3 simple tricks for defeating hackers on the road

I recently came across an eye-opening article from CNET about how federal workers routinely have their computer equipment targeted for hacking when they are traveling abroad. Especially in places like China, you can pretty much expect an attack if you are have a GS rating or are serving in the military.

It’s gotten so bad that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security says that every hotel room in China is to be considered subject to physical or electronic monitoring. But there are also horror stories from Europe.

We are not talking about people who want to steal your laptop, but instead the valuable government data on that laptop. The culprits generally try to keep their hacking a secret, so the user doesn’t know that anything out of the ordinary has happened.

Security experts offer a bunch of tips that range from traveling with hidden motion-sensing cameras to weighing your laptop before and after your trip to detect the presence of bugs that may have been implanted.

If you have to worry about people planting bugs inside your battery, then you are probably at a much higher pay grade than I am. But even regular folks could be targeted by snoops and thieves. The snoopers may think you have access to classified data even if you don’t, or they may suspect you’re a spy. You’re not, are you? Well, even so, here are a few tricks, with variations, I use to keep my property and my data safe on the road. Call it a guide for a poor-man’s James Bond.

One of the easiest things I do is (1) simply travel with a portable laptop safe. You can get one for about $50. My entire laptop slides into the steel box, which then attaches to something permanent inside your hotel room with a steel cable. No part of the laptop is exposed to the outside, and you can put your cables inside the box as well.

I’ve tested devices in the lab that can clone a hard-drive if a hacker can get the device to a serial port and reboot a system, so the idea is to keep them from touching your equipment at all. Spy types are left with the option to try and crowbar the box open, which will for sure leave telltale signs, or to try and cut the cable, which still doesn’t get them into your safe. Airport security won’t care that you are traveling with a safe, so long as it’s open and empty when you check in. The little one I use slides into my laptop bag, which also happens to lock.

For an extra twist, (1.a) why not put a heavy book inside your laptop safe once you get to your hotel room and cable it down to the desk, and then hide your computer under your pillows or elsewhere in the room? Let the hackers waste time trying to bang their way into your safe, when your laptop is safely hidden elsewhere.

Another trick I’ve used is (2) to carry around a vanilla laptop without any real data on it. All my actual files and in fact my entire “real” operating system are actually sitting on an MXI Security Stealth Zone key drive, which never leaves my possession and can slip into any pocket.

So if someone hacks my laptop or even clones my hard drive, in the words of Willy Wonka, they get…NOTHING!

If you really want to be mean, and why not, (2.a) encrypt a bunch of Lady Gaga songs for the bait notebook. After wasting time and spending years trying to slice your encryption codes, they’ll have something fun to listen to should they ever break in. Perhaps their superiors will play “Poker Face” during their executions.

Finally, if you just want to know if someone has been on your laptop while you were out, use a little game technology. (3) Load up a title like Diablo III or any massively multiplayer online game where you have to remain connected to the server to play. Pause the game and leave it running when you go out to dinner. I’ve done this before and it really gave me piece of mind seeing it still running in the same spot when I came back.

Most of those types of games take cheating very seriously, so any disruption that disconnects you from the server is going to be logged. If you come back and your monk or wizard is right where you left him and the game hasn’t recorded any connection break, then you can be pretty sure it was left untouched.

Plus, hackers are going to think twice when they see my blood-soaked barbarian on the screen staring back at them, wondering what insane gamer could create such a monster known as Grund Trollhammer. At least in my mind, Grund will protect me. If not, there’s always the laptop safe.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Sep 11, 2012 Lee

Even over seas it should work well. As noted most spys would prefer it if there was no knowledge of the break in and steeling the laptop kind of gives that away. Then there's the chance that the laptop can be traced. Depending on where you are you shouldn't have to worry too much about the govenrement of the country you are visiting being an over problem either.

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 Mark

Hey George, I think the Grund thing was kind of a joke. Chill out, man. And the laptop safe would work just fine for traveling domestically. I plan to get one. Smart idea!

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 George

There was one nugget of good advice and the rest was really pure garbage. Please don't waste people's time suggesting Grund or carrying a laptop safe. Foreign governments will simply take the safe and get the data later - that is no protection at all. The MXI key is way better - full disk encryption with keys on USB stick is also good - leave NO data on the laptop that is valuable and consider the laptop compromised when you travel. Grund will NOT help you.

Fri, Sep 7, 2012 Ralph NC

I literally played the Willy Wonka clip 20 times in a row. It's so funny. I think what I will do is encrypt that a thousand times and stick it on my laptop for my next trip overseas.

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