Your Computer, Your World – How to Keep Out the Mindless

For several years I’ve been taking my private laptop to work, like most of my colleagues. Often I’m asked to set up a laptop for a guest talk, and many times I had to provide my own computer for the presentation.

Frankly, I hate to share my own, private laptop, however for a long time it was inevitable. Over that time people lost respect and thought it was OK to use my computer, just to look something up real quick.

It annoyed me to no end, so I unconsciously developed a few strategies to make it very unattractive to use my laptop. Let me share…
1) No Desktop Icons
privacydesktop   Your Computer, Your World   How to Keep Out the Mindless

You wouldn’t believe how many people are stunned by an empty desktop. They’ll rather leave it alone than mess with the start button or some funny looking menus.

2) Different Interface
Even an alternative Windows theme is unsettling for the standard user. Macs are not commonly used around here, and I found that transformation packs can do wonders. People seriously believe my computer is a Mac, which makes it seem very complicated to use, and thus unattractive. Let me say the laptop case looks nothing like a Mac and the keyboard gives it away with the infamous Windows key. Yet all they see is the interface and it stops them dead in their tracks. I installed FlyakiteOSX for the slightly different look, but there are a few alternatives..

3) No Taskbar
privacyxneat   Your Computer, Your World   How to Keep Out the Mindless

Now that’s a killer! Something must be seriously wrong with this machine and I’d say it deters close to 90% of people. Unsolicited users that keep their hand firm on the mouse in hopes of uncovering a hidden secret must be very curious. Those that have the bright idea to use the Windows key, are true pros. ;)
I hide my taskbar with XNeat Windows manager. Actually the taskbar is not hidden, it’s just transparent and lights up on mouse-over. It’s also a good way to hide open windows. If you want to be super smart, don’t keep the taskbar in its default location or replace it entirely with something else, for example a dock program.

4) Unusual Icons
privacyicons   Your Computer, Your World   How to Keep Out the MindlessPersonally, I love to use unique icons for most folders on my computer. Before I used transformation packs I discovered that even using some of the not so commonly seen default Windows icons, makes people be wary of using my laptop, since they don’t understand what they see, if they see anything at all.

Right-click any folder, select >properties, switch to the >Customize tab, and click the >Change Icon… button, then pick an icon from the SHELL32.dll list and enjoy.

If you’re tired of the same old Windows icons, try Free Icons Download, CrystalXP.net or the Icon Archive for something fresh. Note that you will need .ico files to replace folder icons, but many icons actually come as .png files. There is an ingenious little tool called AveIconifier which can instantly transform dozens of .png files to .ico and vice versa.

5) Ultimate Protection
privacylaptopalarm   Your Computer, Your World   How to Keep Out the Mindless

You can simply log yourself out when you leave your desk and use a Kensington lock at all times. However, for those times when a lock is not practicable or when you just want to go that one step further to keep obtrusive people away and efficiently protect your computer from theft, get your hands on a free copy of Laptop Alarm. It’s a small exe tool, no installation required, just download and run. You can activate up to four different actions that will trigger a very loud alarm. They are loss of AC power, shutdown or log off, unplugging of the USB mouse, and mouse movement. In Options you can set an unlock password and the sensitivity for the mouse movement detection. Unfortunately, the SMS alarm service signup is not working. Once your computer is locked with Laptop Alarm, it’s safe unless the password is hacked or both AC and battery power are removed. The tool also works on desktop computers.

Constant change has been the greatest success factor in keeping my laptop to myself. From the start all desktop shortcuts have been gone, one day the interface looks like Vista, the other like a Mac, then the wallpaper keeps changing, now there’s this funny menu, the other day there was some weird second menu, as of late the taskbar is gone and what’s next, is the damn thing going to speak to me?
In the meantime we have a separate laptop for presentations and the like at work. Mission completed.

Are you in a similar situation? Do you proudly share your computer? If not, how do you preserve your digital privacy? Please share!

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41 Comments -

0 votes

Mackenzie

Screen lock is set to 2 minutes. There’s a separate guest account with extremely limited menus. My home directory is chmod’d 700, so no one can peek. And then, yeah, it’s not Windows, so even though Ubuntu’s very easy to use, the gut reaction “no Start Menu, brain shutting down now” can take over.

0 votes

Varun Kashyap

Nice article Tina, what I once did was installed linux and then removed the option to boot into Windows from the GRUB Boot Menu (edit the menu.lst file), you will be amazed how many people will just not use it seeing that you only have Linux on the machine
You can yourself ofcourse boot into Windows using the chainloader (windows partition)+1 command :)

0 votes

Navrooz

Sir, how to carry out these tasks – editing of menu.lst file and then booting using chainloader?

