The soul of a machine

This project is maintained by wbreeze

Crossing over

These are utilities and instructions for putting a computing device to death and reincarnating it in another place.

When crossing a national border, these instructions provide for you to bring your devices, but to be completely unable to resurrect or produce any data without assistance from people on the other side.

The motivation comes from this article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about entering the United States.

I am currently using three devices built by Apple with Apple operating systems. This focuses on transmigrating those devices.

As a bonus, regardless of whether you are crossing a national border:


Be very careful about your keys and key database. If you lose, or lose access to these, you will lose all of your data.

I’m not available to help you. Use this guidance at your own risk. If you don’t understand it, maybe don’t use it. See the github project readme for guidance about making improvements.


All of this takes time. The backups can take hours, even a day the first time you run them. Plan ahead. You might want to test (and this also takes time):

It’s best to practice and measure the time for all of these operations well in advance of your trip. Keep the backup fresh. Allow yourself double the time to complete everything before you depart.

Excess baggage

Reduce as much as possible the amount of data on your computer. The more data you have to back up and restore, the longer it will take. It can take twenty-four hours to backup, and as much time to restore, thirty gigabytes of data.

Most things like those will come back to your computer just as quickly from their place of origin, when you need them, as they would from any backup.

Removing the excess baggage takes some planning, but it’s worth it. You will save time getting back up and running after you cross. Try not to be greedy. Pack a (virtual) small suitcase.

Setup before and after

  1. If not already using full disk encryption (FileVault) on MacBook, do so.
  2. If not already using a password safe, such as KeePassX and MiniKeePass, do so now.
  3. Have an encrypted backup drive– an external storage file system
    • Have the recovery key in the KeePass database.
  4. If you are using security token based Multi-Factor or Two-Factor Authentication (2FA/MFA), with an app on your phone such as Authy, ensure that you have the security tokens stored in your KeePass database. Why?
    • You are going to wipe clean your phone and lose the security tokens currently stored in Authy.
    • Your iPhone backup will restore them, but what if you need one of them to get to your iPhone backup?
    • It’s a good practice to follow in any case.
  5. Apple 2FA requires that you have a phone number registered with them where you will be able to receive a text message or voice phone call.
    • Be sure you will be able to get that call.
    • Many cell providers offer an international plan at fixed cost per day, with no charge on days of non-usage.
    • You have to set up the number on your Apple ID in advance of resetting your devices.
  6. How to install stuff contains references for installing some of the software you might need, depending on the methods you select for backup, storage, and recovery.

Planning your trip

Before crossing

  1. Generate and store a long random sequence in your KeePass database.
    • We refer to this as the “passkey”.
    • By “long”, we mean a couple of dozen characters or more. Knowing the length of the passkey facilitates exhaustive search. However, if the key is long enough, that hardly matters.
    • It’s a sequence that you can’t memorize without a lot of effort. You won’t even try.
    • It’s a sequence that some friends will possibly read to you on the phone.
    • It’s a sequence that you might possibly type many times, including on your cell phone keypad.
    • It will be a temporary Apple ID password, so it must have a digit and a capital letter. But don’t use it yet!
    • Don’t change your Apple ID password yet.
  2. Use iTunes to copy the latest KeePass database(s) to iPhone and iPad.
    • MiniKeePass will accept your KeepassX .kdbx files.
  3. Use iTunes to back-up iPhone and iPad to MacBook. How to from Apple
    • You can also back them up to iCloud.
    • You can’t really back up your Mac to iCloud, not the way you can do with the iOS devices. The best you can do is keep your Documents and Desktop folder there, and your system settings. Some thoughts about iCloud tells why I don’t prefer iCloud as my Mac backup solution.
  4. Optionally make rsync backups of MacBook to an encrypted backup drive
    • We are making a backup of our entire user directory.
    • We are making a backup of the KeePass database.
    • If using a good cloud backup, like Arq, this might not be necessary; however ensure that you have separate backups of your key database.
  5. Use one of several methods to put a backup in the cloud:
  6. Copy your KeePass password database to iCloud.
  7. Create a plan of contacts on the other side. You will share parts of the passkey with them. You can split-up the key different ways so that no-one has the full key (See splitting passwords).

