Attention flyers: time to secure the hell out of your laptop data

laptop ban
Image credit: ioat /

When the US first announced new rules that banned laptops and tablets from aircraft cabins on international flights to and from select Middle East countries, my colleague Tony Poulos predicted that the laptop ban would eventually be expanded to all flights in and out of the US.

Turns out he may have been right. Mind you, it’s not official yet – no decision has been made (or at least implemented). And there were indications last month that the US might back down from taking the ban global.

This weekend, however, the head of Homeland Security said a total ban is still on the table, and the way things are going with the current administration, it’s very likely the US will follow through on that idea.

Which, of course, sucks.

Plenty has been written about how the laptop cabin ban makes no sense as a useful security measure, and how there are other more effective measures to mitigate that particular threat (assuming there is one, and we don’t know for sure that there is, but yes, it’s possible). Security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up nicely here.

Granted, a total ban would plug up one flaw in the selective ban – terrorists could simply catch flights from all the other countries not included in the original ban. Only it wouldn’t, really, because it doesn’t cover domestic flights. Maybe the DHS figures that the practice of calculated misery – or how some US airlines treat their customers – will be enough to dissuade terrorists from flying domestic.

Anyway, if the US does go ahead with the expansion (and if it does, we can assume the UK will follow suit), the big question for flyers who travel with laptops is: how do I protect both my laptop and the data inside it?

This matters because one reason some people don’t check laptops in their luggage is that they could get stolen, or someone could open them up and steal personal data from them. (Remember that US TSA regulations prohibit passengers from locking their luggage.) It’s not all that common, but that’s small consolation when it happens to you.

Like it or not, this is now a security issue that travelers will have to think about when they fly. If you can’t keep the laptop in your possession, you need to make sure the data on it is protected.

Dan Gilmour has some suggestions on how to do that in this blog post. In essence, you can either store all your sensitive info and apps in the cloud so it doesn’t sit native on the hard drive, or keep it all on an external drive. And in any case, you should encrypt your hard drive.

However, some of Gilmour’s advice is also somewhat techy and complicated – and, he admits, not cheap. I don’t see the average Mac/Windows laptop user changing to Ubuntu just to mitigate sticking their laptop in their luggage.

One good point Gilmour makes is that if the authorities are going to insist on making us leave valuable electronics in unsecured bags to be handled by third parties, then airlines and airports damn well better take measures to improve baggage security:

Airlines and airports also need to dramatically boost security to deter theft or other malfeasance on the ground. Video cameras should record everything in every place where airline, airport, and security personnel ever touch passengers’ gear, and the videos should automatically be available to passengers in the event of damage or theft, or even suspected tampering.

But of course that would mean more costs for airlines, which likely means higher ticket prices.

Gilmour says airlines could also follow the example of Emirates, who responded to the ban by allowing passengers to bring their laptops to the gate, where they’re collected, sealed away in boxes and returned to the owners as they disembark.

None of these solutions are perfect, and none address the inconvenience of not being able to bring a laptop on the plane in the first place. No matter how you slice it, the best-case scenario is that a total laptop ban is a major headache for everyone involved that isn’t even worth it in the end because it doesn’t make flying more safe.

But it’s the reality we’re probably going to have to deal with, so if skipping travel to the US isn’t an option, now is as good a time as any to make sure the data on your laptop is protected – which, given current events, you probably should be doing anyway.


  1. Don’t airlines ban laptops in checked luggage because of the battery-fire risk? So checking your laptop wouldn’t be an alternative.

    • As I understand it, the laptop ban supercedes the lithium battery rule. Also, some airlines like Emirates have come up with an alternative by packing your electronics in bubble wrap and sealed boxes, for example. It seems manageable on the small scale it is now, but if it goes global they’re going to have to decide which rule is more important, and which is the bigger risk.

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