Travel tech security tips

Travel tech security tips

Summary: Whether you like holidaying with your gadgets or you're required to travel for work, there's going to come a time when you have to consider the safety of your gear, or the data it holds.


On the ground

Laptop security

Your most secret of electronic secrets will likely be kept on your laptop. The bad news is that most off-the-shelf encryption tools can be hacked, given enough time. The good news is that only the most sought-after data will attract that kind of attention.

In reality, inserting a few basic passwords will add enough effort to deter most thieves from investigating too deeply, and hopefully encourage them to simply wipe your hard drive clean before heading down to the local pawn shop. Let's look at some of the passwords you can use.

  1. Windows log-in — the Windows log-in password can be easily circumvented, and should not be your only line of defence. However, having this in place is the first step you should take.

  2. Set a BIOS password — you can make the process of circumventing a Windows password more difficult by adding a BIOS password to your computer as well. A BIOS password will prompt a user before Windows can even start to load. Accessing the BIOS is usually done by pressing the F2 or Delete key when your computer starts to boot up.

    Warning: make sure you consult your motherboard manual before poking around in the BIOS. Incorrect changes to the BIOS can cause irreparable damage to your computer.

  3. secure laptop
    (Tablet PC 2 image by Manu Mohan and Padlock image by Afonso Lima, royalty free)
  4. Use Bitlocker — if you're using one of the high-end versions of Windows (Windows Vista Ultimate or Windows 7 Ultimate), you'll get Bitlocker for free. Bitlocker will encrypt your entire drive, making it very difficult for anyone but the extremely clever or persistent to access your files.

  5. Use the cloud — one way to stop your data from being accessed when a laptop is stolen is to remove it completely from the equation by not storing the data on your device. Secure cloud storage could be a viable option if you're particularly concerned about losing your hardware.

  6. Use hardware encryption — get yourself a hard drive with hardware encryption. These come in both external and internal varieties, and will add an extra layer of protection. However, unless you're carrying around corporate secrets, it's probably not necessary to take things this far.

Phone and tablet security

Mobile operating systems like Google's Android and Apple's iOS offer considerably fewer protective options. However, if you do plan to keep private files on a tablet or phone, you may want to consider some of the following steps.

  1. Set your lock time to immediately lock your device — most tablets and phones have a timer to lock themselves once the screen has been turned off. This allows you to gain quick access without having to constantly enter the PIN. However, if your phone or tablet is snatched, that time could be all that's needed to access your information unhindered. Set your phone or tablet to lock immediately. It's less convenient, but safer.

  2. Lock your SIM card — while you can lock your phone, an additional security measure is to set up a PIN for your SIM card. That way, if thieves can't gain access to your phone, they will also be unable to use your SIM on another device and rack up an expensive phone bill.

  3. Use an alpha-numeric password where possible — alpha-numeric passwords are the hardest to crack; they're harder to read over someone's shoulder than a four-digit PIN, and they don't leave greasy finger marks behind like pattern locks do.

  4. Use a secret folder app — both the Google Play store and Apple's App Store have a variety of apps such as Folder Lock, My Secret Folder, and Vaulty that hide private files.

  5. Subscribe to "Find My iPhone" or an alternative remote service — Find My iPhone is a service that allows you to track and wipe your iPhone remotely. Alternatives are available for other mobile operating systems, such as Where's My Droid for Android.

Public Wi-Fi

(Computer therms 2 image by Svilen Milev, royalty free)

Public Wi-Fi is a minefield of dangers, but a few simple steps can minimise your risk.

  1. Assume the worst — that no public Wi-Fi is safe. Never do any online banking or shopping unless you're at home, so that you minimise the chance that anyone will get your credit card or bank details.

  2. Stay secure — if you must access accounts that contain important information, ensure that you're on a secured network. Avoid using free Wi-Fi, and confirm the official Wi-Fi network ID with the cafe or Wi-Fi vendor. Thieves will broadcast false networks with names you trust to snag unsuspecting internet goers. Also, if possible, choose networks that have WPA2 and WPA encryption.

  3. Set up a firewall — most modern operating systems ship with an included firewall. Ensure that your firewall is turned on and set to ignore any incoming requests.

  4. Stick to HTTPS — only trust websites using a secure HTTPS connection. You can check whether a website is using HTTPS in the browser's address bar, or by checking that the padlock symbol is showing.

  5. Use a virtual private network (VPN) — if you're particularly paranoid, you can use a VPN. A VPN such as Hotspot Shield will make you invisible while you surf on public Wi-Fi.

Public computers

Public computers are hotbeds of potential fraud. Of most concern is the fact that you can't know what's installed on a public computer, or who has used it before you. Avoid using public computers when sending important information, and follow these steps to help protect you when a public computer is all you've got.

  1. Leave nothing behind — clear the cache and cookies, the browsing history, and, where possible, use private browsing to help erase your tracks. Never save your passwords. Also, when you're done, reboot the PC, as it will clear out the RAM.

  2. Don't type passwords — keyloggers track your keystrokes, and any public computer could easily have a keylogger installed. If you must enter passwords, try using an onscreen keyboard, or register with an online password manager to avoid sending keyboard strokes with log-in information directly to digital aggressors.

  3. Use a portable browser — portable versions of popular browsers like Firefox and Chrome are available and can be installed on a secure USB key that you can take with you. As well as being a more secure way to browse on a public computer, they have the advantage of bringing your shortcuts and favourites along for the ride, too.

  4. Don't forget to log out — it's a very simple thing to forget, so always make a mental note to ensure that you've logged out of everything you signed in to while on the PC.

  5. Avoid online banking or entering your credit card details — there is never a good time to do online banking or use your credit card on a public PC. If you need to transfer money, find out your account balance, or make any other kind of transaction, visit an ATM or bank branch and save yourself any possible heartache from using an unsecure PC. The same applies for entering your credit card details; just leave that online shopping for when you are in a more secure environment.

Topics: Travel Tech, Security

Irene Mickaiel

About Irene Mickaiel

Irene is product manager in Australia for CBS Interactive sites such as CNET Australia, GameSpot,, ZDNet and TechRepublic. Before Irene became hooked on IT media, she worked on illustrated reference, lifestyle and education books.

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  • Interesting Article...

    Not every single item applies to every single person, but it is a good reminder to be vigilant. I would also say that flying first class can help avoid many of these issues as well. You usually get a separate lounge to wait in and on many flights are in a completely different part of the cabin than others. The chances of a thief paying for a first class ticket is a lot less likely.

    The one item that I disagree with is "Regularly back up your memory cards to USB drives or DVDs, and mail a copy home."
    You should use an online photo service that will let you redownload full resolution images (SmugMug is a great one) and backup nightly to it (yes, using public WiFi if necessary). This avoids the possibility of the mail getting lost or stolen.
  • Backup to cloud or disc

    That's a fair point and a very good idea. Of course, I have been in many towns in poorer countries where finding a computer with Internet is one thing, but uploading even a single high-res image is unthinkable.

    Oh how I wish I could add flying first class to my preventative steps ha!