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Posted on May 12, 2010 in Data Privacy, PC Data Privacy | 0 comments

Hitting the road with your laptop, best practises for worldwide travelling and working

Laptop use in a cafe

Laptop use while out and about can be convenient and fun, but potentially exposes you to a whole new set of dangers. Photo by Jeffrey Schwartz

Article originally published on laptop-pc-review.com, now re-published here since that site is now defunct.

Let’s face it, none of us are getting any less busy. Being able to work as we travel is one of the big advantages of laptops and other portable computers. Now that we are increasingly encouraged to shun super fast air travel in favour of slower but more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as trains, there’s even more travel time that we can use productively if we take our trusty laptops along with us. Taking your computer and your work outside the office brings a whole new set of risks and potential dangers. So, before you hit the road, make sure you know what to look out for.

Choosing a laptop for working away

As with buying any PC, choosing a laptop for working away really depends on what you want to do while you are on the move. If you plan on creating (or playing) the latest 3D games, then only a top of the line gaming laptop will do. However, for most of us who simply want to run office type applications, a modest laptop is more than enough. Along with the usual concerns such as memory, hard disk space, processor speed and graphical capability, consider several other factors before choosing your portable companion:-

  • Size:- That 19 inch widescreen notebook looks very cool in the shop, but the bigger the laptop the heavier and more cumbersome it will be to transport. If you can work with a smaller screen, then you’ll have a much easier time transporting your laptop. Laptops with a screen size of 12 inches or under will often fit inside a safety deposit box, the kind that are usually found in hotel rooms in Europe. This is great for added piece of mind as most hotels now waive responsibility for any items which go missing from their guests rooms.
  • Weight:- As with size, carrying a heavier laptop means more bulk and more discomfort. Some airlines have a limit on the weight of carry-on baggage so be wary of very heavy laptops, especially if there are other bulky items in your bag.
  • Durability:- This one depends on where you are travelling to and what you plan to do when you get there. Regular trips only need a regular laptop kept safe inside a padded carry case. On the other hand, if your going to be working outdoors, or in a busy workshop, or reporting from the Antarctic, you might need a laptop that can cope with more extreme environments. The Panasonic Toughbook is particularly robust and well loved amongst field engineers and will survive even the harshest environments.
  • Cost:- Of course, budget is always going to be a concern for all but the richest travellers. When it comes to travelling with your laptop, however, you need to remember that even if you are the most careful traveller, your laptop is much more likely to get lost, stolen or damaged while you are on the road than it ever is sitting in your home or office.

I’m often teased for personally owning more computers than most families, but I am a big believer in the less expensive ‘travellers laptop’. Refurbished, second hand laptops that were top-spec a year or two ago are still more than adequate for my needs when I’m on the road and what’s more they can be picked up for under £200/$250 on E-bay or similar sites. Losing or damaging a £200 laptop hurts a lot less than losing a £800 one. A word of warning however, older laptops sometimes come with batteries that don’t hold their charge very well, so be sure to check the auction details carefully before parting with your money.

If you do need a higher spec laptop as you travel, you should make sure that your insurance will cover loss or damage to a more expensive piece of technology.

So, you’ve chosen your perfect travel companion and you are ready to hit the road. Well, not just yet, there’s a few more things to consider before we go.

Using unsecured networks

At home you might have configured your network with good, strong encryption and a reasonable hardware firewall, but when you travel you can make no such assumptions about the networks you connect to. Remember, networks are a two way thing, you might be accessing the internet while someone else is accessing your PC, stealing your documents.

If you are going to use a public network point, either wired or wireless, make sure you are running a firewall. Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 all come with firewalls built in, but many users (especially XP users) prefer a greater level of security. There are lots of good free firewalls, but my personal favourite is Bitdefender Internet Security. This is a firewall and antivirus combined and strikes a good balance between security and convenience.

When your firewall detects a new network, it will usually ask you if you want strict protection, or if you want to enable sharing. Always choose “strict protection”. You don’t want strangers on the network to be browsing your shared documents. Furthermore, even if you encrypt your laptop, you should still password protect your login. This way, if anyone does manage to get past your firewall, they still have the obstacle of knowing the correct password before they can enter any shared folders on your PC. Remember, even if you encrypt your whole hard drive, while you are using your PC your folders are all unlocked, they won’t lock themselves again until you shut down your machine, so you’re still vulnerable to hackers while the machine is powered on.

Even with a firewall, data you send over a public or untrusted Wi-Fi network is still vulnerable to being snooped or eavesdropped on. More sophisticated hacking techniques can intercept traffic and spoof websites. Think you are logging into your bank or your e-mail account? Not if a devious hacker is sitting in the cafe with you. Secure VPN (virtual private network) connections can protect against this type of attack. Your company may be able to configure one for you or, alternatively, iVPN offer subscriptions to one of the strongest privacy and anonymity VPN networks currently available and have excellent customer support.

There’s a short article on Microsoft.com about using public networks, with more information if you need it.

Whole disk encryption

Plan for the worst, hope for the best. I’m not sure who first coined that phrase, but it’s not a bad thing to do when you travel. At one time, software to encrypt your entire computer was prohibitively expensive. Now, it can be done easily and all for free. Having your laptop lost or stolen is bad enough, knowing that the thieves will have access to your private data is even worse. Keep them out with Truecrypt, you can learn all about how to install it here. Note that Truecrypt is unfortunately not fully compatible with Windows 8 and newer computers that use the new UEFI boot system. On more modern laptops you can use DriveCrypt Plus. Sadly this product can be prohibitively expensive at 125 Euros.

Customs proofing

Unfortunately, some parts of the world we might be forced to travel to don’t have the best records when it comes to protecting travellers privacy. Border agencies in the US and the United Kindom, amongst other countries, can now seize and search laptops without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion, to say nothing of what the authorities in other countries might do.

The first course of action is to back up any valuable data, preferably via the internet onto a secure server, so you can obtain it easily if your laptop is taken for any reason. If you have no internet connection, a USB flash drive might suffice, although this could easily be seized too. Finally, if you are very concerned about your data being snooped on, you can now install a hidden operating system with Truecrypt. In this system, you have a regular operating system and a decoy. Should a nosey customs officer demand you decrypt your laptop, you can then simply unlock the decoy. It all sounds a little James Bond, but sadly many people are beginning to think that such measures are necessary thanks to heavy handed government agencies. We’ll make you aware of the risks, so you can make up your own mind. For more on this controversial subject, visit this site.

Backup

Backup on the go is just as important as backup in your regular office, but somewhat more tricky. If you have internet access, you can backup your most important documents using one of the many on-line backup services (such as Mozy or Idrive Choose one with an encrypted connection and set up your account before you travel, since you’ll be using a network connection you can’t fully trust.

If you’re not able to connect to the internet, backups can still be done to a USB flash drive. Our favourite USB flash drive is the IronKey. Keep it safe and separate from your laptop whenever you can. If you are planning an extended trip, you might want to take a spare hard drive along with you. Make regular overnight image backups and in the event of a disaster you’ll be able to swap hard drives and continue computing with minimal fuss (assuming you remember to pack your screwdriver).

So, now you know some of the dangers the travelling laptop user can encounter and what to to to mitigate them. I hope this article has not put you off taking your laptop on your next trip. Your laptop can be a great companion with a few music files or video files on the hard drive to help the boring nights or journeys pass by a little quicker. It is certainly more convenient than taking huge piles of paper. With a few extra precautions there’s no reason why you can’t travel safely with your portable PC, bon voyage!

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