COMPUTER SECURITY FOR TRAVELLERS
Like a lot of people I travel with some of my tech gear. My notebook, phone, camera, and an external hard drive are essential parts of my travel as without them, this blog doesn’t get updated. Unfortunately carrying these means some additional risk, such as theft of a device, having data intercepted over unsecured networks, or nosy people having a snoop. It is worth considering computer security before you pack your bags.
While I can’t stop you from leaving your phone on the train, or having your laptop stolen while you’re sleeping in a hostel, I can show you some tools I use to secure my data, so if it does happen you have one less thing to worry about.
I also discuss some travel tips for your smart phone here.
If you have some more ideas, I’d be happy to hear them!
WINDOWS VS MAC
Let me state that I use a windows notebook. The information in this article is for everyone, although the application suggestions are primarily for windows users. I haven’t used a mac since high school simply because I prefer Window, so I can’t give advice on Mac alternatives for the options below. Note: I’ve been working as an IT engineer for over fifteen years, and my opinion is you should use whatever device you prefer. I have never bought into the Windows vs Mac or the iOS vs Android debates and quite strongly believe anyone who does could probably find something more important and meaningful to do with their time.
I lose track of how many times I tell people to perform regular backups. Of course I still hear from people who have lost everything when their computer crashes or their phone ends up at the bottom of the ocean. I’m going to say it again anyway: Please backup your files or you risk losing them.
There are great cloud services available that can sync almost all internet connected devices. Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud. They all do much the same thing. With the right settings, it is possible to have a cloud based backup of all files from phones, tablets, and notebooks. Is this enough? In my opinion, no.
I have my phone and notebook synced with Google Drive, so all my photos and files are in one place. I then manually backup the files from my notebook to an external hard drive which I have in my bag. This is just in case something stupid happens. By that I mean, me. In case something I do ruins everything.
That is still not enough for me.
I also have a second hard drive that I leave at my parents house. I do another manual backup whenever I visit. In the event that all my files are deleted from Google Drive, and my notebook and external hard drive are stolen I still have a copy, albeit outdated.
Why do I go to all this trouble? Because I’m paranoid about losing all of my photos and being the one swearing at the computer because everything is gone.
Theft is a major concern when travelling with tech gear. While I believe everyone should travel with adequate insurance and have file and photos backed up, a stolen device can mean private data in the hands of someone else.
A Windows password is enough to keep someone from logging onto your computer and snooping around. However, software is available which can grant someone access to files and folders, or to reset a Windows password. Alternatively, an interested thief could physically remove a hard drive and plug it into a different computer, gaining access to all the files.
This is where drive encryption comes in. Drive encryption software stores data in a way that appears scrambled. In order to unscramble it, a password is needed. Without the password, the information is almost impossible to read.
Windows has an encryption tool called Bitlocker, which can be used to encrypt Windows files. Unfortunately Bitlocker is only available on professional versions of Windows and there are hardware requirements. My notebook is not one of these, so I use Veracrypt.
Veracrypt is a free drive encryption tool with great reviews and excellent performance. It is relatively simple to configure and can be used a few different ways.
My notebook has a drive partition for storage. Using Veracrypt, I encrypted this entire partition. All of my files are stored in this partition and secure. I have also encrypted my external hard drive. If I lose it, or it is stolen, I can rest easy knowing no one can access my files.
I run an antivirus, although I have never had my antivirus tell me anything other than the virus definitions need updating. Generally I think this is because of how I use my computer. I don’t click on stupid links even from people I trust, and I try to avoid the weirder parts of the internet.
In saying this, I still run Avira Antivirus just in case. It gets decent reviews, does what it needs to do, and it’s free. The only annoying thing I have noticed is the pop-up advertising asking if I want to upgrade to the premium version.
If you connect to any network you do not 100% trust, even if it’s your local Starbucks, you should consider using a VPN service. If you don’t know what a VPN is, then here is a brief explanation in which I shall generalise a lot and exclude a number of details most techies will cringe at.
WHAT IS A VPN?
When you connect your computer or phone or tablet to a network, the information you send over that network can be read by anyone with the ability to intercept it. WiFi networks are typically more susceptible, but wired and mobile networks are also at risk.
