Travel evokes different emotions. A vacation or adventure is the kind of thing to get excited about. A business trip might be interesting but it’s usually just fulfilling your job responsibilities and having a few meals out on the company card. Of course you probably have more exciting business trips than I do, right?! One thing you don’t want is fear or worry. In this case fear of privacy loss through theft, spying or confiscation of your digital gear and data.
When it comes to privacy matters a few easy techniques can make a big difference while on the road. When I’m in a new place I’m often more alert but also slightly disoriented as well. The increased alertness is good but the disorientation can cost you if you don’t have a few systems in place to protect your mobile gear and your accompanying data. When you aren’t playing a home game there could be a bit more risk that you’ll be a target for theft and if you travel by air or across borders you can count on prying eyes searching your possessions; digital and otherwise.
I’ll tell you about a few techniques I’ve thought of, read about or used in one form or another. The cool thing is most of them are free or very low cost. They’re also quite easy to put into practice. Here we go!
1) Lock-down Your Files
Encryption is a cryptic subject but don’t let it scare you off! It’s truly very easy to use encryption software to secure your confidential data to levels that would make the FBI give up in exasperation, never mind a common thief.
The best way is to encrypt your entire system but individual files can be encrypted on a case-by-case basis if that seems more appropriate.
TrueCrypt is the ultimate free encryption software but some versions of the Windows and Mac operating systems include similar functionality.
- TrueCrypt (Works with Windows, Mac and Linux)
- BitLocker & Encrypting File System (For Windows)
- FileVault & Disk Utility (For Mac OS)
For more on encryption check out another post of mine here.
2) Travel Data Free
Just because you need access to your files doesn’t mean you have to carry them with you. You can travel data free, or even device free, by using cloud storage and/or remote access software. One of the biggest losses when your physical equipment is stolen is actually the loss of personal files that were stored on the device as well as the loss of privacy if the files were easily accessible (i.e. not encrypted…see tip #1).
Since I think the risk of anyone searching my equipment and trying to force the password out of me is fairly low I use encryption for my travel however if I were regularly crossing borders I’d highly consider carrying data-free devices. This could be a plus if you’re pressured to reveal your password(s) which would render your encryption pointless. As I understand it the U.K. has particularly nasty legislation under which you can be coerced through government agents and/or court action into revealing your password(s) and various individuals have experienced similar pressure at U.S. borders as well.
For cloud storage services check out:
- SugarSync (Free 5GB plan. Sign up through this link and get 500MB extra space!)
- Mozy (Free to use up to 2GB)
- Dropbox (Also has a 2GB free plan)
You can backup your data to the “cloud” and access it from any Internet connection while traveling. When you’ve reached your destination you can download the files back to your device or keep them stored online making modifications as needed.
To travel device free check out remote access software/services such as:
Obviously you’ll still need access to some type of device to connect to your home system. It could be a friend’s PC or a system at an Internet cafe or hotel. Or perhaps you carry your iPad but leave the laptop behind and access it remotely through the iPad. Readers of The 4-Hour Workweek will recall how Tim Ferriss used/uses GoToMyPC for access to his home computer(s) while traveling.
3) Activate Tracking \ Remote Lock & Wipe Software
Installing a device tracking application on your laptop or smartphone should be your backup plan in case your device is stolen or lost. It’s not a situation you want to be in but sometimes you can turn things in your favor. There are some interesting stories out there about how people have recovered their equipment through device tracking systems.
Some apps (usually the free versions) only have tracking capability but there are often paid versions with features that can potentially help you recover your gear.
Another thing to look for is the option to lock or remotely wipe your device to ensure that none of your data is accessed. That’s an especially important feature if you store credit card info or tax documents on your device.
Of course if you use encryption the data wiping feature isn’t really a big deciding factor.
Check out these tracking and recovery applications and services:
- Prey (Works with Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Android)
- Lookout (Available for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile)
- iHound (For Android and Apple iOS devices: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
- Lojack (For Windows and Mac OS)
- Find My iPhone (Apple’s service. Once part of MobileMe but now free for iOS 4.2+ users)
4) Keep Your Eye On The Gear
I know, I know…this one is so obvious however it also seems to be ignored much of the time. If you do a quick search for “stolen laptop” you’ll find any number of examples where the lifted item was sitting in plain sight just waiting for an opportunistic thief.
Be particularly careful in high traffic areas where there’s a lot of commotion or confusion that could distract you or anyone else from the fact that someone just lifted your iPhone from the table while your back was turned.
