Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Traveling with a laptop brings with it certain risks, mostly centered around loss. We'll look at the risks and steps you can take.

How can I protect my laptop at airport security, and really what is the problem with the measures the laptop goes through?

I'm not sure what problems you might be referring to. Airport security, while it certainly has its annoyances and issues, rarely causes problems related to laptops.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared, though.

Having just gone through this with my recent international travel I've put some thought into it.

Actual airport security has never caused me a problem with my laptop. The x-ray machines don't harm it at all. I simply make sure that the laptop is out of my backpack in a tray by itself, as most security screeners request.

"The biggest laptop-related risk at airport security is apparently simply forgetting it and leaving it behind."

The one thing you probably want to keep in mind is that some heightened security levels might require that you be able to turn your laptop on to demonstrate that it is, indeed, a working laptop. That simply means you'll want to make sure your battery's charged, which you probably already do.

The biggest laptop-related risk at airport security is apparently simply forgetting it and leaving it behind. It amazes me but every so often you hear some statistic of hundreds if not thousands of laptops being left behind at airport security lines. Personally I don't get it - I'd forget my shoes before I left my laptop behind.

About the only other thing that could in some cases be impacted by airport or perhaps international security in general is encryption. I'll speak to that in a moment.

The vast majority of the risk to your laptop associated with traveling has nothing to do with airport security at all. More mundane scenarios are a much greater risk: theft or loss at other points of your travels are the most common.

That raises two very important points:

  • Backup: make sure you understand the ramifications of potentially losing your laptop when you travel. If that would imply catastrophic data loss, then you'd better prepare yourself. That normally means having a clear understanding of what has been backed up before you leave, and what needs to be backed up during your travels. I wrote about my own personal experiences during my recent overseas trip in this recent article: How did you backup while on your trip?

  • Encrypt: it's bad enough to have your laptop stolen and whatever is on it taken away, but it gets worse. Remember one of my maxims: "if it's not physically secure, it's not secure". And a stolen laptop is the greatest example. A knowledgeable thief will easily be able to gain access to whatever is on your machine that's not appropriately encrypted. That's why I'm such a strong believer in using tools like TrueCrypt to make encryption something that, quite honestly, I think very little about once things are set up. More in this article: How can I keep data on my laptop secure?

Sadly, that brings us back to the risks of traveling and security and their relationship to encryption.

It's unclear exactly when it's allowed, legal or appropriate, but some countries have occasionally forced travelers entering their land to provide the password so that encrypted data can be examined. Since this is rather time consuming my assumption is that it's done only when there's a perceived reason or need, but nonetheless it bears being aware of. Not all countries have the same laws and what's legal to have on your computer in one country may not be in another. If that's discovered on entry - particularly if encryption makes it look like you have something to hide - I would assume that your trip might not proceed as planned.

The good news is that most of us really don't have anything to hide, and aren't very likely to be approached in this manner. Encryption remains an important part of simple, basic security when you're on the road.

Article C4222 - March 17, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
kptech
March 17, 2010 6:24 PM

Most laptops allow for the use of both Power-on and Hard Drive passwords as well. I always use both and set them to the same password for convenience. My system only prompts for the password once if they're both the same which also makes things easier.

Now we all know there are ways to reset most Power-on passwords, so a thief can just reset it or move your hard drive to another laptop, right? Wrong. There is no way to access data on the hard drive without the password so without it, the drive is useless. Even if a thief is able to get his hands on your laptop, he'll never see your data.

It's too soon to say that "most" hard drives offer password protection - right now I'm not finding that at all. And even then, password protection alone isn't enough - unless the drive is ALSO doing encryption under the hood with that password there's still a possibility that the data can be recovered by someone sufficiently motivated.
Leo
19-Mar-2010
Neil
March 23, 2010 9:19 AM

One thing to keep in mind is that the people at the security gate are concerned about airport/airplane security (well, ostensibly, but let's not get into that), but not at all about the security of your own personal items.

Often I find myself being held up while they deal with a person who set off the metal detector ahead of me, while my belongings have already gone on through to where people are frantically grabbing stuff off the other end of the conveyor belt. It's a perfect opportunity for somebody on the other side to grab something that doesn't belong to them and disappear into the terminal while everyone else is distracted.

Not a real problem as long as you're paying close attention, but there's a lot happening right there with surly people barking orders at you (Okay, come! No, stay! STAY! Good. Now, roll over!), and it's very easy to get distracted.

mark e
March 23, 2010 9:21 AM

I interpreted the question differently so the answer provided did not answer the question as I expected. I understood the question to say, "How do I keep my laptop safe [from hackers when used] at the airport?"

That's pretty much the same as this prior article: How do I stay safe in an internet cafe?
Leo
26-Mar-2010

Al Lowe
March 23, 2010 4:21 PM

I interpreted the question to mean "How can I keep thieves from stealing my laptop while I'm messing around with security?"

A common scam is for one crook to block your access to the scanner while wearing metal, which makes you stop. As he takes off his belt and whatever, his buddy packs up your laptop and is gone with it.

What I do is never let my laptop go through until I do. Hold your computer back on the belt until you have a clear path through the metal detector.

AL

Ken
March 27, 2010 9:09 PM

Keeping laptop computers safe is not just for airports. Yesterday I went to my local auto shop for an oil change. Laying on a chair in the waiting area was a really nice laptop computer. I pointed it out to the machanic who put it away. About 15 minutes later a man came running in the door in a panic looking for the laptop.

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