How to Hack Your Dropbox: Five Amazing Mashups

Alex Castle

As any PC power-user knows, getting files from one place to another is one of the oldest tasks in the book. Since way back when people have used floppies, ZIP disks, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs,  thumb drives, email and more to get the files you need from point A to point B. But now there’s DropBox , which has—in the half year or so since it came out of beta—become our very favorite way of making sure that we always have our most important files at hand.

If you’re not familiar with how DropBox works, it’s simple: You create a free account with DropBox, and install a small app on your computer. This app creates a folder on your computer (wherever you choose) and monitors that folder at all times. Whenever you change the contents of this folder, by adding, modifying or deleting files, DropBox automatically syncs these changes to your account’s folder on their servers. Additionally, any other computer logged into that same account will have their DropBox folder synced as well. There’s nothing earthshaking about this capability,  but the whole process is amazingly simple and makes collaboration an absolute breeze.

Still, with a little creativity, DropBox can be a lot more than just a way to move files from one computer to another. We’ve compiled a list of five of the coolest DropBox tricks we’ve heard of so far, so read on to find out how you can use DropBox and other free software to recover a stolen laptop, organize your Torrents, keep your passwords safe, and more.

1. Keep all your passwords safe

Everyone knows that good password security requires that you use passwords that are A) long, B) complicated, and C) different for every website and service you use. Of course, these three requirements also make it a total pain to memorize all the passwords you need, meaning that most people don’t follow the rules, either using one password across many services (a security risk) or writing their passwords down near the computer (also a security risk).

That’s where KeePass comes in. KeePass is a free, open source password safe. It allows you to generate a unique, totally random password for every site or service you use, while only requiring you to remember a single master passphrase. Whenever you attempt to log into a service, KeePass asks for your master passphrase, then automatically enters the appropriate password from your safe.

That’s all well and good, but what do you do if you frequently use two different computers (say, a desktop and a laptop)? You could use a USB drive to keep your KeePass password archive with you at all times, but that’s one more little bit of hardware you have to keep track of. Instead, use DropBox to keep an up-to-date copy of your password file on both computers, at all times. Just tell KeePass to save your password archive somewhere in your DropBox synced folder.

Worried about security? Fuhgeddaboutit. KeePass saves your password in an archive encrypted with nigh-unbreakable AES 256-hit encryption. That means that as long as you pick a strong, long password, getting a hold of your KeePass file won’t do a hacker a bit of good.

2. Catch Laptop Thieves

As PC enthusiasts, nothing gets our blood boiling like tales of stolen laptop computers. With DropBox, though, there’s a chance for sweet, sweet revenge. The trick is to set up a keylogger on your own machine, and set it to save its log files into the Dropbox shared folder. If anyone ever steals your laptop, your Dropbox folder will give you a detailed look at what the thief is doing with it. If the cretin connects to a service such as MySpace (and our personal research indicates that cretins just love MySpace) then you’ll know exactly who stole your notebook.

By letting Dropbox handle the syncing, you don’t have to let an internet-enabled keylogger through your firewall (because who knows who it could be sending data too). Of course, keyloggers are pretty sketchy business, so if you want to try this trick out you’ll have to track one down on your own.

3. Access an Encrypted Drive, Anywhere

We like Dropbox. We like TrueCrypt. So what if… What if , we were to use the two together? Crazy, we know, but by combining the top-notch encryption of TrueCrypt with the easy syncing of Dropbox, you can create an encrypted drive accessible from any computer.

To do this, just download the TrueCrypt executable , run it, and choose to Extract it (rather than install it) to your Dropbox folder. From there, make an encrypted volume, as described in this article . This will allow you to run TrueCrypt and mount your encrypted volume straight off of the Dropbox folder, on any machine.

There’s one thing you should note about this method: First, Whenever Dropbox updates a file, it first compares the old file and the new, then only uploads or download only the bits that have changed. On the one hand, this is good because it means that you don’t have to re-upload your entire 500MB encrypted volume every time you add something to it. On the other hand, a hacker could (theoretically) see how the encrypted data is changing as you add or change files in the volume; an encryption no-no. Still, this definitely not something you have to worry about if you’re just looking for a little extra security for your Dropbox files.

Read on to find out how you can use Dropbox to control a BitTorrent and sync up all your instant messaging logs!

4. Control a BitTorrent Client Remotely

How often have you found yourself sitting at work, only to find out that a file you’re interested (a demo for a game you’re excited about, for instance) has just become available online. Sure, you could sit there patiently, and wait until you get home to download it; but why bother waiting when you could have it ready for you as soon as you get there. Most of the big BitTorrent clients have some sort of web-based control, but those can be tricky to set up, and require that you have a static IP (or set up a DynDNS account). Using DropBox, it’s much easier.

Here’s what you’ll need to do: First, make sure you have a BitTorrent client capable of automatically loading .torrent files from a folder. All the big ones are capable of this, including uTorrent, Vuze, and the standard BitTorrent client. Next, set it up to monitor your DropBox, or a folder in your DropBox (My Documents/My Dropbox/Torrents for instance) and automatically open any .torrent file added to that folder.

Now, if you see a file you want to grab, just download the .torrent file to your Dropbox/Torrents folder, and your home PC will start the download as soon as DropBox syncs. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, this method requires that you leave you computer on all day long, a decidedly environmentally-unfriendly practice that we don't recommend. But If you're anticipating the need to download something (a beta test for a new MMO, maybe?) we won't fault you for making a one-day exception.

5. Access your IM logs from any computer

A lot of people use instant messaging to keep in touch with their coworkers during the day. We certainly do here at the Maximum PC office, but we’re sure the same can be said for many less-technically-forward offices as well. Because of that, there are times when, while you’re at home, you want to remember something from a conversation you had while you were at work, but you can’t, because your IM logs are stored on your work computer.

That doesn’t have to be the case, though. If you use Pidgin , a free, open source multi-protocol IM client, you can tell it to save its logs in a folder in your Dropbox. As long as Pidgin is set up that way on all of your computers, they will all share access to the same logs.

Actually setting it up so that Pidgin saves your logs somewhere other than the default location is a little trickier than you might imagine, though. You’ll need to change the PURPLEHOME environment variable on your system, which defines where Pidgin will save its configuration files and logs. To do this, open the control panel and select System . Then select the Advanced tab, and click on Environment Variables . Now, click New under the System Variables box. In the Variable Name field, enter PURPLEHOME and in the Variable Value field, enter the location of your Dropbox folder. Now Pidgin will use a folder inside your Dropbox called .purple to save its data.

If you’re ok working from a fresh install of Pidgin, that's all you’ll need to do. If you have existing settings and logs that you want to keep using, just copy the .purple folder from its default directory (Application Data) to your Dropbox directory.

What did we miss?

So that's five of the coolest Dropbox trick's we've found, but we're sure there's a whole lot more out there. Do you know any clever ways to use file syncing? Let us know in the comments!

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