Harvard Business Online

Securing Your Laptop in Public Places


Posted on Work Smarter: October 5, 2009 11:21 AM

When you're working offsite, whether at a client's office or the local coffee shop, you've got to protect your laptop, whether from physical theft or the nosy cyber-snoop who's trying to flip through your iTunes library (or worse). While your company has probably provided you with a VPN to securely connect to their internal network, what about your personal passwords and local files? Let's take a look at a few good habits to get into for safe laptop computing, and then some more advanced tactics.

The Basics: Best Practices

Every laptop user should have a healthy paranoia about the possibility of getting their notebook stolen or hacked while they're using a public Wi-Fi network at the airport or coffeehouse. Stay circumspect and use some of the tools built into your notebook's operating system to keep yourself safe.

Turn on your firewall. When you're on an open Wi-Fi network, make sure you have your laptop's firewall on and blocking unwanted incoming connections. In Windows' Control Panel, click on Windows Firewall. On your Mac, in System Preferences, go to Security and click on the Firewall tab to turn it on.

Password protect—or unshare—shared folders. When you're at home, sharing a document folder with other computers behind your firewall is a fine idea. But when you're out and about, you may not want everyone to be able to see your collection of family vacation photos. Make sure your shared folders are password protected when you're not on a safe network. Even better, turn off all sharing when you're on a public network.

Use https (secure connections to web sites) whenever possible. When you're checking your webmail like Gmail or Yahoo Mail, or visiting any site with the option, make sure you're using the https:// (instead of http://) connection to encrypt any information you submit there, like your password. Most modern webmail and calendar programs like Gmail and Google Calendar offer an https:// option.

Don't save your web site passwords in your browser without encrypting them. Sure, if you save your web site passwords inside your browser, you save a whole lot of time. However, if a thief, co-worker, or relative uses your computer, it's also dead simple for that person to log into your accounts. Three weeks ago I ran down how to secure your browser's saved passwords with an encrypted master password—do it.

Lock down your laptop with an actual lock. If you work in a public place often and tend to leave your laptop unattended, invest $15 to $30 on a physical laptop lock to anchor your notebook to the desk. It's a simple way to deter thieves.

Always have a current backup of your important data. Backing up your computer will help you restore things in the event of theft or a hard drive crash or coffee spill. When your laptop is docked back at home or the office, use an external hard drive to back up your documents. If you're constantly on the go, a remote backup service like Mozy or Carbonite works over the internet in the background, and can restore your files from anywhere.

Run anti-virus and malware protection software. Like a backup system, this is a best practice for all computers, not just your laptop. Just last week Microsoft released their new and free Security Essentials software. Download that and scan your notebook on a regular basis.

Advanced Security

The super-paranoid and technically-inclined can use hacker-level techniques for locking down files and disks. Those include:

Encrypting folders and disks. Using free tools you can encrypt an entire hard drive or just a folder full of files. When you encrypt data, you use a secret key to scramble it into an unreadable format, which foils any thieves' attempts to read your private files. To decrypt it, you need a master password. On a Mac, you can create an encrypted disk image by using the Disk Utility application. Macs also come with File Vault (in System Preferences, Security), which encrypts your home folders' contents keeping unwanted eyes out. Windows Vista and the upcoming Windows 7 offers BitLocker, a data encryption application. Alternately, you can use a free utility called TrueCrypt to encrypt a folder or drive.

Securing your network traffic via an SSH tunnel. Another common technique among the tech elite is the use of an SSH tunnel, or a secure connection to an outside computer (like your home server or office computer) to connect to the internet. From the network you're already on, it looks like you're sending encrypted information to a single destination; in reality, you're using a trusted remote server as a proxy for all your network activity. Here's more on how to encrypt your web browsing session with an SSH SOCKS proxy.

What precautions do you take while you're computing on the go? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani is the founding editor of Lifehacker.com, a daily blog on software and personal productivity. Gina also authored a book based on the website which is in its second edition: Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better (Wiley, 2008). Her articles have appeared in Popular Science, Wired, Women's Health, PC World, and Macworld magazines.

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