Laptop security for travellers

Chances are that if you have no actual office or regular working spot you’re working in places like a cafe, a park, on a bus/ferry/airplane or some kind of public place.

Here are some common tips to protect your laptop, the data in it and how you can go about such protection. All tips in this article will help towards safer use of public wifi, protecting your data and such. In the examples you’ll see macOS but most of it can be done on Windows as well. I don’t have a Windows computer so I can’t show you how to set it up though.

Network Security

If you’re using public Wifi often you expose yourself to a lot of unknowns. This can be more or less risky. Depending on where you are and how paranoid you are.

Protecting yourself from wrong do-ers on networks is quite simple. Just enable the Firewall in your system. Windows has a built-in Firewall that works pretty well for that sort of thing. It blocks incoming connections and tells you what’s what if something happens. macOS Has a firewall like that too. It makes you near invisible on public networks. Which is good.

Set up the firewall in System Preferences under “Security & Privacy” in the “Firewall” tab.
laptop-firewall

If you want a bit more fine grained control you can click “Firewall Options” for some more options. macOS will set these up by itself from the get-go and manages it for you, too. Pretty easy 🙂
laptop-firewall-rules

With the default Firewall in Windows and macOS you are NOT protected against outgoing connections. So if you have malware on your computer or some other bad app it will do nothing useful for you. But that’s another issue entirely.

Protecting your data

How you should protect your data is entirely up to you. As a rule of thumb you should always make a backup, at-least twice a week. Preferably before you leave the house or hotel with the laptop. That way you always have your files.

I use Dropbox for a bunch of files that I need to keep. So even if my backup fails for whatever reason I still have my files somewhere on the internet. This will require internet pretty much all the time. But if set up properly it’s a set-and-forget backup solution.

That’s useful for if you actually loose your laptop. What about preventing unauthorised access.

Prevent unauthorised access

On macOS this is easily set up with a few simple steps. First you’ll want to disable automatic login. You do this in System Preferences under “Users & Groups” and clicking “Login Options”.
laptop-login-policy

Next you should disable guest access to the system. You do this also in System Preferences under “Users & Groups”. Click “Guest User” and deselect both options.
laptop-user

I don’t know why Apple has this enabled in the first place… It serves no useful purpose for most people.

So now, when someone takes your computer and turns it on. They need your password. Obviously you should use a proper password.

But what about waking the computer from sleep. Protecting that is just as important as protecting the startup sequence.
You can enable this in System Preferences under “Security & Privacy” in the “General” tab.
laptop-security
Of-course set the timeout to what you want. I use 15 minutes now, but this may change as I start to work more and more out of the house.

I’ve also set a “lost and found” message for the few honest people out there. Should they find my laptop… Click the “Set Lock Message” button to enable this.
laptop-recovery
This message shows on the login screen of the computer. So everyone can read what’s in there. Including your email address or phone number if you put it in there.

Wifi Awareness

Don’t just join any available Wifi Network. And certainly don’t let your computer seek out new networks. De-select this setting in System Preferences in “Network” in the Wifi settings.
wifi-joining
Not letting your laptop (and smartphone/tablet) scan for networks also saves you a bit of battery life. But more importantly it won’t join unknown networks that just happen to have a same name as a known network you’ve used before.

Managing your list of known networks regularly is a good thing too. You can do this by clicking “Advanced” in the Wifi Settings. Just delete any old Wifi Network or any unused ones. Only leave the ones in there that you really trust or regularly use.
wifi-security

Become invisible

Turning off sharing servies in macOS makes it harder for people to find you. If you are harder to find, the majority of people won’t even know you’re online near them. Which is good. De-select any services you don’t need in System Preferences in “Sharing”.
These apply to incoming connections, outgoing services are not affected with these settings.

laptop-services

You’ll also see the computer name in there – Using a non-descript name or something that doesn’t invite people to snoop around will be useful too. I just use my name for now but I’ll probably change it to FloatingCoconut at some point 🙂

Virus Protection

Do you need this? If you’re using Windows then that shouldn’t be a question. And if you don’t have Antivirus yet, install one now. On macOS it depends a little bit.

There aren’t much viruses going around. And the ones that actually work and pose a threat are usually acquired by using illegal versions of software via dodgy download sites. Most, if not all, email virusses you’ll get are for Windows and won’t work on your mac.

Still, having Antivirus can be beneficial. And a good free one is Sophos for Mac. It’s free, follows your incoming emails. And checks files you open. Also there are regular updates. All good.

I’ve used Sophos for Mac for a while and it worked really well.

Common sense and risk assessment

Now with all that in mind. Which ones are useful for you? All of them are useful. But assess your risk and balance it with convenience. I find a short timeout on my screensaver password inconvenient so I set it to 5 minutes. But that leaves a big gap for anyone to get to my files. However, this is mostly negated by me never leaving my laptop unattended. Thus there is a low risk of someone actually getting in.

The same applies for Antivirus. I don’t currently have Antivirus installed. Simply because I don’t use cracked or hacked software and all 3 cases in recent years known to cause a problem came from such sources or people generally being stupid. Not having antivirus is a small risk to take for me.

If you use Windows, get antivirus no matter what – There are thousands of viruses out there. And they’re all compatible with your system.

And lastly a Firewall… It’s mostly invisible – Both on Windows and macOS. The only popup I ever saw about it was to ask if DNSMasq could connect to the world. Which I denied.
Windows is a bit more in-your-face but that only means that it works.
There is no downside to use the Firewall, for most users.

Do you need a Firewall? On public/unknown Wifi Networks… Absolutely.
That includes your hotel, the local cafe a friends house or anywhere where people you don’t know may connect to the network.