Airports put you in a tough position because you’re often separated from your possessions and distracted by the ritualistic security theater at the same time. According to a Wall Street Journal article from Dec. 2009 at least 330 TSA personnel have been fired for theft since the inception of the agency (it’s been around since 2001). Of course that’s only one group that has potentially unrestricted access to your possessions at the airport. You still have fellow travelers and airline/airport employees such as baggage handlers to consider.
When traveling by car remember to keep your gear out of sight in the trunk if possible. I’ve traveled with a fair amount of valuable equipment for much of the past few years and generally follow a few guidelines:
- Keep everything in the vehicle out of sight if possible
- When parking choose a mid-way point in the lot (not crowded but not isolated)
- Park under a lamp when it’s dark
- Park where you can see your vehicle while in restaurants
Another way to protect your privacy through theft prevention is to camouflage your equipment or make it invisible. You can read more about that here.
5) Restrict Access
Restricting access goes along with camouflaging or hiding your mobile gear but is slightly different. It’s a bit more proactive and relies less on hope.
As in: “I hope no one breaks into my car since it’s parked under a light in an exposed area”. You can use “tough” active methods to restrict access as well as simple passive techniques.
A few examples:
- Use lockable luggage or anti-theft backpacks\bags (like PacSafe products)
- Carry locks to use w/lockers at hostels etc. (Matt @ NomadicMatt.com suggests carrying two sizes of padlocks so you always have one that fits the locker you’re using at the moment).
- Use the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door in hotels. (I do this quite often to give the impression that someone could be in the room at all times. Plus I don’t like the hotel staff making my bed!)
6) Use A VPN
This is an important one. If you’re not familiar with Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology it’s usually described as a secure “tunnel” between your computer or smartphone and your VPN service provider. All the data traveling between your system and your VPN provider is hidden until it exits the tunnel via the provider’s gateways and goes out onto Internet backbone links.
Using a VPN allows you to:
- Safely surf the web, email, IM, talk via Skype etc. while using an open network (coffee shops, hotels, libraries)
- Disguises your location so you can appear to be connecting from a country other than the one in which you are physically present
- Bypass Internet censorship
- Avoid possible surveillance
- Achieve greater privacy and anonymity than you would by simply using a web proxy
If you want a good VPN experience (high speed connection, no ads…) you’re probably going to need to pay for it. It’s not expensive though. I’ve written a little about Witopia’s personalVPN – PPTP service before. It’s what I use and can be had for $39.99/yr. I haven’t had any problems with it and it doesn’t seem to slow down my connection speeds at all (I haven’t measured back-to-back but I know I’ve gotten 1.4Mbps on my “up to 1.5Mbps” DSL line which is quite respectable).
Another VPN service that Lea Woodward over at LocationIndepedent.com suggests is 12VPN. Their basic service is only $35/yr although you are limited to 10GB of data per month ($69.99/yr for unlimited data).
I decided to go with Witopia over 12VPN mostly because of the better setup documentation available pre-purchase but also because Witopia has an impressive list of gateways in the Americas, Europe and Asia versus 12VPN’s gateways in the U.K., U.S. and Germany.
How I Practice What I’m Preachin’:
You might be wondering how much of this I actually practice myself. Fair enough. Here are some of the ways I use the techniques above:
- I use TrueCrypt for encryption. I created a TrueCrypt container on the memory card in my Android phone to hold semi-sensitive documents. I also use TrueCrypt on a portable USB hard disk I use for data transfers and backup.
- I don’t travel data-free but I do use SugarSync for cloud storage so the option is available to me. I actually don’t have a personal laptop at the moment (bought one but haven’t picked it up yet) so the only personal device I travel with is my smartphone. I prefer not to carry my Dell desktop and 19” LCD with me! I also use GoogleDocs as a cloud document creation and storage solution.
- I installed the free version of Lookout on my Droid X some time ago for tracking and backup but while I was writing this article I got to looking at the features of Prey versus Lookout and I may switch. Actually I could run both for a while to see what I like best.
- I described a few of my techniques for keeping an eye on the equipment I’m responsible for. See #4 above.
- When traveling and staying in hotels I restrict access via declining housekeeping service (the “Do Not Disturb” sign). I also tend to keep my gear on my person or in a locked location.
- I use Witopia’s personalVPN – PPTP service for security/anonymity over open networks as mentioned above.
Any tips to suggest?
There you have it folks. I’m sure there are other great techniques you know of. If you’d like to share one leave a comment and help round us out to a perfect 7 Easy Privacy Techniques For Traveling With Digital Gear!