Ask LH: How Can I Make Sure My Laptop Is Secure While I Travel With It?

Ask LH: How Can I Make Sure My Laptop Is Secure While I Travel With It?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m going to be travelling soon and I need to take my laptop with me. How can I make sure it’s as safe as possible? I won’t always have my own desk, and sometimes I’ll have to work from public places. How can I protect my laptop and the data that’s on it when I use it away from home? Thanks, Phileas Fogg

Title photo by (Shutterstock) and Triff (Shutterstock). Other photos by Timothy Vollmer and Aaron Muszalski

Dear PF,

Hitting the road with your computer opens the doors to a whole world of potential security problems, both physical and software-based, but don’t worry. They’re all manageable. Remember, the weakest link in your security will usually be you — as long as you don’t put yourself, your computer, or its data at undue risk, you should be just fine even if you have to work from a library or a cafe, or connect to whatever Wi-Fi you find to get some work done. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself.

Physical Security

Ask LH: How Can I Make Sure My Laptop Is Secure While I Travel With It?

Keeping your gear safe starts with protecting it physically. Of course, if someone is really gunning for your laptop, they’ll probably find a way to get their hands on it, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it easy for them. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Get a solid, travel-and-security friendly laptop bag. Since you said you’ll be travelling with your laptop, your best bet is to keep it in a bag where it only needs to be removed when you need to use it. You’ll also want a bag that can keep your laptop safe from bumps and jolts so it survives the trip. Whether you prefer messengers or backpacks, make sure it has a well-padded laptop sleeve. Make sure your bag is travel-friendly, can be neatly collapsed or expanded depending on what’s inside, and is comfortable to wear close to your body. You don’t want your laptop bag to be so uncomfortable that you put it down every chance you get.
  • Keep your eyes on your gear. If you’re going to be working in a public (or even semi-public) environment, your best bet is to take your laptop with you when you have to move anywhere. Working from the library and need to go to the bathroom? Pack up your bag and take it with you. It sucks, but it sucks a lot less than losing a laptop with all of your data on it.
  • Always use your hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign. Half of the fun of being in a hotel is that someone else comes in and cleans up, but if you’re working or need to leave your laptop in your room, put up the Do Not Disturb hanger on the outside of your door. Ideally, hotel staff will leave your room alone. The fewer people other than you in your room, the less likely your laptop will go missing. If you must leave without your laptop, use your hotel safe to store it (if it’s large enough), but remember, hotel safes aren’t allthey’re cracked up to be. Another alternative is to lock your laptop inside your suitcase, and make sure that’s inside the wardrobe.
  • Buy a cable lock. A cable lock won’t stop determined thieves — they’re easily cut, and many people don’t apply them properly, but they can deter thieves in public or busy places.
  • Keep tabs on your laptop’s location via software. Services like Prey (which we’ve highlighted before for laptops), LoJack for Laptops, and even Apple’s own Find My Mac will all help you locate a lost or stolen laptop if it does go missing. Accidents happen, and if you leave your computer in the back of a taxi, or it never makes it off the plane, or someone snatches it, you do have some resources to try and locate it, report it to the authorities, and recover it. These services work best when you sign up in advance, so make sure to register before your trip.

If you’re worried about someone tampering with or opening up your laptop, that’s a different issue. Such things are rare, but there’s a lot someone could do just by plugging in a USB drive to your computer, or with a few minutes of physical access behind your back. You could go all out and grab some port covers for your laptop’s ports, and then tape over them so they’re inaccessible, but that also makes them inaccessible to you. Plus, as we learned from the glitter nail polish trick, techniques like that don’t make your laptop tamper-proof, they just discourage people from tampering with them (so they’re tamper-resistant) and they let you know when someone has tampered with it, so they’re tamper-evident. The best protection against tampering is to keep your computer with you at all times and use a machine that isn’t super-important to you.

Between these tips and some similar common sense (don’t let other people use your laptop, don’t use your laptop in sketchy places where you don’t feel safe and comfortable working) you should be able to travel safely and work from your laptop without fear that it’s going to randomly go missing.

Software Security

Ask LH: How Can I Make Sure My Laptop Is Secure While I Travel With It?

Next, it’s time to make sure the data on your laptop is secure as well. Untrusted networks and insecure connections can make this difficult, and unfortunately if your laptop does wind up physically missing, you don’t want it to take all of your precious data with it. Here’s how you can use your laptop with confidence wherever you are, and make sure that data loss isn’t the end of the world:

