Laptops on a plane

Samuel L. Jackson might still be cool with it, but in the current heightened security environment at airports, business travellers should be ready in case security officials suddenly decide they’ve had it with laptops on planes.

While Jackson has been battling snakes on planes in a recent blockbuster thriller, travelers in the real world have also had their share of dicey situations.

Following last month’s terrorism-related arrests in the United Kingdom, for a time all passengers flying to or from that country were required to place their laptops in checked baggage. While the restrictions were later relaxed, they could be re-imposed with little or no notice — and in Canada or the U.S. as well.

With checked baggage comes a higher risk of theft or damage and, for the enterprise, the loss of sensitive corporate information.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, in the first half of 2006 U.S. airline passengers filed 1.8 million reports concerning mishandled baggage, making the practice of checking your laptop akin to a game of Russian roulette.

However, there are ways to reduce the risk of damage or the impact of a lost laptop, said Richard Starnes, a computer security expert and president of the U.K. branch of the worldwide Information Systems Security Association. Ideally, laptop users should already be following such guidelines, he said. (See Sidebar 1 below.)

Generally, the hard drives in laptops are designed to endure a three-foot drop on concrete when turned off, Starnes said. A hard-shell case would offer more protection, at least while the laptop is in a baggage hold.

Some companies had IT policies in place before the most recent security alerts. Bob Bonham, senior IT director with Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute, said the company has comprehensive security policies in place for its traveling employees.

“As the security has gotten tighter and with the difficulty of going through airport security checkpoints, we’ve continued to tighten down our policy and practices,” he said. “We feel (the) best practice is to encrypt the data if you have to have it at all, (but first ask) what the business reason is for having it (with you) in the first place.”

The first part of the SAS IT policy is a robust backup strategy. When a laptop plugs into a recognized “home network” it automatically reconstitutes its local backup, so all important data is also stored on the network.

“The only thing we’d be missing, if someone is on the road for three or four days, is the work they’d done (while they were gone),” he said.

Another concern is “personally identifiable” data. When such data does need to be taken on a laptop, Bonham said encryption technology is employed to scramble the information and render it useless to anyone except authorized users. “We’re working hard to make sure we don’t carry personally identifiable data on laptops if at all possible,” he said. “And if we do, we have an encryption strategy to protect the information.”

Sidebar 1

Four guidelines to avoid enterprise laptop dangers

Back up data: Enterprises may have a regular schedule for backing up data, but personal users may be less rigorous.

Passwords: Protecting a laptop with passwords is imperative. Users could configure their laptops to prompt them for an additional password during the BIOS process, when a computer first starts and checks its hardware configuration.

Encryption: The data on a machine may be worth more to a thief or hacker than the hardware itself. High-profile losses of laptops have raised awareness about encryption, another way to ensure a lost laptop doesn’t have other crushing consequences for a business.

Insurance: Data may be lost, but there will be compensation for the lost hardware. Additional insurance above that provided by the airline may be advisable for high-grade laptops.

Sidebar 2

Battery woes

The recent recall of millions of laptop batteries by Dell and Apple poses another potential headache for business travelers. At least one airline, Australia’s Qantas Airways, has placed restrictions on the use of affected laptops in the cabin.

The recall order, which affects 4.1 million Dell users alone, was prompted by reports of laptops bursting into flames while charging, with the source of the problem traced to faulty batteries supplied by Sony Corp.

Qantas said laptops with batteries subject to the recall that have not yet been replaced can be used on flights, but only on battery power or through the onboard power supply with the batteries removed.

At this point, there is no indication other airlines are following suit. Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline is monitoring the issue. “At this point, from Air Canada’s perspective, we don’t have any restrictions on that, other than the normal ones on computers on planes,” said Fitzpatrick. “We’re just going on, business as usual.”

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