Travelers going through security airlines everywhere in the US may have their laptops searched or confiscated by the TSA for any reason. Other countries like England, Israel, and many more can do the same.

Password protecting your laptop won’t help either because if you don’t provide it when asked they’ll keep the machine. (And just crack it later.)

Fortunately for us there is powerful and free technology that can not only protect your files but make it look like you aren’t – no matter what skill level you possess.

Create An Encrypted Folder – Download the powerful Truecrypt and create an encrypted volume by following a simple wizard. Then copy all of your personal files there.

  • What Is It? A Truecrypt volume is an encrypted folder that can only be opened with a password.
  • Skill Level Required: Intermediate

  • Keep In Mind: Use a complicated and long password that doesn’t involve names or common words. Can’t think of one? Make it up.

(Really) Delete Old Files – Get a hold of Eraser, the small utility that wipes clean any data you have deleted and empty out the contents of your recycle/trash bin.

  • What Is It? Clicking the ‘delete’ key and removing files from the recycle bin don’t actually get rid of the files, but obscures them – and they’re relatively easy to recover. Eraser (and programs like it) wipe all of the leftover information for good.
  • Skill Level Required: Beginner
  • Keep In Mind: Not to erase your entire hard drive.
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Hide Files In Virtual Machines – This technique won’t prevent the TSA from removing your laptop hard drive or a throughout search but is a easy way to quickly hide files, even if you have to give up your computer password. Download VirtualPC and install another copy of your OS as a virtual machine, which is like having a computer within a computer. You can drag files to and from the separate entities, which won’t be searchable between each other. Most TSA authorities doing a quick search by taking your laptop for a few an hour or so won’t know to look for files within the virtual machines.

  • What Is It? A virtual machine is a little computer running inside of your computer.
  • Skill Level Required: Advanced
  • Keep In Mind: Won’t prevent a determined official from getting to your data, so either encrypted files your don’t want the government to see, or leave them at home.
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A good way to protect your data on your laptop and not lose it at the same time is to keep it separate from the laptop itself. There are some easy and quick ways to do this.

  • Store Files on your iPod using DiskAid.
  • Hide files on a USB stick in your suitcase.
  • Burn them on a CD and label it “[your favorite band] mix”

I’d recommend that any traveler with a laptop fully encrypt their hard drives (using TrueCrypt) before leaving for the airport. The safest bet is to not bring a laptop with you. Burn all of your really sensitive files to a DVD and leave them at home. Bring along these 12 applications for travelers that fit on a USB drive and surf the web safely at Internet cafes.

[photo by: Dave Malkoff]