Gear we Like: Kingston MicroSD Card Reader (plus Bonus on How to Build an Emergency Thumb Drive)

Reviewed by Wndsn staff, Germany.

Observations

You most likely already have one at home. You have one in your Kindle or your GoPro. If it is not in a device, it is probably in the corner of a drawer and it is so small that you don’t even notice. It might as well be dust. However, in that little, forgotten space there is so much capacity to enhance your digital security and experience.

The Kingston microSD card readers are essential to any urban kit, allowing reading and writing on microSD cards via USB from a computer (or phone). MicroSD has been around for some time now, most commonly used with photography and videography and on some mobile phones. MicroSD cards provide fast flash memory, many gigabytes of data and at a size as small as a fingernail, they are the ultimate in portability. You can feel comfortable transporting and making all kinds of files and apps available. But it gets even better.

What if I told you that a microSD card reader can be transformed into something that becomes a key, mission-critical support? Great, right? All of a sudden this little thing becomes important.

The real power lies in the ability to install apps on such a device (or any portable data storage device). The keyword here is PortableApps, a suite of open source apps that can be installed on a storage device and ran after mounting said device on a suitable computer (suitable, as in, the apps work under Windows and as such, we need a Windows machine with admin rights to install the apps and any Windows machine, no administrator rights required, for the apps to run).

A possible strategy would be to identify a set of required/critical/useful apps and pre-install, and pre-configure them, e.g. a web browser pre-loaded with privacy settings and extensions, or a text-editor with settings and plug-ins to make it useful on the go. Even communication apps for messaging or file transfer can be brought and pre-configured.

Now, we have to determine use cases and threat scenarios (yes, losing personal files is a threat to anybody).

  • Pre-loading app and privacy settings and extensions shouldn't be a problem for most users.
  • Pre-loading bookmarks in a browser should be checked for its potential to leak sensitive data in case of loss and identity protection ("Do I want to keep that bookmark confidential?" If yes, don't preload it.)
  • Pre-loading contacts in messaging apps, or server info in data transfer apps should be avoided.
  • Pre-loading files on the card should be checked for its potential to leak sensitive data in case of loss ("Do I want to be associated with that file?" If no, don't preload it.)

What do we do with the data and files we want to keep confidential? We encrypt them on our microSD card. The standard solution also available on PortableApps would be VeraCrypt, which provides strong and reliable encryption of entire volumes. The problem is, that in order to use it, we would need admin rights on the target computer, something we typically don't have when on the go. With VeraCrypt ruled out, we can use another app, the very reliable and cross-platform compatible KeePass password manager which provides an interface to create, read, and edit databases of passwords and attachments that can be kept and stored separately. The strategy thus becomes to use KeePass to store sensitive data like passwords, FTP configs, etc., as well as sensitive files and settings we don't want to keep in the open, on our microSD card. The KeePass database becomes our secure storage, that -- if encrypted with a suitably long and complex passphrase -- can be safely shared and doesn't pose a threat of data compromise even when lost.

Here is a sample list of apps to pre-install on a microSD card via PortableApps:

  • KeePass (password manager)
  • Firefox (web browsing with superior and granular privacy controls)
  • Notepad++ (powerful text and code editor)
  • Pidgin (XMPP and IRC chat client)
  • Filezilla (FTP client)
  • uGet (lightweight download manager)
  • BleachBit (cache, temp file and history cleaner)
  • 7zip (file archiver)

What we like about the microSD reader is that it does not look like much, is easy to ignore and does not call attention to itself. And hidden inside is the capacity to safely store and access large amounts of data plus some extra capabilities.

Strengths

Small, easy to conceal and carry.

Limitations

Needs a USB interface and, when out and about, a somewhat trusted device to plug into (the newer version, see below, can be connected to a mobile phone via USB-C). Note that the standard precautions regarding USB apply here, there are many exploits and attack vectors to consider; also a risk vs. benefit analysis when working with devices outside of one's own control needs to be completed.

Conclusion

A microSD USB card reader belongs in every electronics kit. For an integrated strategy of preparing a microSD card with critical data, a microSD card reader is crucial and the Kingston models are the smallest ones available on the market.

An updated, yet slightly larger version of the device including even USB-C is available. With this update, it becomes possible to use one side to plug into a computer with USB-A and alternatively, on the go, to connect the other side to a mobile phone with USB-C.

Note that while you can't run the Portable Apps on a mobile phone, you do have access to all the files and most importantly, the all-crucial KeePass database is accessible with the respective mobile phone app, making this whole setup all the more useful.

Specs


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