Ask LH: How Can I Secure My Travel Laptop?

Ask LH: How Can I Secure My Travel Laptop?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve just purchased a new laptop, as my previous laptop was stolen while I was travelling in Europe. The loss of my laptop happened on the last day, when I was travelling to the airport, so it pretty much carried the whole of my digital life for that fortnight.

Gone were the photos I saved to the hard drive during the trip, downloads such as podcasts that I was collecting, and my browser history, among other things. Fortunately pretty much all my important documents, such as personal details, travel itinerary, addresses and the like were kept on Dropbox, and in a USB memory key I wore as a necklace around my neck. However, it did mean I had to change the passwords for a lot of the sites I regularly visit (Dropbox, Whirlpool, Facebook, etc.) as I saved the passwords in the browser for convenience.

My question is, how best can I protect my laptop and the information it contains, so if I’m unlucky and I lose my netbook again I can minimise my losses and make sure I’m not a victim of identity theft?

Thanks Loser But Wiser

Picture by Jellaluna

Dear LBW,

Ouch! It’s good to know that you had essential details backed up elsewhere via Dropbox, but frustrating that your photos have gone for good. Here are the steps I would take to avoid that issue in the future, both in terms of not losing personal information such as passwords and ensuring you don’t lose unique digital content such as photos.

Firstly, take the obvious precautions: ensure that you have a login password set on your notebook and that it isn’t an obvious choice. That won’t stop a really determined hacker, but it will slow them down enough for you to have time to change passwords if you realise the machine is gone. On a full-scale laptop, I’d also advise encrypting your personal data, but that can be a processor issue on a netbook.

We’ve always advocated using a password management solution to store passwords in your browser. That’s marginally less convenient for day-to-day browsing (as you need to know the master password), but massively less hassle if the machine goes missing, as no-one can get into anything without that master password, which you can change (using an internet cafe or library machine or by phoning a trusted relative) once you realise the system has been misplaced. We’ve got a detailed guide on how to set that up. (As an additional precaution, close your browser windows each time you put the machine to sleep.)

Keeping personal information in Dropbox is a good idea, but when travelling, don’t replicate more than you actually need. Having copies of your travel details, passport number and contacts makes sense, but other personal data (such as personal finance details) shouldn’t be copied over if you won’t need it in transit. (If you store it online, you can access it in an emergency, but be sure it isn’t on your machine if it goes missing.)

As for pictures and other unique content: your best bet is to either upload them to a general service such as Dropbox or a specific service such as Flickr, so that you’re not dependent on your solitary laptop for copies. One challenge with that approach is that it presumes your machine will be regularly online, which isn’t always the case when you’re travelling overseas — an issue we’ve discussed before at some length.

If you’re travelling with a laptop and accumulating new pictures regularly but not going online, consider regularly backing up onto a USB key and storing that in a jacket pocket. It doesn’t take that long — do it while you’re brushing your teeth before retiring for the night. That way, if your machine is stolen or misplaced, you’ll still have all or most of your precious pictures.

An additional thought: If you’re using a separate digital camera or a phone which lets you add an SD card (which is many of them outside the iPhone), keep the images on your camera after you’ve copied them over to the netbook, and don’t delete them until you get home or if you completely run out of space. SD cards take up very little room, so you could also travel with a spare and swap it in when the need arises. Again, store it separately from your laptop (in your wallet or with your passport are obvious options).

No security strategy is completely foolproof, but these tactics will give you a lot less to worry about. Enjoy your next trip. As ever, we’d love additional reader ideas for this scenario — the comments box is all yours!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • All the suggestions make sense, really, and can be summarised as:
    -Encrypt the user directory
    -Password protect your accounts
    -Use prey (or similar)
    -Set up a script/program to back up to an external drive, don’t keep it with the laptop.
    -Push what you can to the cloud/offsite storage

    It surprised me that there’s nothing on that list I wouldn’t also recommend for home users and desktops, but I guess security and disaster recovery best practices apply everywhere.

  • Yeh, push what you can to the cloud is good advice – when you find a hotel with free wifi smash your photos up there over night 🙂 Better if its automated so all you have to remember is to copy them off your camera.

  • That’s all very well and good, but how exactly does one change their password *after* their laptop has gone missing?

    Also, password protection is almost worthless. It is not going to stop more than about 1% of thieves from accessing your data.

  • No, no, no. Just encrypt the WHOLE drive (inc. operating system) with Truecrypt. No one is getting their hands on your data then. Not even the NSA.

    You can actually put a small message on the passwd screen (like your email address) so if it is legitimately lost and found someone can get in touch with you. I personally have the message saying ‘missing operating system’ and no feedback for the passwd entry so it looks like the disk is broken…

    If it’s stolen, sure, it’ll be reformatted and sold on but at least you know your data was completely safe form the next guy.

    As for keeping your data safe – you can keep passwords backed up using lastpass (or keepass db in your dropbox), important data in dropbox, music in Google Music say. If you need more space go to one of the paid backup suppliers like sugarsync.

    There you go. Secure.

    • Forgot to say, if you do want a laptop returned then nothing beats a LABEL stuck to your kit with your contact details and a ‘reward if found’ message.

      All your fancy text files, disc labels, startup screens etc. pale into insignificance compared with a good old big sticker stuck to your laptop with all your details staring the thief/recoverer in the face.

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