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Airline security: Checking your laptop

Recent events have airlines issuing new rules governing carry-on items. New mandates now force us to check our laptops as baggage. Here, Craig Mathias looks at some things we need to be aware of before we check our laptops and what we need to do to prepare it as "baggage."

This is one of those columns that one might see on April Fool's Day, or perhaps even Halloween -- yes, it's a bit...

scary and deals with what was until recently the unthinkable. But with world events of the past few weeks, it's best to be prepared for something no sane person would ever want to do -- checking your notebook computer in your luggage at the airport. Personally, I can't think of anything more terrifying about flying. Let's face it, the chances of being involved in a terrorist (or other life-threatening) situation are pretty remote, but the airlines lose and damage luggage all the time. If you're like me, your whole life is in your computer. And one of the reasons you have a mobile computer is to work while flying -- or at least watch your own choice of movie. Checking baggage is bad enough (just waiting for luggage after a flight drives me crazy), but if there's a computer in there, ouch -- it hurts just thinking about it.

But there are ways to deal with this challenge and get through it with a good chance of avoiding lasting damage. Let's start with the physical protection of your computer. Luggage does get tossed around quite a bit, and even dropping a bag onto the tarmac can expose it to G-forces that could potentially damage any fragile equipment. One solution, of course, is to buy a special flight case for your computer. If you choose this option, I like Zero Halliburton and Anvil cases. But these cases are heavy and not inexpensive, although they are very tolerant of rough handling. A better choice may be to buy a foam computer sleeve, which is essentially a simple but well-padded computer case. This can then be packed in your suitcase, but you should use clothing for additional padding. A good source of sleeves is Case Logic, but there are others.

You might think we're done at this point; if the suitcase isn't misplaced by the airline, then we should be all set at our destination. Not so fast. There are two more problems we need to deal with.

The first is damage to the computer's hard drive. Physical damage is rare, but the hard drive is the most sensitive part of most notebooks, and -- though modern hard drives are designed to withstand pretty strong shocks -- a backup copy of all data is essential, as with any computer. Suppose your bag is opened for inspection by Transportation Security Administration personnel and accidentally dropped. Your drive, and the data on it, could be toast. I recommend one of two approaches. One is to back up any important data to your own servers via the Internet before heading to the airport. The other is to carry a small (2.5-inch or smaller) USB-powered hard drive and back up to this unit, again before heading to the airport. If possible, carry the USB drive with you, but check it if you must. The chances of two drives being damaged are low, and assuming the backup drive is packed in a second checked bag, you should be all set -- the chances of two bags being permanently lost are also pretty remote. Obviously, I prefer the first approach.

Finally, make sure all of your critical data is secured via encryption -- I use Windows XP Pro's encrypted directories, but there are third-party encryption tools as well. That way, if your computer is permanently "lost," there's a good chance that sensitive data won't fall into the wrong hands.

I hope the current security paranoia blows over quickly so we can all get back to work while flying. If not, though, you now have the basic tools for dealing with what many are calling "the new norm."

About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.
This was last published in August 2006

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