... and keep your saved passwords, bookmarks, and cookies safe
When you do a lot of things online, you accumulate a pretty massive amount of data that your browser keeps on your behalf: the browsing history, the bookmarks, the cookies, the passwords you use to log in to the secure web sites, and so on. Letting the browser remember such information is convenient, as it allows you not to set up everything from scratch every time you visit a web site. Yet, it presents a security risk: what if someone gets hold of your computer, wouldn't he be able to get to your browser data and extract quite a lot of sensitive information out of it, especially the login names and passwords?
In this article, we will describe how to use our software USBCrypt to create a secure encrypted area on an external (or internal) drive and use it to keep a secure set of the Firefox web browser data (the profile). Why Firefox? Because it makes it very easy to setup an encrypted profile. (We will discuss what to do about other browsers at the end of the article.)
First of all, what is a profile? The profile is a set of files and folders that the web browser uses to store all your web browsing data: the browsing history, the bookmarks, the cookies, the copies of the web pages, the images and the scripts (the cache), and so on. Each browser has a different way of organizing the data in the profile, but the exact details of how it is done are not important to us. The only thing that is important is where the profile is stored on your computer.
In case of the Firefox browser, the profile is usually stored under the folder %APPDATA%\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles. If you have a Windows 8, 7, or Vista computer, you can find the profile by navigating to the folder:
In case of Windows XP, the location is:
C:\Documents and Settings\[username]\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles
If you open such a folder in Windows Explorer (you may need to enable the Windows setting that shows the hidden and system folders first to see this folder), you should see the list of profiles that you currently have. If you have not done anything special to create new profiles yet, you would see just one profile there, with the name xxxxxxxx.default, where xxxxxxxx would be a set of some random characters.
A WORD OF CAUTION: now is a good time to backup your computer. This is especially important if you are not very experienced with files and folders, because if you make a mistake following the instructions below, you may lose your existing Firefox profile and will need to start from scratch! If you are not sure what to do, better ask a friend or a relative who has more experience with the computers for help. If you don't know how to do a backup, stop here, and learn that first. Use the instructions below ON OWN YOUR RISK, we DO NOT provide support if any issues arise. You've been warned!
Now that we know what a profile is and where it is stored, we can consider the possible ways of securing it. For example, you can use our encryption software USBCrypt to create a Virtual Encrypted Disk and then create a new Firefox profile on that disk. After that, the profile would be available and accessible only after you've entered your USBCrypt password to start the Virtual Encrypted Disk. If someone else would get access to your computer, s/he would not be able to use your profile and see what's in it. Your cookies, passwords, web browsing history and other data would be safely locked.
With such a plan in mind, let's get down to it:
Step 1. Use USBCrypt to create a Virtual Encrypted Disk. The procedure is described in detail in the User's Guide. We also have a short video explaining the process, too. How large the Virtual Encrypted Disk should be? It depends, but 1 GB should probably work for most users. (Of course, if you plan on keeping other files in the encrypted area, select a larger size for it.)
Step 2. Start the Virtual Encrypted Disk (by entering its password, of course.) It will appear as a separate drive in the Computer folder, with its own drive letter. In this example, we will assume the drive letter of the Virtual Encrypted Disk is M:. (Yours could be different.)
Step 3. Create a folder on the disk M: to keep the encrypted Firefox profile. For example, you can create a folder named Firefox in the root folder of the M: drive, to remind yourself where the Firefox profile is. (Don't worry, like everything on the M: drive, the name of this folder will be encrypted, too, it won't be visible without your password.)
Step 4. Now press the WIN+R keys (where WIN stands for the Windows key, that has the Windows flag image on it) to display the Run box, and enter the following command to run:
firefox -profile "M:\Firefox"
This command should start Firefox and tell it to load the profile located in the folder M:\Firefox, that we've just created on the Virtual Encrypted Disk. Firefox should create a fresh new profile for you in the folder you have specified. It will run as if you would have just installed it: there would be no bookmarks, no extensions, no browsing history.
Now let's do a little experiment: close Firefox, and then run it again as usual, using the icon on the desktop or on the Start menu, as you did before. When you run Firefox as usual, without specifying a profile on the command line, it will load the default profile that you were using previously, and all you old bookmarks and extensions should load again, as usual. Now close Firefox, and start it again, but this time use the WIN+R keys again and specify the profile, as shown above. The fresh profile will be loaded, see? This way, you can switch between your regular (default) profile, and the encrypted one, by running Firefox in different ways.
Now that you have a new encrypted profile created, you may want to create a shortcut on your desktop to quickly load it, when needed (you can name it Firefox Encrypted or something similar, to distinguish from the regular Firefox icon.) You may want to set up the encrypted Firefox profile to remember the bookmarks and passwords to your sensitive web sites (banking, investments, tax returns, etc.). Then you could use your regular Firefox profile for the casual web browsing, and switch to the encrypted profile to do banking, etc. Just remember to close Firefox completely before starting it with a different profile, or the switch won't happen.
Also remember that you need to start the Virtual Encrypted Disk in order to be able to load it into Firefox. If the Virtual Encrypted Disk is not started, Firefox will complain that the profile is missing and refuse to load.
What if instead of creating a separate encrypted profile, you want to move your regular profile into the Virtual Encrypted Disk and make the whole thing encrypted? It's possible, too:
Step 1. Close Firefox. Locate the default profile used by Firefox as described above and copy it to the Virtual Encrypted Disk. Write down the exact path to the new folder where the profile is located.
Step 2. Open the following file with Notepad:
In this file, locate the line IsRelative=1 and change it to IsRelative=0
Also locate the line that starts with Path= and specify the complete path to the new location of the profile, for example:
This change would change the location of the default Firefox profile. Save the profiles.ini file, and start Firefox as usual, without any command line options. You should see your usual settings, etc. (If not, verify that the path you have entered in the profiles.ini file is correct.) If everything looks right, delete the old profile folder, in the %APPDATA%\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles folder. From now on, all your web browsing data will be encrypted and only available after you start the Virtual Encrypted Disk.
What about other browsers, you might ask? Well, a similar procedure should be possible with other web browsers, as long as they support loading their profiles from specific folders. Look for this information on the web site describing the web browser you use, you may find it there.
Happy secure browsing!
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