0 votes

Ignatus

One very good way to keep out unsollicited inquerers is to learn the dvorak keyboard layout. You’ll get very surprised reactions when people start typing on an keyboard which _looks_ like querty, but actually produces total rubbish if you don’t know where all the letter are located. Plus, dvorak is easier to use and faster. If you’re bored, you can even blatantly deny everything and start convincing your victim he has a rare neurotic desease which screwup his typography area in his brain.+50 geek xp

0 votes

Mackenzie Morgan

One of my friends tried Dvorak because he’d heard it made you type faster. He tried it for a month. After a month, he was still only typing at 60wpm, but his usual typing speed is 120wpm. Dvorak made him take twice as long to type everything!

0 votes

Joe Boomer

Of course, you can’t expect to be able to type that fast within only a month. Don’t forget that learning Dvorak means that you have to relearn something that you have done pretty much your whole life. I’m typing this in Dvorak myself, and it’s pretty slow. I only type at 40 words per second. However, I have spent only a total of 10 hours, I can type at a speed that is acceptable for short things like this comment!

0 votes

Griffin

You can only type at 40 words per second? Umm…

0 votes

myself

lol!!!

0 votes

slim

I simply end the standby by using end task menu!!!
Only the wallpaper shows up then!!My pals thought my OS crashed or somethin’!!
simply press ctrl+alt+delete and then in the menu end the standby.exe

0 votes

slim

dont worry!!you can get it back up and running by pressing new task and typing standby.exe

0 votes

Scott Elkin

Great post, but a bit of a stupid problem you are trying to solve when you can just password protect your account and screen lock when you walk away.

0 votes

Tina

The things is, I had to share my laptop on many occasions, that was my starting point.
Also, when you work in a lab, where you only have short incubation times to sit down at the laptop to continue writing something or checking your mails, you don’t log out each time you walk away again, it’s a hassle.

0 votes

Ben

Awesome post. I thought all of these suggestions were great. Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups. However, I probably would never have shared my laptop in the first place.

0 votes

Gish Domains

OT: I love your desktops! Where did you get them?

0 votes
0 votes

Aibek

Another great post Tina, I just love reading your stuff.

0 votes

Aibek

Hey, the comment above isn’t from me :-)

Nonetheless I completely agree with it, Tina’s stuff is great!

0 votes

Tina

haha
Thank you Aibek.
Both of you! ;)

0 votes

Kaly

Ooops. Sorry Aibek , I was logged in as admin and forgot to change the comment ID

0 votes

thebeard03

I just had a quick question, I dunno if this has been covered in a previous post but what is that little multi-color tab thing on the top right are of the desktop, is that the google desktop?

0 votes
0 votes

Alexander

I’m pretty sure this has been covered in a different article, but if you’re only stepping away from your computer for a second, you can just hit windowkey+L which will lock your computer and someone would have to know your password to get into it.

0 votes

Egon

I just use Ubuntu, deters people enough and works better than Windows. I have Windows XP in my boot menu, but most people don’t seem to bother to check that out. Even, as I have different hardware profiles (a physical one and one to load Windows XP into VirtualBox), this keeps everybody from using my computer.

Ubuntu is actually quite handy as most people confuse it for a Mac and run away screaming. Although I taught my former gf how she could work with the basics on my computer (Matlab and the basics of gvim). So it only assures I could use my computer when I needed to, without even anyone even thinking about messing around with my files.

0 votes

Cyril

but while you’re making your laptop uncomfortable for others to use, ur also making it annoying for you to use! even if u know how to use it ;) there’s nothing better than having nice desktop shortcuts and a windows taskbar……..

0 votes

Tina

In fact, I don’t like to have my desktop cluttered, I love it clean. The shortcuts are neatly packed into the tabbed dock and I’m using Launchy anyways. Also, I do have a taskbar, it’s just not visible unless I move the mouse down there.

I think next I will randomly exchange some keys on my keyboard, just for the fun. ;)

0 votes

Mackenzie

I like my desktop clean too. Volumes are all that show on it. I open apps using keyboard shortcuts I set in Compiz. Super+T for a terminal, Super+F for Firefox, Super+E for Evolution, Super+P for Pidgin…

0 votes

Aibek

Same here, I like it clean and empty. There are shortcuts for everything: Win + D / L / E etc.

