and add it to your backup. How well is the battery lasting? Pretend that your netbook’s internal drive has crashed and you must replace it on the spot with your spare drive. Can you do it? How about performing a complete system installation?
Testing your system like this helps reveal any weaknesses in your emergency strategy.
Other survival necessities will certainly be more important than a computer, but if you need a computer during an emergency, then hopefully this article has provided enough ideas to get you started.
After all, nothing screams electronic preparedness better than watching a movie on your backup netbook while everyone else is sitting in the dark.
This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win:
- First Prize) Winner will receive a gift certificate for $170 worth of Winchester Ammo donated by Lucky Gunner. A Smith & Wesson Heat Treated Collapsible 21″ Baton and a copy of my book Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat.
- Second Prize) Winner will receive a Wise Food Storage meat bucket and 3 dozen Tattler Reusable Canning Lids donated by LPC Survival.
- Third Prize) Winner will receive a LifeStraw water filter system donated by Eartheasy and a copy of the Wolf Pack Cookbook.