Keeping work and personal computers separated

I try as much as possible to keep my personal stuff separated from the work stuff. Even if both California and Utah laws are clear that what I develop on my own time and my own hardware is mine (as long as it is not related to my day job – that’s the big difference with French laws where I own what I developed on my own time, even if it is on my employer’s business or computers), that did not prevent one of my former employers to try to claim ownership on what was rightfully mine. Because it is very expensive to get justice in the USA, getting things as separated as possible from the beginning seems like a good idea.

The best way to do that is simply to not work during one’s free time on anything that could have a potential business value – these days, I spend a lot of time learning about cryptography, control system engineering and concurrent systems validation. But keeping things separated still creates some issues, like having to carry two laptops when traveling. I did this twice for IETF meetings, and it is really no fun.

The solution I finally found was to run my personal laptop as an encrypted hard drive in a virtual machine on the company laptop. My employer provided me with a MacBook, which has nice hardware but whose OS is not very good. I had to put a reminder in my calendar to reboot it each week if I did not want to see it regularly crashing or freezing. Mac OSX is a lot like like Windows, excepted that you are not ashamed to show it to your friends. Anyway here’s how to run your own personal computer on your employer’s laptop:

First you need a portable hard drive, preferably one that does not require a power supply. I use the My Passport Ultra 500GB with the AmazonBasics Hard Carrying Case. Next step is to install and configure VirtualBox on your laptop. You will need to install the Oracle VM VirtualBox Extension Pack if, like me, you need to use in your personal computer a USB device that is connected to the employer laptop (in my case, a smart-card dongle that contains the TLS private key to connect to my servers). Next step is to change the owner of your hard drive (you unfortunately will have to do that each time you plug the hard drive):

sudo chown <user> /dev/disk2

After this you can create a raw vdmk file that will reference the external hard drive:

cd VirtualBox VMs
VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename ExternalDisk.vmdk -rawdisk /dev/disk2

After this, you just have to create a VM in VirtualBox that is using this vdmk file. I installed Debian sid which encryption, which took the most part of the day as the whole disk as to be encrypted sector by sector. I also installed gogo6 so I could have an IPv6 connection in places that still live in the dark age. Debian contains the correct packages (apt-get install virtualbox-guest-utils) so the X server in the personal computer will adapt its display size automatically to the size of the laptop.

To restore the data from my desktop, I configured VirtualBox on it too, so I could also run the personal computer on it. Then, thanks to the same Debian packages, I was able to mount my backups as a shared folder and restore all my data in far less time than an scp command would take.

And after all of this I had a secure and convenient way to handle my personal emails without having to carry two laptops.

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