  • Back up everything before you leave. If you’re worried at all about data security when you travel, the first thing you should do before you leave is back up your data. Back up everything — take a full system image if your laptop, so you can re-image when you get home (or anytime along the way, if you make the image available to download remotely). At the very least, if something happens while you’re travelling, the only information you’ll have actually lost is anything you’ve created while you’re on the road.
  • Cover the basics: Security software, strong password, lock screen, privacy-protecting browser tools. When you’re travelling you’ll be working from strange places, possibly around strange people you may or may not trust. Make sure that you have security software installed, and that it’s up to date. Similarly, make sure your system is protected by a strong password; you’re not using an administrator account (and the admin account is either disabled or protected by a different strong password); that your computer is set to lock when idle or asleep; and that you lock it every time you have to leave it unattended. When using your browser — or any other web-connected tool — make sure you use SSL (HTTPS) and other secure protocols whenever possible. Check out these browser extensions to protect your privacy while you surf.
  • Use a VPN. A reliable (and trustworthy) VPN is your best ally when it comes to making sure your data is secure anywhere you go. VPNs have their drawbacks, but if your security concern is the network you have to use — an airport or library, a hotel with a completely free and open network, or a food court — using a solid VPN can make all the difference. If you’re travelling for work, your company may have a VPN you can use. If not, we have some suggestions.
  • Reinstall or re-image before you leave. Once your data is backed up, consider running a slimmed down version of your operating system and any associated data while you’re travelling. You may even be able to get away with using a live CD while you travel or booting into another operating system (like your favourite flavour of Linux) while you’re working on the road. The best way to make sure you don’t lose important data — or that someone doesn’t get access to it while you’re using free airport Wi-Fi — is to not have it on your machine at all. This also makes you less vulnerable to spyware or other malware — if anything’s detected, blow the system away and reinstall. You have nothing to lose. Travel light.
  • Wipe and re-image along the way, or at least after the trip. Speaking of reinstalling if something goes wrong: if you’re intent on using untrusted networks, you don’t have a choice (the network won’t play nice with your VPN, for example), or you just need the speed of a raw connection to whatever’s available (see: journalists at CES right now), your next bet is to blow away your system on a regular basis and use web-based tools you can get to without installing more than you need. If most of the tools you use are on the web or available as portable apps you can slap on a USB drive or in Dropbox, you don’t need to install anything, or keep any data locally if you don’t have to. Install a fresh, patched up, clean OS, and just hit the road. At the very least, if you’re worried about what you may have contracted while you’re away, format and reinstall before you reconnect it to your home or office network when you return.
  • Encrypt your sensitive data, and keep it off your system if you can. There was a time when encrypting sensitive information was difficult, but it’s really not at this point. Tools such as TrueCrypt making encrypting local files, folders, and volumes easy. BoxCryptor can handle cloud storage like Dropbox. We’ve shown you how to encrypt Dropbox and encrypt local files or even your whole operating system. It’s not hard, and it will make sure a thief or anyone else may get your machine, but not your data.

These methods range from the simple to the effort-intensive, so take them as you see fit, and judge them against the actual risk you think you and your data will face while you’re away from home. Encryption is great, but it may be overkill if you don’t have any data in the first place, and re-imaging your PC regularly while you travel can just waste time and effort if you’re always working on trusted networks around people you know.

These tips should help you keep your laptop in one piece and in your possession, and your data safe from prying eyes or potential thieves while you travel and try to get some work done. Just make sure to keep security and safety in the back of your head, do a little planning, and exercise common sense, and you’ll be fine. Have a safe trip!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I grappled with this issue recently when travelling, and came up with a compromise of the points raised above which has ended up being so convenient that it’s now a permanent solution on my laptop. It’s not fully secure, by any stretch, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

    I bought a 64gb SD card, encrypted the whole thing as a non-system partition/drive and set it to auto-mount on start-up. (I have an SSD so Truecrypt isn’t able to encrypt the system drive, annoyingly). Then I moved my Dropbox to the mounted drive and installed Firefox to the same drive. Then I ran CCleaner to wipe all free space (possibly not required on an SSD, but I did it anyway).

    The pros:
    – It’s convenient. On start-up I enter my normal Windows lockscreen password then my Truecrypt password, and if I do it fast enough then the drive is mounted before Dropbox has started running.I don’t auto-dismount when I sleep/hibernate as I figure to bypass the Windows lockscreen a thief would have to remove the hard-drive/remove the SD card which would trigger the auto-dismount.
    – Firefox opens with Lastpass enabled, so I have all my passwords ready to go.
    – I have access to all of my files, but if anyone takes the SD card out it’s securely encrypted, or if anyone removes my hard-drive and bypasses the Windows lockscreen they don’t have access to my files.

    The cons:
    – I still have Outlook running from the hard-drive, so although it’s an IMAP connection, there’d still no doubt be some records which could be accessed.
    – Temporary files and fragments are probably on the hard-drive; I should really use CCleaner to mitigate these (although they’d still probably be there), but I never got around to it.

    Acknowledging that this solution is certainly a compromise on security, if anyone has any criticisms or improvements please reply to my comment! 🙂

  • Hi – sounds like a great setup. Sorry no criticisms of your setup forthcoming 🙂

    My current “travel-in-the-car-setup” is an old mac laptop with a wireless-battery powered-portable-hard-drive.

    Pros –

    >All internet functionality works; web browsing, viewing photos etc etc (amazing since really old dinosaur powerpc mac ) Have several spare batteries.
    What is a powerpc mac ? ;

    >Wireless hard drive is great for phone/tablet access to files as well.

    Cons –

    >No encryption used.

    >Hmm a lot of other things too I guess but for low level tasks its fine.

  • It’s almost impossible to completely prevent theft. Likely it’ll mostly happen through opportunism. Stealing to order would be rare outside corporate espionage or security agencies.

    If it’s yours, insure it. If it’s your employers, they already will do. Then keep as much as possible (including a backup system image) on the cloud or via VPN. This effectively makes the laptop (near enough) a thin client, and so expendable and easily replaced.

    The important thing is to make sure the thief can’t do anything with it. Especially around passwords, privileged material, etc. But at the same time, any security measures need to not be an inconvenience to the owner.

    My approach
    1. Set a BIOS-level power-on (and supervisor) password
    2. Encrypt the SDD

    This means a thief can’t boot it up. Sure, there are workarounds but require considerable time and effort with the risk of bricking the device. Thereafter, they could stick the SDD in another computer but again, it will be a significant hassle to access anything if even possible at all.

  • This is kind of flawed. Full disk encryption is the missing tip which covers everything that’s not physical theft of the device and transmission security which is the VPN solution.

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