    It’s a good idea to have multiple combinations of people from whom you can reconstruct the passkey.

    • Note contact phone numbers using pen and paper.
    • Note who has which parts.

    Generally, if a combination of the people can guess each-other, they can get together to reconstruct the full key. This might be a good thing if you become lost.

  8. Ship the passkey via Signal Messenger or other end-to-end secure channel to friends on the other side, according to the plan of contacts.
    • Let them know your plans.
    • Let them know how and when they should expect to hear from you.
  9. After enough of your contacts have confirmed that they have the passkey, change your Apple ID (iCloud) password to the passkey and verify access.
    • verify access. This is key, because access with the passkey is the only way you’ll access your KeePass database and reincarnate your machines.
    • You verify access to iCloud by simply logging out and logging back in again, making sure you can see the file(s) stored there.
    • Or simply attempt to access from a different device using the passkey.
  10. Hard reset all three devices, including loss of the passkey.
    • You have now lost access to everything until your friends help you.
  11. Leave the backup drive behind. (It too is useless without the passkey, but there’s absolutely no need to carry the data with you.)
  12. Take the contact numbers.

Cross to the other side

Once on the other side

  1. If you have or obtain a SIM for your phone, you will be able to initialize it without providing your Apple ID. The cell data plan, if you have one, will work with the phone. You will be able to make and recieve phone calls.
    • You can invent a new passcode, but make your life easy. Use the one you were using before. This is not the time to further complicate things by changing device passcodes.
  2. Contact enough people to reassemble the passkey.
  3. Let everyone else know you’re across.
  4. Optionally, obtain a new backup drive of sufficient size. If you’re using cloud backup, like Arq, this isn’t really necessary.
  5. Find a place with good internet. Not a hotel. Not a coffee shop. A private home, co-working space, or business.
  6. Initialize MacBook with Apple ID (iCloud) account and passkey. You will have to pass some Apple 2FA hurdles, including:
    • Receiving a phone call or text message to a number already registered with your account.
    • Possibly providing some other credential, like the passcode last used on your iPhone or iPad.
  7. Write down the new disk recovery key on a piece of paper that you will destroy.
  8. If you want to initialize your iPhone and/or iPad now with the passkey, you can do that. If you do, you’ll have to enter the new Apple ID (iCloud) account password after you change it.
    • If you initialized your iPhone without using your Apple ID (iCloud), adding it now will not restore your phone. In fact, it will start making backups of your “blank” phone.
    • iOS devices must be reset if you want them restored from iCloud.
  9. Install KeePass and copy your password database from iCloud to your computer.
    • Do not delete the iCloud copy yet. Restoring your backup could overwrite this newer one that you just pulled down from the cloud.
  10. Use one of the three methods to recover your backup:
  11. Ensure the freshest copy of your KeePass password database is on your machine. If you copied the database to iCloud right after making the backup, then they are the same.
  12. Change the Apple ID (iCloud) password to something other than the passkey and (of course) record it in your KeePass database.
  13. Add your new disk recovery key to your KeePass database.
  14. Initialize the iPhone and iPad with the new Apple ID password if you have not already done so.
    • If iCloud restores them, well that was easy!
  15. Connect the iPhone and iPad.
    • Restore them using the iTunes backup if iCloud did not restore them.
  16. Update the backups of the KeePass database on the iPhone and iPad. (It has the new backup drive recovery and iCloud passwords.)
    • It’s now safe to delete the password database copy stored on iCloud.
    • It’s now safe to destroy the piece of paper with your disk recovery key.
  17. All is well. Have a drink.