Protecting your laptop, the information contained on it and your internet traffic

When traveling, you’re always using someone else’s internet access – your hotel, a wifi hotspot, an airport. It’s not like being in the security of your own home. Many people don’t realize the information that they send over the internet, either when web browsing or using e-mail, sometimes contains private information that can be damaging to them if someone were to steal it right out of the airwaves. Let’s take a look at some basic precautions when you use your laptop while traveling.

Before leaving home

Your laptop has settings that are applicable when you are working from the security of your own home. If you don’t change some of these settings before you leave on your trip, you’re actually making it easier for someone to target your device when you’re working from your hotel room, in a coffee shop or any unsecured wireless network. Here are some tips to consider prior to leaving home.

Tips to get your laptop ready for your trip

  • Ensure you have a firewall and anti-virus installed on your laptop, they are up to date and turned on. Even a Mac nowadays is susceptible to malware. We have Sophos installed on our Macs. See the Lifehacker article.
  • Set your network location to “public”
  • Disable all “file and printer sharing”
  • Use the “infrastructure networks only” wireless option. This should be automatic on newer laptops.
  • Ensure that all software programs, on your laptop, have the latest release

Browsing the web when you’re on the road

When you’re using an unsecured wireless network, which is probably anywhere you find wi-fi access (e.g. an airport, hotspot, hotel), your communication is susceptible to being viewed by others. You have to be extremely careful when entering sensitive information (e.g. usernames and passwords) on to websites or sending it in an e-mail. People nearby, using wireless eavesdropping equipment, can log all of your internet traffic and steal your information right out of the air. It’s that simple.

Steps to protect your internet communication when using an unsecured wireless network

Assume that your wi-fi access is going to be on an unsecured wireless network. There are several steps you can, and should, take to protect your communication when using these unsecured connections.

  • Make sure the website uses SSL encryption anytime you are transmitting private information such as usernames and passwords – if it does, the website will have an address that begins with https instead of http. In addition, there should be a ‘padlock’ next to the URL in your web browser or in the lower right tray. Most banks and credit card companies already use this technology. Over time, websites like Facebook have added this encryption to their sites. Remember, if you’re going to input sensitive data, that you don’t want someone else to see, make sure the site has an https at the beginning of the web address.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection – this type of connection will encrypt all of your internet traffic. Not all websites will use SSL encryption. In order to protect yourself, and remain anonymous, when using these websites, or just for extra security, use a VPN connection. You might be able to access your company’s VPN if they have one OR there are a number of companies that will provide a VPN connection for a fee. When using a VPN, your internet traffic is encrypted to the VPN’s server and from there goes out anonymous.
  • When searching for available wireless networks, do not connect to a network that indicates it is a “computer to computer network”. This can be a criminal’s hotspot created near you hoping for people to connect to their hotspot and provide personal information such as credit card info, usernames, passwords, etc. Connecting to an “unsecured wireless network” is fine.
  • Keep your laptop programs updated. Do not respond to ‘warnings or notices’ that appear on your screen announcing that an update is needed for one of your programs. Go directly to the update source instead (e.g. the program’s website).
  • Do not access sensitive sites, such as your bank account, credit card accounts or even your e-mail account when using a public computer, for instance, in an internet cafe. The machine could have a keylogger program installed that will track your keystrokes enabling someone to obtain your username and password for the sites you logged onto.
  • Remember to logout before leaving a website that required a username and password (e.g. e-mail, bank, credit card accounts). Some websites automatically log you out after so many minutes of inactivity.
  • Turn off your laptop’s wi-fi connection when you are not connected to the internet.
  • When connecting to a hotel’s hotspot (or any other location’s), make sure you know the name of the hotspot and then connect to that wireless network. If you’re in a restaurant, don’t assume you know the name of their network. Ask for the name and ensure you log onto the correct one.
  • If using a hotspot service (e.g. Boingo), sign-up for the service at home before you travel and not while you are on the road.
  • Clear off your history and cookies at the end of each session.
  • Use different passwords for different sites. Do not use the same password for multiple sites.

Sending e-mails

You should be just as careful when sending e-mails on an unsecured wireless network. Again, people sometimes send sensitive information to others, such as family members, that should be protected.

The primary suggestions are –

  • Use a web-based e-mail service that uses SSL encryption for all e-mails that you send or receive. As an example, the Gmail website (accounts.google.com) uses SSL encryption. When using Gmail, your username, password and e-mail traffic are encrypted. Note that this encrypts your e-mail traffic between your laptop and the Gmail server.
  • If using a software application like Outlook, ensure you configure the server connection settings with SSL enabled. For the incoming server (IMAP), you can use port 993. For the outgoing server (SMTP), you can use port 465. This should enable SSL for your e-mail traffic to and from the e-mail provider’s server.

Addressing additional privacy concerns

In today’s world, it seems like I’m always reading about security breaches involving people’s personal and confidential information. Credit card transactional information is hacked. Password information falls into the wrong hands. What additional steps can we implement to better protect ourselves and our confidential information. If you’re as concerned about this as we are, read the Lifehacker article How to Make Your Entire Internet Life More Secure in One Day. It provides some great food for thought.

Securing your laptop and the information contained on it

Your laptop is one of the most expensive items that you travel with in addition to your camera equipment. In addition, it probably contains confidential information. Here’s some suggestions to help keep it and the information on it secure.

  • Purchase a laptop lock to lock your laptop. A cable, locked into your laptop, is secured to a stationary object. Kensington and Targus manufacture two of the top locks and can be purchased at Office Depot, Staples or online. Top Ten Reviews has a review on laptop locks.
  • Install a program like Absolute Software’s Lojack for Laptops in case the laptop is stolen. The program allows you to determine your laptop’s location, lock it and erase information remotely. Their Theft Recovery Team tries to recover it for you. Another option is to install an app such as Find My Mac (same as Find My iPhone) which allows you to track it, remotely lock it and even send messages to your Mac’s screen. If turned on, the Mac can be located on a map.
  • Encrypt your hard drive, to protect any sensitive data on it, with an app like TrueCrypt. This puts confidential information in a password protected secure file in case someone gains access to your laptop. See Lifehacker’s blog “A Beginner’s Guide to Encryption” for more information about the benefits of encryption and how to set it up.
  • Create strong passwords to help protect the information and data on your laptop. See Microsoft’s tips for Creating a Strong Password
  • Use a laptop privacy screen. This helps to keep the information on your screen a little more private when using your laptop on a train, plane, in an airport or any public place.
  • Carry a USB flash drive that provides data encryption.
  • Consider changing the passwords when you return home.

As you can probably tell, we look to Lifehacker articles for good information about these technical issues. If you looking for more information on this important subject, check out their information at lifehacker.com.