You can find volumes of information about mobile data security — everyone knows that data on mobile devices, especially laptops, is at risk. But almost every article describes how to protect your company financially and legally from data loss. There’s precious little guidance on how you can continue working on the road once that data is gone.
Say you’re on a business trip and your laptop is stolen or the hard disk dies. All the data on your laptop is backed up at the office, so no problem, right? Wrong. Your company is safe, but you’re toast. Your presentation is gone. You can’t do e-mail. Your calendar is unavailable. The files you updated on the plane are lost. You go from road warrior to roadkill in a single stroke.
Nobody is immune from this problem. Recently, I’ve seen three executives from the technology industry sent back to the information Stone Age (before people traveled with laptops) because they weren’t prepared for losing data on the road. My guess is that most business travelers don’t adequately protect against data loss while traveling. They’re employing a “faith-based” strategy and simply hoping that nothing bad happens.
True Horror Stories
There’s so much that can go wrong when you’re on the road, yet most people and their companies focus on protecting data that sits on corporate networks and company PCs. But laptops present a far higher risk. Here are two stories that illustrate what could happen to you.
I delivered a presentation last year with an executive who was his company’s lead guy in a big merger. On the first day of his two-week business trip, his laptop’s hard drive catastrophically failed, locking him out of all his data — his e-mail, his presentations, his Excel files.
He spent the first day of his trip trying to bring the hard disk back to life. He spent the second day calling everyone involved in the merger to let them know he wasn’t getting their e-mail. He spent the third day camping out at libraries, airport lounges, hotel business centres and other places with Internet connections. He ended up spending the holidays after his trip catching up with his work and trying to fix the damage to his projects — and his reputation.
Here’s the second story. A well-known IT analyst recently had her carry-on bags lost by the airline. No, that’s not a typo: The airline actually lost her carry-on bag. When the overhead bins filled up, the flight attendants asked passengers to leave additional carry-on bags at the front of the plane to be shipped as regular luggage. The luggage was promptly lost.
These stories highlight just two of the ways laptops are at risk. But there are many more threats out there. Crooks camp out at Starbucks and other Wi-Fi hot spots waiting for some poor sucker to use the bathroom. They can nab your laptop while you’re stuck in the airport security line or from the overhead bin in an airplane while you’re sleeping.
Damage is even more likely than theft. Laptop electronics are miniaturized and compressed into a smaller space than desktop PC components. Mobile hard drives tend to be smaller and more prone to error or damage. Laptops are easy to drop, spill something on or step on. They overheat — especially if you have one of those exploding batteries everyone is talking about.
All the traditional mobile data protection schemes carry risks and flaws. For example, backing up, or “ghosting,” your laptop’s drive to media such as an external hard drive won’t do any good if you lose your whole laptop bag. Backing up your data to an online storage site might work, but it assumes that you’ll have an Internet connection when you need to back up or restore — and that you’ll have time to download all that data.
So, what’s the answer?
The best way to protect your data is to back up to a secure, encrypted, biometric USB flash memory drive. You can carry password-protected flash storage drives in your pocket so they won’t get stolen or lost along with your laptop. They are relatively fast and pretty cheap, and work with just about every PC out there. And the conspicuous fingerprint scanner on the outside not only safeguards your data if the drive is stolen, but acts as a deterrent to theft as well. Some of these disks even come with software that enables you to plug them into any computer and access your data and the applications used to create that data — or, at the very worst, compatible applications.
Don’t rely on faith, hope and prayer when it comes to your data on the road — and don’t believe data loss won’t happen to you. Yes, protect your company. But protect yourself as well. Don’t get caught with your laptop down.
Mike Elgan is a California-based columnist for Computerworld.com, specializing in mobile computing. Contact him at [email protected].