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Global Issues: Laptop Security

What should you do to protect your data if you lose your laptop on the road?

Those of us who travel a great deal for business tend to become a bit numb to news reports of stolen laptops. Upon hearing of such incidents, we think briefly of the proprietary business information contained on our own laptops…then quickly move on to thinking about something else.

But let's revisit the subject: When was the last time you backed up your laptop? Two weeks ago? A month ago? Longer? What kind of trouble would you get into if the critical business information contained on said laptop was compromised? What if you rented a car on a business trip and left your laptop in the locked truck, only to come back later and find the car gone?

Hopefully, I now have your attention. Let's look at some realities:

• In its 2008 report, the Computer Security Institute reported that, of 69 major corporations surveyed, 42 percent experience major losses from laptop theft. CSI also found the average major company had 640 laptops, 1,985 memory sticks, 1,075 smart phones, and 1,324 other data devices stolen.

• Damage to laptops continues to be the number one cause of most insurance claims.

• Theft is the number two cause of most insurance claims.

• According to Dell & Ponemon, 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports each week, and most are never returned.

• The problem of laptop theft in developing countries is roughly double that of the U.S. level, because thieves want to steal laptops from foreign executives—not only for the resale of the laptop itself, but to sell sensitive information to competitors.

Many U.S. business travelers are simply too complacent about laptop security, and most companies rarely conduct a compromise assessment when a laptop has been stolen. If you haven't thought about the security of your laptop lately, here are some strategies to consider:

1. If you travel with a laptop, cell phone/PDA, MP3 player, digital camera, flash drives, external hard drives, or a camcorder, insure this equipment for accidental damages or losses. Before you leave home, ensure electronic components are covered by your homeowner's policy, renter's insurance, or special travel insurance.

2. Consider taping your name, address, phone and cell numbers, and e-mail address (or your business card) on your laptop, along with a note offering a reward for its return. This could help you recover the laptop if it is lost, and it will discourage fencing.

3. Always carry a laptop in a padded protective sleeve in a zippered bag. I have seen travelers carry laptops without a sleeve in open tote bags or under their arms while walking through airports. I’ve also seen numerous laptops dropped in airports and on aircraft, sabotaging a business trip.

4. While traveling on airplanes, waiting for flights, or in cafes while working on your laptop, be cautious of people glancing at your screen if you are working on proprietary files. I prefer using 3M privacy filters, which will prevent others from reading your work.

5. Contrary to popular belief, a password doesn't secure your laptop. The only way to increase the security of your laptop is to purchase software designed to safeguard access to your folders and files.

6. Do not travel on business without a firewall, comprehensive antivirus software, and high-level security on your wireless configuration.

7. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient, but imagine the number of hackers at airports, hotels, and coffee shops. If your laptop's wireless configuration is secure, the following two websites will help you find free Wi-Fi zones: www.jiwire.com/hotspots and www.wififreespot.com.

8. Do not leave your laptop unattended in fee-based airline hospitality lounges. Criminals often rent a mailbox, join an airline club, and buy a cheap ticket for admittance to the passenger--only area to gain access to unattended luggage and laptops.

9. Do not place your laptop, MP3 player, or other electronics in the aircraft's seat pocket in front of you, where they could be easily forgotten.

10. Purchase a backup battery for your laptop to ensure available power. Purchase a cable that allows you to connect to the seat power systems on many airliners.

11. Use a cable lock on your laptop. Almost 80 percent of laptops come with a security port that, when used with a cable lock, will secure them to a heavy piece of furniture.

12. Ensure your laptop power supplies are dual voltage. If not, bring the proper plugs so that you can recharge your computer (if traveling abroad).

13. Do not take a conventional black laptop bag overseas. These bags scream, "Take me!" Purchase a padded backpack instead.

14. If you use a laptop that stores trade secrets, client lists, business strategies, and/or proposals, consider encryption software. Remember that many intelligence services, even in friendly countries, often enter your hotel room in order to dupe a mirror image of your hard drive. If encryption software is not an option, carry a travel laptop with only MS Office and applications you absolutely need. Do not place your working files on the laptop. Rather, keep files on a large-capacity flash drive you can use on the laptop when needed. Assume calls made from your hotel room are monitored.

Also realize that in countries where governmental and corporate spies are in too large of a supply, using your Blackberry or similar device can place all of your data in jeopardy. Alternatively, take your U.S.-based phone with you to use the data (with the phone off), and use a quad-band, unlocked phone for daily use.

15. Finally, don't place your organization's Intranet in the auto-log-on mode. If your laptop is stolen, your employer's entire system could be at risk.

Editor's Note: There are lots of resources for professionals looking to keep their data safe and secure. Read Ed Lee's recommended "Laptop Security Resources."

Ed Lee is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and Regional Security Officer (RSO) who spent most of his life abroad, protecting U.S. diplomats and American business executives. He is the author of Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working & Living in a Post-9/11 World. He can be reached at ed@sbrisksolutions.com.