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A friend of mine is politically active in Iran and under constant surveillance by the rigorous secret service there. There are frequent break-ins into her apartment. She finds her system often compromised in various ways. Understandably she is not comfortable using her computer for anything but the most inconspicuous tasks, given the low probability of detecting specially designed targeted malware using commercial products.

Hence my question is:
Has hardware been developed to fill this niche i.e. does a system exist that is not vulnerable to fancy rootkit shenanigans? Or perhaps something that resets the entire hard disk to factory state before startup? She is not looking for anything fancy. A basic browser is about all she needs. Additionally she is looking for a similar solution for her router, which she currently uses to tunnel herself into a safe network.

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    There is really not much you can do when the attacker has access to the hardware and government-level resources. – Philipp Sep 5 '15 at 19:13
  • She could use VMs and revert them to a known good snapshot every day or any time she wants to. This is far from a perfect solution if the host machine is compromised, but it does add a layer of protection and is free. – schroeder Sep 5 '15 at 19:57
  • Laptop from flea market, TAILS, check hash after d/l. Done – ScottMcGready Sep 5 '15 at 23:21
  • FYI, have a look at the guardian's article about what it had to do to the Snowden laptop. Each part they destroyed (as requested by GCHQ) could theoretically hold data/execute stuff. Therefore to be truly safe, investigating each parts of the system that was requested to be destroyed, and on finishing anything that could be classed as dangerous, follow those "destructions". – ScottMcGready Sep 5 '15 at 23:58
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something that resets the entire hard disk to factory state before startup

The usual solution is to boot from a live CD each time. However, in this case she must also ensure that the CD hasn't been phisically replaced with a compromised one.

A solution for they replaced my live CD while I was away would be to use a live USB that you carry with you everywhere. However, the police (working for the secret service) could detain her and investigate the contents of that USB.

Even worse, they will want to know what's in that encrypted volume, perhaps using the wrench approach, so it would be wise to only carry there an image of the official live CD (which can be easily verified not to contain anything else, as well as detecting that the usb they returned to you now has something else) or otherwise ensure you will be able to please them without them finding things that would put her into even more trouble.

Nonetheless, in addition of sofware compromises, there are hardware compromises. It doesn't matter that your hard disk is clean if every keystroke is sent via radio to the spy unit assigned to you and they eavesdrop what your screen is showing (which may range from an advanced Van Eck phreaking to a hidden camera behind you).

As for her router, I recommend performing the tunnel in the computer itself (once it has been secured), so there's one piece of equipment less to worry about.

  • Booting from a live cd sounds like a good idea. As far as I recall there are also viruses that run below OS level in for example the bios. Without dedicated tamper resistant hardware I believe she will continue to be vulnerable to these sort of attacks, even when booting from live cd. Taking into account things like Van Eck phreaking, which I didn't even know were possible, I think it's probably best I tell there is no viable solution to her problem. – ride_on_the_NOP_sled Sep 6 '15 at 9:28
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No, there is not that kind of hardware, at least not common available.

Another option is to continue with the virtual machine idea as suggested by another. However, skip the part of snapshots. Instead, use truecrypt to create an encrypted file container. Inside that encrypted file container create an encrypted virtual machine with VMware player - inside that encrypted virtual machine in the encrypted file container create an encrypted linux installation. When done, copy this original VM to another VM inside the same encrypted file container. Use the copy of the VM for her internet activities and when done secure shred the entire VM. Next time she needs to go on the internet, make a copy of the original VM and use that for her stuff and after use secure shred it again etc. Use strong passwords and three different ones for each encryption.

The above is worthless if her computer is not clean for spyware, or other malicious software. Also, there are other means to obtain surveillance of her activities, especially if she uses the same ISP/connection/router/wall-plug etc every time. Also, truecrypt apparently suffer from a flaw - she may not sleep, suspend, hibernate etc her computer without dismounting the TC file container. Values are in memory and will be saved to hard drive in case of only suspending her machine. The safety of TC is under debate after the original developers closed the project due to flaws in the security, but a lot of ppl do not believe the official reason.

Nothing in this world are truely secure, giving time and if the stake is high enough.

BTW: Use SSD drives only. :)

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