Drop the Hard Drive, Take the Laptop

Lawyers who work on international matters may face the challenge of taking their client information across borders. In fact, any lawyer using a laptop may find herself balancing productivity with the risk of unintentional access to client data while on the road. One way to avoid this is to use a clean laptop. The concept has been mentioned on Slaw before (see here and here, for example) but how do you create a clean laptop?

One method that is mentioned is to use a second laptop, one that is installed (or re-imaged) with a clean operating system on each use. This method doesn’t stop you from leaving information on it inadvertently while you use it: Web browser history or cookies, auto-saved e-mails or document backups. That’s not a problem if your first use is AFTER you cross the border, and you don’t anticipate any review on the way back. A second challenge is that, once you return, you may need to re-image to make sure it’s clean for the next time it goes out.

There are some ways to create a clean laptop, though, that can be set up easily without having to prepare a laptop for each use. They all involve creating a bootable USB drive or CD that allows you to avoid using your own hard drive.

Add Linux, Stir

The easiest way is to use UNetBootIn, a utility that you can download to help you create what’s called a Live USB drive. It has a number of benefits. First, it is pre-populated with available Linux operating systems to download, so you don’t need to find one. Start UNetBootIn, select your open source operating system – I’d recommend Ubuntu – and put your empty USB drive into your computer’s USB slot. The operating system will download, which may take awhile, and then be transferred to your USB drive. Everything on the drive will be wiped out.

A comment on USB drives at this point. If you’re trying to avoid sharing information unintentionally, and are going through the process of creating a bootable operating system to support a clean laptop, get a brand new, never used USB drive. Don’t re-use one that has already had client information on it. USB are notorious for retaining traces of information that has been deleted. Splash out the $4 for a new 2 GB drive or dig out one of those trade show tchotchkes gathering dust.

Once your USB drive has been configured by UNetBootIn, you can reboot your computer and see how it looks. For good reasons, your computer may not start up using your USB, but, instead, default to your hard drive and start up as normal. You will need to change the boot order of devices in your computer to enable the USB drive to start up. When you turn on your computer, you often see a prompt to hit F2 or F12 or some other key to enter Setup. You can change boot order in the setup.

From a security perspective, you should have a password to block access to the setup. The reason the hard drive is the default startup device is to avoid someone using a USB drive to start your computer and bypass your security. Once you’ve tested your USB drive, make sure you reconfigure your setup so that your internal hard drive is the primary boot device.

Test Your Setup

Linux looks different to Windows and Mac users. You will want to try booting with the Live USB a couple of times, if only to figure out where everything is. There is a Web browser included, often Mozilla’s Firefox or something that looks similar, as well as other basic software. Since the point of the clean laptop is that you are probably going to remotely access your client information – through secure connections to the cloud or your office – most of the other software doesn’t matter. If the services you use do not work with Ubuntu or Firefox or require a Windows-specific piece of software to be installed, you may have a problem.

The other reason to test is that you want to make sure your hardware works. For example, if you’re relying on your laptop’s wireless connection, be sure it is available with your Live USB system running. The newer your laptop, the more likely the hardware will be supported, but better to know before you leave the office.

You can make configuration changes while you’re in the system. For example, if the screen resolution isn’t the way you like it, you can tweak that. When you restart, the resolution will go back to what it was the first time you started: settings are not retained.

More Familiar, More Work

You can burn a Linux operating system to a CD as well. It is a manual process but there are lots of discussions on how to do it. One benefit of using a CD is that you can be absolutely certain nothing is being saved. Unlike a USB, it’s not writable.

If you decide to go the CD route, you may want to consider using a special utility that creates a bootable version of Windows. The Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4WIN) was created as a recovery tool in case your Windows computer has problems. Unlike many recovery utilities, you create your recovery CD by merging your legitimate copy of Windows XP with the recovery files to create a disk image. You can then burn that disk image to a CD. One benefit of this route is that you can burn a new CD each trip and toss the old one if it is damaged.

I dug out my old CD with Windows XP that has been lying around since I moved to Windows 7. The UBCD4WIN instructions will walk you through creating the image, or .ISO, file that contains both utilities and the operating system. Then you will need image burning software. You can search for burn iso on Google for a variety of choices, if you don’t already have a CD burning utility like Roxio or Nero installed. I used the free imgBurn and it worked fine.

Not unlike the original Windows XP, it takes a lot longer to boot up with UBCD4Win than with a Linux-based OS. Once you’re in, though, it resembles a typical Windows XP interface. It’s not quite the same – it is geared for recovery tools – but there is an icon on the desktop that will start Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.

Again, you will need to test it. Wireless did not work on my old burner laptop, although wired access did. If the cloud or secure connection to your office relies on a more recent Web browser, that may also be an issue since IE6 is no longer current but you can’t upgrade it on the CD.

Clean Sweep

Once you have your CD or USB drive, you are ready to go. You now need to have a second laptop or remove the hard drive from your primary laptop. You may already have an old laptop that is gathering dust but otherwise usable. Or you may be willing to grab a used one off Ebay for $80-$100. The older the laptop, the more likely using Linux is a better, or necessary, option since it will run with less memory and hard drive space.

I’m a bit of a pack rat, so I have an old laptop (netbook, anyone?) that I should discard but I have Franksteined over time. The hard drive is held in place by a screw; once undone, the hard drive slides out. I can now boot up the laptop using my USB drive and laptop without any concern that anything confidential or private is accessible. When I get back, I can replace the hard drive and return to normal use. If you hard drive is fiddly to remove or replace, I’d look at a second laptop.

If you’ve already got a clean laptop, using an operating system on a CD or USB drive can save your IT staff or consultants from having to refresh it each time it comes back to the office. If you don’t have one, this can give you an easy-to-use option for traveling with a clean laptop, whether you’re going across a border or just away and trying to avoid the possibility of theft.


  1. Hello everyone

    Even if you do not have to cross the border you owe it to yourself to give Linux a try. Especially if you have a computer that is sitting around gathering dust that you thought was too slow running Windows. You are in for a surprise if the computer has at least 500mb of RAM.

    I would like to add that older laptops may have wireless hardware that may not work in Linux or Windows. If this is the case you can fix this with the TP-Link TL-WN7200ND USB wireless adapter. It can be purchased for under $30.00.

    I found it to work right out of the box with Ubuntu Linux.
    This is a handy tool to have around anyway.

    John Kerr
    Guelph, Ontario