0 votes

ogami1972

exactly. i don’t do anything that makes my boxes “annoying”. In fact, I spend a lot of time making them highly functional; blame it on the braindead that they can’t figure it out.
btw- i have yet to encounter a desktop i couldn’t find my way around, whether the user was there or not…

0 votes

Monica

Great post and Nice Wallpapers!

Using LINUX is a good way to make many people stay away from my stuff and other is of having no desktop icon with no task bar.. It really helped me to keep many of my friends away from my personal stuff.

0 votes

Randy

I have had a great idea for over 10 years for a new desktop gui but I never took the time to learn programing and it is a little complex. If anyone wants to work on it or knows where I can get one please let me know. My idea is to integrate the shortcuts into a wallpaper size picture. For example, with the picture of the four glasses above, you would assign each glass as a shortcut to a folder. I wanted to create a program where you could open up a picture and select an area to be your shortcut with a mouseover description as an option. I don’t own a mac or vista so I am not sure if they have anything like this but I believe desktop guis are outdated. I heard too many problems with Vista to bother with it. Maybe integrate a screensaver like a fishtank where you can click on the various objects in the tank to open a window. With current technologies I believe this would be possible. Just some ideas. You can lock the desktop with a password and have the screensaver keeping going. No one will know the difference.

0 votes

Beth

I’m sure my ex boyfriend did something similar. I cannot for the life of me remember what he used, but it was basically a skinning program for Windows. He made me a skin where parts of the wallpaper were functional – some were shortcut icons and others were system monitors. And he made it pink to match my case. It was pretty cool. I don’t think it was that complex to do. If I can find the info I’ll post it here.

0 votes

anon

you could do that with a HTML document just make an image map and the links go to local folders..

0 votes

mrcool

I hit CTRL + L and tell them they can have my laptop if they can guess the password. :-D

0 votes

John

You could take the no taskbar/icons approach one step further by using a wallpaper that was simply a screen shot of a “normal” GUI so that when any user tries to click on a shortcut or toolbar, they’re simply clicking the background image.

0 votes

Mike

Why so passive aggressive? Why not just tell people to fuck off and get their own damn laptop?

0 votes

MaXiMuS

Its all real great but the problem arises when you allow someone to use your laptop and they have no clue, so you have to tell them all the secrets. So annoying.
But I use most of the techniques like skinning and using alternative layouts. However my desktop is so overly cluttered that it is repulsive to new users!
But if one icon is misplaced, I get soooo annoyed :(

0 votes

its johnny

what i do is set up trap icons.
this is, make a batch file that does something funny with the command prompt, put on the desktop, disguise the batch file with another icon, get rid of the actual icon, and leave it for some one to click on it. some body actually thought that they caused the computer to fail because they tried to use Internet Explorer.
it was funny

0 votes

Dave

Why are you leaving your laptop out in a place where people think it’s OK just to walk up to it and start surfing? Just hit CTRL-ALT-DEL and lock your workstation when you walk away from it.

0 votes

Bradford Knowlton

You could always mess with them, dual boot it, Windows/linux and Window 3.11. Or for a quick fix install Parallels Workstation / VMware Workstation and let them try out a virtualized operating system. This prevents them from accessing your files, as they are on a virtual machine but they will still be able to get online and do a presentation or check their e-mail etc.

Brad
http://x86v.com

0 votes

Leon

Nice article. I like to discourage use of my computers but like to be helpful too….a paradox. 90% of the time I use Puppy Linux. I turn the icons into part of the wallpaper so they are invisible. It’s fun to click on ‘nothing’ and see the programs start up. Another strategy I have developed is to have several items in the grub menu. At work to start up my machine you have to select the 4th item down which is ‘mem test 64′ to boot up what is actually the operating system I usually use (Puppy Dingo). It you didn’t know this and started the machine the first option produces a ‘kernel panic’. Not deliberate but I liked it so left it that way….

Ironically when I’m not camouflaging my own system I’m helping other people find their way around their own computers. For some it’s difficult enough even when the start button is visible and the desktop icons work the way they should….no need to alter anything!

I heard of one firm who developed a self destructing hard drive …. type an incorrect password in twice and watch your computer self destruct – that’s hardcore.

0 votes

Trey

Ha. I did this same thing a few weeks ago. Love the minimalist look. Disabled the Taskbar and ran an auto-hiding dock for my commonly used programs. Totally blank desktop unless you know shortcuts or where to look.

The problem came when my boss needed some phone numbers out of my Outlook when I was gone. Took me 10 minutes to explain how to open it. And another hour to explain to him that I did not “delete Microsoft” and “install unauthorized Unix.”