A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. It is a private and encrypted connection between a device and the VPN server. Anyone who attempts to intercept the data being sent or received between these two will see gibberish instead of personal information, such as your embarrassing selfies or your bank passwords.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The VPN service is usually in the form of an application installed on a device. When the device connects to the internet, the application connects to a VPN server. When you use the internet, the application encrypts all data and sends it to the VPN server. This server then unencrypts it and relays it to the internet.
WHAT TO CONSIDER IN A VPN SERVICE
Number of servers: When using a VPN service, the application will connect to the best VPN server available. Good VPN providers will have a larger number of servers in various locations around the world. Some VPN providers allow too many people to connect to a single server, slowing the service down for everyone.
Location of servers: By connecting to a VPN server in a different country, it will appear the device is located in that country. This can be used to book local travel or circumvent geo-blocking. Unfortunately, Netflix has largely stopped people from using VPNs to connect to its services.
Number of devices: Some VPN services will offer multiple connections on the same account.
Speed: A VPN will slow internet speeds down; sometimes slightly, and other times quite noticeably. If internet speeds are already poor, a VPN may be unusable. Consider if it is worth having security or speed.
Security Features: There are different security features available with most VPNs, from simply encrypting data to providing complete online anonymity.
Logging: Some VPNs log who is connected and when. Others do not. If your intentions are to hide what you are doing on the internet, then choose one that does not log your connection history.
Cost: VPNs range from free through to hundreds of dollars a year. Which one you choose will depend on the other factors listed above.
WHAT I USE:
I personally use Private Internet Access. They have good reviews, I find the pricing to be competitive, and the speeds have been acceptable in most places. I do notice that it occasionally drops out, or I have trouble connecting. Often this is when I switch between networks, such as going from mobile to WiFi. Usually I restart the application and everything starts working again.
I am in no way affiliated with Private Internet Access.
Say you deleted a file before you were able to back it up. Then you emptied the Recycle Bin without thinking. It happens more than I care to admit. Luckily, there are still some options.
There are two types of hard drives. Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) have spinning platters that use magnetism to store data and Solid State Drives (SSDs) have flash memory that uses electrical charge to store data. The differences in design means differences in how data can be recovered.
When the recycle bin is emptied, the data is not immediately deleted from the hard drive. The links to it are removed so it becomes unreadable, and the system designates the area where the files were stored as available to be overwritten.
If the file was stored on a HDD, the file can usually be recovered until it is overwritten. Even after it has been overwritten traces of the file may be recoverable. Recuva is an application for recovering deleted files and it works fairly well for a piece of free software. Reviews state it will typically work on 75% of deleted files. I have it installed, just in case.
However Recuva, like most other commercial software, only works on HDDs. If you have deleted an important file on a SSD you should stop using the computer immediately and call a data recovery company.
DELETING FILES FOR REAL
As mentioned above, data can often be recovered even if it has been cleared from the recycle bin. If you are paranoid about people reading sensitive files that may be recoverable, there are software options to overwrite “empty” space on your hard drive, making them difficult to recover.
CCleaner does a number of things. It removes files no longer deemed necessary, deletes registry keys, and can detect duplicate files. It can also overwrite drive space making it a handy little tool.
Here is a list of stupid things you can do with your passwords:
- Writing them down in a book you keep beside your computer.
- Using the same password for everything
- Using simple passwords like 12QWERTY or p@ssw0rd
The simplest solution is to use a password manager. A password manager is an application that stores passwords so you only need to remember one very complicated master password or provide a key file.
The password manager I prefer is Keepass. It is free software that creates an encrypted file on your computer with all your passwords. Without the master password it is useless. There is also the option to use a key file. This is a computer file to unlock the password manager, instead of a password.
I have uploaded my password database file to Google Drive and then synced the file with all my devices. All my devices are updated with any changes. Nice and simple.
Keepass also has a password generator, which you can set for different complexity. All of my passwords are at least 20 characters long and filled with random numbers and characters. I have no idea what they are. I no longer even look at them.
THINGS TO NOTE
It is a good idea to backup the database file to a separate location.
The only password not included in my password manager is the password to my main email address. I have this memorised. If my password database is deleted, lost, or compromised, I can still reset all my passwords using my email account. Of course all my bank passwords are in there, so I really hope that doesn’t happen.