What does a “laptop ban” mean for your devices’ security and safety?

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the UK Department for Transport recently announced that airline passengers from a number of countries will no longer be allowed to travel with electronic devices over a certain size.

There is, allegedly, credible intelligence that terrorist groups may be targeting commercial airlines. The U.S. government has deemed the threat information “substantiated” and “credible,” according to recent articles, while the UK government states that the “top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals.”

As someone who travels frequently for work and pleasure, I am very familiar with the inconvenience not being able to have your device at your side will cause many people. I have heard friends and colleagues making numerous comments – they are unable to work on a plane, or they would breach company policy by checking in a laptop. One of them even wonders how he will entertain his children on a long flight.

Airlines such as Emirates are lending passengers a Microsoft Surface tablet to use on flights from Dubai. Emirates allows you to keep your own device right up to the gate, where it’s carefully packed into a box and loaded in the hold. If the ban continues, then I think we can expect other airlines to follow this example.

As both business travelers and tourists take to the skies over the coming months, what should we do to protect our devices and data?

Your device could be subject to damage—or worse, become a lost baggage statistic. When you check in, the baggage goes off on a journey of its own, being shuffled on and off conveyor belts and thrown around on trucks and planes. Packing the device well is essential. I recently returned a laptop to Dell for repair and the company sent a box to transport it in. The box was not large and contained minimal packing material. I am sure the courier service tossed the device around just as much as the baggage handlers did.

Could your device be accessed or hacked?

Whenever your device leaves your side, then it is subject to unauthorized access that could result in the theft of data or infection with malware and spyware. The introduction of an infected USB key to the machine could result in keylogging or malicious code being loaded for use at a later time.

Consider your risk for a moment and keep some perspective. You check into a hotel and the staff takes your bags and delivers them to your room. You go out to dinner and leave your device in the room. There are many opportunities in everyday life for theft, damage and even infection to happen without ever going near an airport.

What can you do to protect your device when you are separated from it?

  1. Back up the device before traveling. This should be a regular task, but unfortunately many of us neglect to do this on a frequent basis.
  2. Password protect the devices. In fact, all the devices should already be protected with a password as standard practice.
  3. Encrypt the device – whether you store data or just have access to your email, encryption will protect the contents of your device from unauthorized access. If someone steals the device, he or she may be able to reload or reset it, but will be unable to access what was encrypted, keeping your data and settings secure.
  4. Seal the device in a tamper-proof bag. You will at least know if anyone has accessed the device, or attempted to do so, while it was out of your possession. 
  5. Your IT department may have a policy of providing a “burner” device if they know you will be separated from the device during a flight.
  6. Keep data in the cloud, secured with two-factor authentication and encrypted. In theory, accessing the data is then only reliant on access to an internet connection and a device, but there are risks, as mentioned below.
  7. If the cloud sounds too risky, then store all of your data on an external drive and bring it with you in your carry-on luggage. There are currently no limitations on devices the size of a smartphone.
  8. Use other devices with caution. For example, let’s say you accept the offer to borrow a device from an airline.  If you use it to access your documents, there may be traces of those documents left on that device, whether through cloud access or even from a local storage device such as a USB drive. Most of us do not know how to remove data from a machine after using it.
  9. Enable anti-theft options. Software is commercially available that allows for location monitoring and remote control, should your device be taken from you. A basic solution to this may even be to place a tracker on your baggage, such as TrackR.

The best piece of advice, though, is to enjoy the downtime and take steps in advance so you can reduce the stress and worry of your device security and safety. If you travel to one of the countries where restrictions against laptops on airplanes are enforced, then read a book, watch a movie and enjoy the separation.