Entering your online-banking or email passwords on an untrusted computer — particularly one in a public place — is risky. If you had a USB drive with Linux installed on it, you could log into your accounts without fear.

Some bank and government officials have even recommended using a live Linux environment to do all your online banking, even on computers you may trust. Linux is immune to Windows malware.

How a Linux USB Drive or Live CD Makes You More Secure

Windows systems, particularly ones in public places or unpatched and vulnerable ones, may have keyloggers and other malware on them. You wouldn’t want to log into any important accounts and enter passwords because who knows what’s running in the background. Your passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive data could be recorded for criminals to abuse later.

The Windows installation may be clean, but you can’t know for sure and you shouldn’t risk it.

However, this malware doesn’t infect the computer itself, only its Windows installation. If you have a USB drive or CD with Linux on it, you could connect the drive or insert the disc and restart the computer. The computer would exit Windows, booting into the Linux system on the removable drive. Even if the Windows system is completely infected with malware, the Linux environment will be clean and secure. This means that you can use any computer to do your online banking, enter your credit card number, or access your email without worrying that the software on the computer is out to get you.

Why We Aren’t Putting Windows on a USB Drive

Windows 8 has a “Windows to Go” feature, which allows you to  create a bootable Windows USB drive. However, this feature is restricted to Enterprise editions of Windows 8. Ubuntu Linux is free for everyone and comes with Firefox installed by default.

If you’ve never used Linux before, don’t worry — it’s simple to boot it up and use the same Firefox browser you’re familiar with from Windows. Getting back to Windows is as simple as unplugging the USB drive or removing the disc and restarting the computer.

Getting a Linux Live CD or USB Drive

You can either put the Ubuntu system on a USB drive or burn it to a writable CD or DVD. Putting Ubuntu on a USB drive is probably the ideal solution — it’s more portable and will boot more quickly. Ubuntu won’t take over your entire USB drive — you can use the leftover space for other files, although Ubuntu will clutter the drive with its own files. If you have the right kind of USB drive, you could even put the Ubuntu USB drive on your keychain so you would always have it with you.

Booting the Live Environment

To boot your new, portable Linux system on any computer, connect the USB drive or insert the disc and use the Restart option in Windows to reboot your computer. The computer should boot from the USB drive or disc, bringing you to a Linux desktop. You may see an installation dialog — click the Try Ubuntu option if you do.

Launch the Firefox browser once you’ve reached the Linux desktop. You can use it to access websites just as you would on Windows, except you know the underlying operating system is safe and secure.

When you’re done, click the gear-shaped system menu at the top-right corner of your screen and select Restart to restart the computer. Remove the USB drive or disc and the computer will boot back into its installed Windows system.

Some computers may be set up not to boot from external devices. You can change the boot order in the computer’s BIOS, but you shouldn’t try to do that on someone else’s computer. If the computer isn’t set to boot from an external device, it will just boot into Windows when you restart — it will ignore your Linux USB drive or disc completely.

This also won’t protect you from physical keyloggers, hardware devices that can be connected between the keyboard’s cable and the computer’s USB or PS/2 port. However, this does provide complete protection from malicious software on a computer.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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