Safeguard Your Laptop When You're Away From Home

By Ronald Pacchiano

April 04, 2006

Wireless networks and Internet cafes have made it more convenient than ever for road warriors to get online, but this convenience often comes at price. Here are some tips to keep your data safe while you're on the move.

Wireless networks and Internet cafes have made it more convenient than ever for the laptop-wielding road warrior to get online, but as the saying goes "nobody rides for free." You pay a price for this convenience and if you're not careful, it could be a high one. Wireless hotspots are a hotbed for snooping and hacking. Malcontents clandestinely monitor wireless communications looking for any weakness in your security that would allow them to intercept whatever information you are broadcasting. In fact, without the proper protection, you could be broadcasting important business secrets and personal passwords to the guy sitting two tables over.

If you're accessing sensitive business files from a remote location, security is paramount. Without it, snoopers and hackers can follow you right into your network as easily as following a trail of breadcrumbs. Should that happen, you risk losing sensitive files or having your network brought down. Worse still, thieves could use the information to steal your identity.

While security is a problem for everyone, if you work out of remote locations, like hotels and cafes, you're at even more of a risk. Not only do you risk losing data through wireless communications, but according to a Safeware Insurance survey, more then 600,000 laptop were stolen in 2004 alone.

So this leads to the obvious question, how do you prevent your information from falling into unauthorized hands? You could stay off of the Internet entirely, but, in most cases, that's just not practical. And let's face it, no matter how careful you are, whenever you travel with a laptop there is always a chance that it could be lost or stolen. Thankfully, though, there are many companies out there that offer data encryption tools that should help minimize the risk to mobile warriors. Let's take a look at some of the options available to you for protecting your precious data.

Protecting the Files on Your Notebook
Let's start with the physical side of things. For starters, one of the simplest and easiest precautions to take is to set up a BIOS-based password on your system. This password needs to be entered as soon as the PC is booted. Another simple option is to set up a Windows user password. This would prevent an unauthorized person from gaining access to your personal data. Neither of these methods is foolproof mind you, but they are already on your system and easy to implement.

Encrypting ] the data on your hard drive is a stronger solution. Fortunately, there are a number of software-based solutions on the market that will encrypt files on your notebook's hard drive so that prying eyes can't see them. These range from symmetrical key-based solutions to encrypted zip storage solutions. A symmetrical key solution is one that uses the same encryption "key" to encode and decode files on your hard drive. The key itself is password-protected, which prevents anyone without the password from viewing these files.

One of the best encryption packages we know of comes from the PGP Corp. PGP offers both a home and a professional desktop package that provides encryption for your entire system. Its Virtual disk feature secures files, folders, [USB] drives and CDs. It automatically encrypts mail and digitally signs your e-mail and attachments, plus it will even secure your AOL IM sessions. The only downside to this system is that it can be a bit expensive ($99 for the home version and roughly $200-$250 for the professional version), but if you're looking for security, this is one of the best ways to goes.

A less-expensive solution is to compress confidential files on your hard drive and encrypt them during the compression process. Many of today's compression utilities (e.g., WinZip, BitZipper) feature advanced encryption capabilities that prevent compressed files from being viewed without the encryption key. This isn't an ideal solution if you're frequently accessing these files on your hard drive, since you don't want to compress and uncompress them every time you work on them, but it's a great solution for archived files and large files that you want to send over the Net. When sending compressed, encrypted files as an e-mail attachment, the recipient doesn't necessarily need the original compression application to open the file, as many of the latest compression utilities are compatible.

The Wireless Guardian
Now let's talk a bit about protecting your wireless communications. Although there are tools that can alert you when someone is trying to peek at your files and e-mails, the best defense is seamless data encryption. Some e-mail applications feature built-in data encryption, others don't, so check with your e-mail application vendor before deciding what gaps you need to fill.

For the best protection, 128-bit or higher AES [(Advanced Encryption Standard)] protection is virtually impossible to crack. It places an impenetrable wall of encryption around the data you send and receive online, from e-mails to passwords.

Using instant messaging in a public [Wi-Fi] area is a more risky proposition, though presumably you're not using IM to communicate business secrets. Software tools can provide some level of security during public IM sessions (as we previously mentioned), but only if the person on the other end is using IM protection, too.

In addition to AES, one of the most powerful tools available to the mobile warrior is a Virtual Private Network or VPN. A VPN acts like a private tunnel connecting two or more points across the Internet. All data sent back and forth over the VPN is encrypted, including the destination and sender information, making it nearly impossible (or at least extremely unlikely) that any unauthorized person would be able to intercept them.

In order to provide privacy on the Internet, VPNs address security at three different places: on the client side (i.e. the remote user), during the actual transmission of data over the Internet, and at the gateway of the network itself. Using a VPN, employees can log onto a LAN from anywhere in the world, safely and securely with the same speed and convenience as if they were actually sitting there in the office. In this way, mobility doesn't cost you productivity.

The Internet is the world's largest network, but it's also the world's least private network. By combining various security measures with a bit of common sense, you could be ensured that your data will be safe and secure regardless of whether your sitting at your desk or if your relaxing at your favorite coffee shop.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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