Three Tips to Keep Your Laptop Safe When Traveling

Over the past couple of years, I have moved most of my computing to a laptop. The desktop PC was at the centre of my computing needs for two decades. I had a routine in place for making sure my desktop was running at peak performance. Would that same routine work on my laptop?

Last year I covered my favourite laptops for business travellers. While manufacturers updated several models, the list remains relevant today. If you are looking for a moderately priced business laptop, I will put the HP EliteBook 1040 at the top of my list. The HP provides the ideal balance of performance, features and price. Microsoft is attempting to slot its Surface Book at the high end of the ultrabook segment, but I do not have enough experience with it to recommend at this time.

Once you decide on a laptop, there are some tips you can follow to keep it running in tip-top shape. This week I would like to cover some laptop safety tips I have used during my travels.

Data Security

The very nature of a mobile computing platform introduces many risks to your data. A few of those include:

  1. Theft of your laptop or external storage
  2. Password theft
  3. Data theft due to unsecured networks

More than 12,000 laptops are stolen in airports each week. Airports are unable to return most of them to their owners because they are password protected. The best theft deterrent is to keep your laptop with you at all times. If that’s not possible, using a laptop lock might keep a thief looking for an easier target.

Never configure Windows to bypass the login screen. Hopefully, your IT department has set a group policy that requires a strong password that must be changed every few months. Memorise it, and resist the urge to write it down on a Post-It Note.

That is one severe laptop lock on the HP EliteBook

Using unsecured networks is not something many people understand. When I travel, I often use the WiFI at the airport, coffee shop, convention centre and my hotel as long as it is encrypted with WPA2. It is unlikely that every network I use during my travels has been secured, but that is the risk I take. If you are working with the incredibly sensitive material, then it would be best to avoid unsecured networks altogether.

Drive Encryption

Encrypting your hard drive provides yet another layer of security. If your laptop is stolen, crooks will not be able to access the data on your drive if it has been encrypted. Microsoft began offering built-in drive encryption through a feature called BitLocker. BitLocker has been available on Enterprise and Profession versions of Windows going back to Vista.

You may already be running BitLocker because many companies require it on employee laptops. BitLocker has a few requirements your laptop must meet for it to work correctly. The main condition is that your laptop must include a Trusted Platform Module (TPM). Most laptops geared towards business users will consist of TPM. I have found than sub $800 laptops often to do not include a TPM.

BitLocker is a severe layer of security and should be treated as such. It encrypts your entire hard drive and only decrypts it to load Windows when you enter a password. I have run BitLocker on my laptop for a few years without issues. I heard that encrypted drives experience a 10% to 15% performance hit but never noticed it myself. Please check with your IT department before enabling BitLocker.

Laptop Data Backup

Data backup provider StorageCraft recently polled 41 IT professionals about which machines are most likely to fail and cause data loss for their customers. As you can see, laptops garnered the most concern. Thirty-nine percent of IT pros say that laptops are the machines most likely to fail and cause data loss. Another 27% are concerned about servers, and another 27% of desktops.

Today we demand that our laptops be thin and lightweight, but this also means they are fragile. We stuff them in backpacks, suitcases and briefcases hoping to keep them as safe as possible. We have the best intentions, but travelling can be tough on even the most rugged models. Accidents happen and, unfortunately, that is usually when data loss occurs.

I have a couple of suggestions for minimising data loss. The first is to purchase a laptop with an SSD instead of a mechanical drive. SSDs have no moving parts and are much more reliable than traditional mechanical drives. They also don’t generate as much heat which lessens the burden on your chassis fans and other nearby components like RAM and the CPU. For added security, you may be able to configure your laptop with a secondary SSD.

My other suggestion is to use an online backup service such as File Backup & Recovery. Your company may already partner with such a service. The goal here is to have at least one additional backup of your data residing somewhere besides your laptop. I used to carry a 2TB Seagate USB drive with me when I travelled. That allowed me to create a full backup image using ShadowProtect before I left home. This routine might be overkill to some people, but it provided me with peace of mind.

Other Laptop Safety Tips

There are some other precautions you should take when travelling, for laptop safety. Here are a few other things I learned the hard way over the years:

  1. It is best to avoid installing Windows Updates while you are travelling
  2. Always check to make sure the antivirus is up-to-date and has recently performed a full system scan
  3. Just as I have a mechanic check over my car before taking a road trip, it is wise to perform necessary maintenance on your laptop before a business trip
  4. Heat is the very worst threat to your laptop, followed closely by liquids
  5. If the sides or the bottom of the laptop are hot to the touch, you should confirm that fans are working correctly. A can of compressed air will help remove the dust from the air vents.

Safe travels!

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