In Part 1 we started with the basics of protecting your laptop – physical security. Now that your laptop is safety locked up and under your watchful eyes it’s time to protect the data inside of your digital best friend. The information on your laptop says a lot about you and the data on your hard drive is worth much more than the physical machine.

lego on laptop

Luckily these days encryption is very strong, in some cases stealthy, and potentially very effective. The problem is that hardly anyone does it.

matrix codeEncrypting Your Data- The Basics

Even if you’ve locked your computer with a password, the data on your hard drive is not coded or protected in any way. That means if someone steals your laptop and pops the hard drive out, they can see all of your files and use them. It’s easy to encrypt (code) your data to make it unreadable to most attackers.

  • FileVault (Mac): You can automatically encrypt your home folder using FileVault (System > Security > FileVault), which is built right into the operating system.
  • TrueCrypt (Windows, Mac, Linux): Free software that can encrypt your entire hard drive or create an encrypted section of your disk for your important files and folders.

For those of you using Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate editions you can use BitLocker, which is built right into the operating system. Of all these methods though, TrueCrypt is my favorite free software alternative since it’s the easiest to set up and places the fewest limitations on your system (FileVault and print sharing don’t play well for example). To effectively use these encryption schemes you’ll need to pick a good password – a really good one. More on that below.

police pugHiding From The Cops and Customs Agents

Encryption is great and all but when traveling your laptop is under scrutiny and laws that change across borders. Even in the US, customs agents can (legally) demand your laptop password to inspect your hard drive.

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Inspection of laptops is more common than you may realize in many parts of the world by law enforcement. It’s a good idea to create a hidden folder (described in the tutorial above) to hide those sensitive files and pictures in case the law decides to get download happy.

Keep Good Passwords

One of the weakest points of security on the road is that people pick terrible passwords. Make your passwords and your life easier by using a program to help you create strong passwords. What is a strong password? Anything that’s randomly generated and 8-20 characters will cut it for most cases.

  • KeePassX (Windows, Mac, Linux, mobile devices) – KeePassX is a free program that will store all of your account names and passwords. You just need to remember a single password to unlock KeePassX which also can generate random passwords up to as many characters as you’d like. Pick random passwords that are at least 8 characters.
    • KeePassX also integrates with Firefox and Internet Explorer if you use these 8 KeePassX plugins.
  • Password Safe (Windows, Mac, Linux) – An alternative to KeePassX, also generates passwords.

Now that you know how to create good, random passwords go ahead and create a separate one for each of your accounts. That includes Twitter, your email account, Facebook – all of them. Someone looking to steal your data, money, or identity typically just looks for one password since most people use the same one for all of their accounts.

private browsingSharing Your Laptop

Being the good hostel-mate that you are chances are you’ll be letting someone ‘borrow’ your laptop for a quick email. Here’s how you can make sure that they don’t inadvertently read your email or change your browser settings.

  • Start Private Browsing in Firefox(Tools > Private Browsing) – This will sign you out of any sessions (open accounts) you happen to be in and also make things a bit more private for your friend too since Private Browsing mode won’t leave a trace of passwords or other history information.
    • Internet Explorer users can do the same by opening a new tab and selecting “Browse with InPrivate”.
  • Temporarily Turn Off Auto-Complete – “Autocompletion” is when you start typing the first few letters of an account name in a window and the browser finishes the rest for you. You can temporarily turn the feature off in Firefox with the AutoComplete plugin and in Internet Explorer Tools > Internet Options > Content > Autocomplete
  • You can also try downloading a separate browser just for other people to use. Firefox and Opera are free to download.
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The private browsing modes of the browsers are also a good idea if you’re at an Internet cafe or are the person borrowing the laptop. If you’re especially paranoid about someone else seeing those “sites” you’ve been to, you can also turn off URL suggestions in Firefox.

Your Laptop Is Set…Well, Not Quite

Your laptop security extends way beyond the hard drive sitting in front of you. Much of your data is strewn across the web whether you like it or not but you can take a few steps to securing it as well. In Part 3 tomorrow I’ll go into securing your online presence and accounts; but before you move on, take a second look at the section on passwords. A good password goes a long way.

Continue with Part 3 of this series.

[photos by: FHKE (lego man), My Melting Brain (matrix code), Gwen’s River City Images (police kid and dog), deepwarren (hand to camera)]