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Mac OS X for the Traveler, Part 2

by FJ de Kermadec
09/03/2004

Editor's note: This is the second part of a series that will run over the next few weeks discussing how to travel safely with your Mac OS X laptop. Now that you've made your travel preparations, as described in part one, you can think about getting all of your equipment on the plane safely.

Avoiding Theft

Theft is a primary source of information leaks and other hassles when you travel. Remember the security groups you formed (in part one), according to the loss that would incur should an item be lost? Well, now is time to use them actively in order to design your anti-theft defenses as well as you can.

As a general rule, you should keep everything that's obviously valuable in a safely hidden location. For example, your brand new cell phone is better placed in an inconspicuous black case rather than in its manufacturer-provided case that features a prominent logo.

A few months ago, locking your suitcases would have been the first word of advice. Unfortunately, travel regulations in some countries now (including the United States) make locking suitcases a lot more difficult. Therefore, it is always a good idea to check with your airport's or airline's customer service to see what you are allowed to use. This page is also a good starting point when it comes to selecting your luggage and the accompanying locks. Of course, locks that can be opened and re-locked by anyone do not really qualify as security any more, but they should prevent most "grab and run" attempts. For this very reason, it may also be a good idea to check with your insurer if the contents of your luggage are still covered by your policy (since the luggage may be considered "left open" in the event of an issue).

Carry-on items should also be packed carefully and locked (again, if possible, see above). As always, try to pick a computer case that does not indicate that you are carrying a computer--manufacturers are getting into design now, which makes this task a lot easier--or that, at least, does not provide information about what type of computer you are carrying. Since security screenings require that you take your computer out of its case, you should also make sure that you keep an eye on it while it travels on the belt.

If you travel with a trusted friend, send the friend through screening first so that he or she can wait for your computer and pick it up safely. (You can then take care of both yours and the other person's computer.) Any item that stays in your computer case or bags that you will open during travel can be wrapped in simple white paper or thrown into an opaque plastic bag. These can be torn by security personnel if they want to, but should your installation CDs fall on the floor, people won't necessarily see what you carry. Just make sure the resulting wrapped CDs don't look too suspicious, or you are probably going to end up in trouble.

Some users like to put labels on their equipment that claim "The disks inside have no commercial value whatsoever," or "This computer can be tracked by law enforcement authorities." While these can help frighten a novice thief, they also could get you into trouble with local law enforcement. Are you trying to smuggle pirated software and want to hide its real value? What kind of radio system do you use to have your computer tracked down? It is up to you to decide whether or not these labels would end up working against you.

Of course, the ultimate anti-theft solution is to affix onto your hardware some special, permanent tags that are assigned a unique tracking number that can be used to track down the device. Well-designed tags like this also leave a mark in the plastic underneath them, should they be pulled off by special tools. While they can be expensive, they are usually extremely effective against theft. Should you decide to purchase some of these tags, just keep in mind that not everything is worth tagging and that the glue won't adhere on all surfaces.

Some companies now sell tags that provide tracking capabilities but are not glued to the computer in any specific way. Since they can be removed in the blink of an eye, these tags rely on the assumption that someone finding a lost computer will want to go through the trouble of returning it for the beauty of the gesture. Let's just say that such acts of generosity are quite uncommon.

Once in your hotel room, I would strongly advise you to put anything valuable, such as installation CDs, small external hard drives, and the like into your room's safe and to pick a good combination for it. (Even though the maintenance staff probably knows a master code, it will show your willingness to protect your assets and may be useful if you ever have to file a claim.) Also, as soon as you arrive, find a good place to tie your security cable and lock your computer. Even if (luckily) hotel personnel can be reasonably trusted, you definitely don't want to take a chance! Of course, don't leave the lock key in your room where it would be found easily. That's what keychains are for!

Related Reading

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

Don't Crash Your Mac

Before packing your devices, you should make sure that you remove or fix any movable parts that could break during the travel. For example, the pressure normally applied to an iSight stand is easily supported by the FireWire port into which it plugs. Now, imagine that the stand is put under a pile of suitcases and bent. Chances are that your iSight won't arrive in one piece. (This plastic tube Apple provides is amazingly effective and will soon become your best friend, if it isn't already.)

Also, remove any CDs from your players or cards from your readers. By moving inside of the device more than they should, these could damage it or themselves, becoming unreadable.

You should also make sure that none of these devices can power themselves up during travel, if only to prevent the mechanical operations often associated with startup processes. Your iPod's hard drive spins up, for example. Also, this will prevent devices from launching wireless cards that could have a negative impact on your flight (if you travel by air).

Oh! And please, avoid packing an open shampoo bottle right next to your iBook. Your motherboard does not need moisturizing fruit concentrate on it! Even though cabins and many luggage areas are pressurized, the difference is big enough to cause most bottles to burst if you do not squeeze them slightly before closing them hermetically. Zipped plastic bags can also be used as an extra protection to contain leaks and prevent liquids from running through your suitcase.

Final Thoughts

With a little luck, your physical security is insured. In the next installment of this series, I'll delve into network security. This is always an issue in today's world, but it requires even more attention on the road. We'll roll up our sleeves and cover all of the bases in part three.

Until then, happy traveling!

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


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