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Mac OS X for the Traveler, Part 1

by FJ de Kermadec
08/31/2004

Editor's note -- This is the first part of a series running over the next few weeks discussing how to travel safely with you Mac OS X laptop. Even though you have your own bag of tricks for working on the go, I'm sure you'll discover a few new tools and techniques in this series.

If, like me, you find yourself on-the-go more often than at your own desk, you have probably already invested in a shiny iBook or PowerBook and filled it with your data. That's good, but, as you have probably noticed, unwrapping and setting up your new computer is only the first of numerous challenges.

Indeed, true mobility sometimes comes at the price of convenience, and you'll need to find answers to questions like: Should I carry my installation CDs with me? How can I possibly back data up if I don't have an external hard drive? And what power adapter am I supposed to pack for a trip to the other side of the globe?

My goal in this series of articles is not to introduce you to new revolutionary bleeding-edge technologies, but rather to show you how to make the most of Mac OS X and the services that Apple puts at your disposal to achieve true mobility and security while keeping costs down -- an especially challenging task when traveling internationally.

Desktop users can also benefit from what we are going to see. Indeed, by "keeping things light" on their own machines, they will make upgrades a lot easier and will be able to better react, should their computers be damaged or stolen.

Disclaimer

Travel and mobility are broad concepts, and the solutions we're going to see in this article should be of help to most. I personally rely on them during my travels and have tested them all. However, you should keep in mind that you know best what's good for your own computer and data. If your laptop is company-provided and contains sensitive information, please discuss travel policies with your system administrator. He will be able to provide you with pre-approved advice as well as explain the various guidelines you may have to follow.

Since laws and regulations vary from country to country, the advice contained in this article may not apply to all destinations. Before going on a trip, you may want to purchase a good guide and, if you travel for business, ask your legal advisor -- there may be regulations concerning privacy and encryption that you will want to be aware of.

Security on the Go

Without a doubt, the security of data is a major concern for any traveler. Indeed, numerous threats can affect your computer. It can be stolen, dropped, lost, or worse, someone could take advantage of your vulnerability while traveling to steal data from you. It's therefore important to guarantee both its physical and network security, while taking care to make regular backups of any file you may need to recover in the event of a mishap.

To address these issues, we're going to discuss protecting yourself effectively against network attacks in public places, avoiding computer theft, encrypting your data, and backing it up effectively.

Related Reading

Mac OS X Unwired
A Guide for Home, Office, and the Road
By Tom Negrino, Dori Smith

Organizing your Assets Before You Go

The first thing to do is to make a list of your assets (from computer to removable media to installation CDs) and to assess what potential consequences could arise from losing them. This will help you determine what you should keep an eye on while traveling as well as how to react.

Make this list simple, easily readable, and in paper form so that you can refer to it in case something goes wrong -- a large business card is the ideal format. On the other hand, make sure that it is nonsensical to someone who would steal it. For example, do not put "Super secret backup DVD containing my latest accounting spreadsheets" on the card, but "AccDVD." You will know what it is about without giving tips too easily to anyone else.

An initialized USB key can be safely put in your suitcase. If you lose it or someone from the airport staff steals it (yes, it happens), you will have lost a few dollars, that's all. If someone steals your top-secret backup DVD, the cost is obviously much higher!

As a general rule, you should focus on making as many objects as you can fully replaceable. For example, if you usually use a key to store a confidential document, it may be wiser to put the document along with others and initialize the key: that will be one less thing to worry about while traveling.

Also, try to organize your assets in groups, depending on how important they are to you (not only according to their monetary value) and decide on their protection accordingly. For example, your computer and your backup DVD will be of the highest importance (first group) while your peripherals and installation disks will come second (worst comes to worst, you could always purchase a new copy of Panther or a new mouse but purchasing a new PowerBook with your personal data pre-installed is impossible).

This first organizational step may seem like a very tedious and unnecessary one, which explains why it is very often skipped. Nothing could be further from the truth. In moments of crisis, it is very comforting to have a piece of paper you can hang on to calm down (or freak out in an orderly fashion).

