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05 November 2009

How to Protect Your Laptop and Your Computer Data When Going Through Airport Security

The recent arrests of the couple accused of stealing over 1,000 checked bags from the Phoenix airport highlighted one of the baggage theft risks that airline passengers face each time they fly. Another ongoing problem inside the airline terminal is the risks passengers face of having their laptop computer lost, stolen, or damaged.
The two areas of risks are taking the computer through security and inside the airport terminal.

Putting Laptops in Checked Baggage
There is a very simple way to avoid this problem-just don't do it. There is the obvious risk of a lost, damage, or stolen checked bag. Also, airlines often load bags on top of one another in the cargo hold of your flight. Hundreds of pounds of pressure in conjunction with the low temperatures in unheated cargo compartments may lead to cracks or damage to the laptop screen or damage to other components.

Taking the Laptop Through Security
In the US and in most other countries, laptops have to be taken out of its carrying case or out of your carry-on bag as you go through the x-ray scanners at airport security. To protect your laptop, you should do the following:
  • Place laptops in a bin by itself before you put it through the x-ray machine.
  • Keep your laptop in sight at all times. You may be delayed getting through the metal detector or you may be pulled aside for additional screening. If this happens, make sure you keep your laptop in sight. If you are traveling in a group, one thing that you can do is to have the first person through security be the person who takes care of all the laptops.
  • Reclaim and secure your laptop as quickly as possible once you are through the screening process.

Laptop Security in the Terminal
If you decide to use your laptop during the time before boarding, take the same precautions that you would in any other public space. Don't leave your laptop unattended, and if you the airport has free wi-fi access, avoid doing anything online such as online banking that requires a secure connection.

Other Laptop Security Hints
In addition to protecting your laptop from loss, damage, or theft, you should also take the time to protect the information on the laptop. One way to do that is to separate the data from the laptop. For most users, the information on a laptop is far more valuable than the laptop itself. One easy way to protect against the loss of data is to either backup your data before you travel, or plan to keep any important or sensitive data data separate from the laptop in a device such as a flash drive, CD-ROM, or or external hard drive. Of course, these data storage devices should always be with you or with your carry-on bag, and not in any checked bag.

If you are unwilling or unable to separate the data from the laptop, at least put some kind of password protection on the laptop or on individual files or directories within the laptop.

One way to avoid the hazards and hassles of taking your laptop out for security screening is to use alternative electronic devices. Unlike the situation with laptops, special screening is not required for small data-related devices like Internet enabled phones such as the iPhone or Blackberry, PDAs, flash drives, and other small data-related devices.

Related Resources
Baggage Basics for Checked and Carry-on Items
Carry-on Baggage Advice
Top 10 Baggage Tips
Top Ten Tips for Dealing with Security
Overhead Baggage Risks
Hazardous and Prohibited Baggage Items


  1. Some nice advice here. However, I do find that not using your laptop in the airport for anything requiring a secure connection is a bit uncalled for as all Internet connections, wifi or not, at home or at the airport terminal, are considered inherently insecure. The only reason we are able to perform transactions securely is because we use encryption performed on our laptops before the info goes on the wire (or on air), and that still holds in airports or any other place. I suppose over-the-shoulder peeking may be a concern in any public place, including airports.

    Also, the latest generation of operating systems supports full hard disk encryption out of the box and indeed this provides a good measure of protection for one's data.

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