Another good thing to put on the list is if your assets require special treatment or care from you before or while traveling. For example, on the PowerBook line you should indicate "Turn AirPort card and Bluetooth module off before boarding." And next to your USB key entry you could write "No moving parts," so you know it can be handled more or less roughly in your suitcase.

As boring as it may seem, you may also want to have a look at your airline's web site. Most of them suggest or impose packing procedures that it is essential to follow, should you ever need to fill an insurance claim or a complaint. A silly example: an airline can refuse to pay for a damaged camera if you did not remove batteries from it before putting it in your suitcase since packing powered objects is considered dangerous.

By noting any regulations that can apply to your objects, you will avoid issues with customs officials, airline representatives, or security personnel -- three groups you definitely don't want to have issues with. Also, in many cases, once you leave home, you won't be able to swap objects between containers. This security cable you left in your carry-on laptop case will be confiscated by Airport Security (it's apparently a weapon?!), and you won't be given a chance to put it in your checked suitcase and prove that you didn't intend to strangle anyone with it.

Finally, make sure that this list clearly indicates in which bag the object is packed (again, using a code of some sort) and keep it with you. Keep in mind that, after an eight-hour flight, you may not remember what was in this little yellow bag of yours that was mistakenly sent to München (MUC).

For security reasons, do not put your name, email, or phone number on the list and avoid writing down any identifier that could be used to track you down.

Now that you know what you have and how you will pack it, it is time to prepare these things. Indeed, whether we are talking hardware or software, there are some precautions you will want to take.

Avoiding Information Leaks

During your travel, your luggage will move around, be handled by untrusted persons (someone wearing a uniform is not automatically a trusted person), and could get lost. Therefore, it is important not to leave any sensitive data in them.

Any storage device that you put in your suitcase (from the flash card in your camera to the hard drive you keep for backups) should be initialized, limiting the loss incurring from its theft to its monetary value.

Here's a tip. "Disk Utility" allows you to overwrite the data on drives with zeros or random data for a better level of protection. Yes, this may be a bit extreme for pictures of your cat on the beach but may prove useful if you used this drive to store banking data at a point. The data left on any device you cannot initialize should be encrypted. The easiest way to do this is to place the files in an encrypted disk image before copying the image on the drive or burning it on the disk. I usually avoid using third-party drivers that encrypt data on-the-fly since these need to be installed on any computer you want to use with the drive -- more on using standard formats later.

For the same reasons, you should remove or replace the labels on your storage devices, just like you did on your list. Labeling your disks or drives with explicit names can be dangerous if someone goes through your suitcase -- even if this person is looking for a bottle of leave-in hair conditioner and not banking information.

Even though we are mostly dealing with your Mac and its peripherals, let's note that booklets, notepads, and the like may also contain sensitive information. For example, receipts or insurance contracts contain identifiers that can be used to steal your identity or hack into your accounts. If you cannot avoid putting them in checked luggage (which may or may not be a good idea depending on your destination), you may want to put such documents in a tamper-evident bag that will at least let you know if someone touched them.

A good brown envelope with solid glue is a first step. For extra protection, print some very small text on a strip of self-adhesive paper and stick it over the flap: if it's broken, chances are that the person who opened the envelope doesn't have a printer and self-adhesive paper at hand! (Sure, it's not foolproof but it makes things a bit trickier.)

Finally, the labels you put on your luggage are also hugely problematic. Many countries require you by law to label your luggage so that it can be tracked down. Unfortunately, you may not wish to reveal too much of your identity to anyone. For example, someone working for O'Reilly may not want to print their "@oreilly" email next to their home address. Some like to set up a throwaway email address for their luggage and/or to specify a neutral place for them to be sent (like a shop next to your place with which you have a prior agreement). Just make sure that such practices are legal in both your country of residence and destination before doing so. Also, if you can, purchase quality tags that mask the address unless someone opens them.

Final Thoughts

Now much of your preparation is completed. In next week's installment I'll provide tips for avoiding theft and damage of your valuable tools. Until then, safe travels!

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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