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Data on the Road:  Keeping compact IT safe while you travel - a business traveller alert!

By Guy Robertson
[ travel safety for professionals with portable computer systems -or- competitive intelligence insurance ]

Settle into your seat and let the aircraft whisk you into the sky. Relax with a mystery or newspaper and sip your coffee. Your flight should be smooth. There's just one problem, which you might not discover until you reach your destination.

It's your palm pilot. You left it in the airport lounge. You were checking some claims data on your laptop and discussing tomorrow's meeting on your cell phone, and somehow that palm pilot hid behind your ashtray. You didn't see it as you packed up your briefcase. Now it's gone.

You tell yourself that it's only a hunk of plastic and wires, that you can replace it easily. Then you realize that it's not the hardware that's important. It's the new product specifications in the palm pilot's document memory. That unreleased product is strictly confidential. At least it was until I found your palm pilot and pocketed it for future reference and resale. I'll check out your electronic files for any useful information later.

Let's say that I'm in competitive intelligence. That's a nice way of saying that I hang out in public places and wait for people like you to lose your luggage. I know about the valuable information that insurers carry in their palm pilots and laptops, hand-held computers, cell phones and digital cameras. Sometimes I scoop items that travelers inadvertently leave behind. Sometimes I make phony claims at the Lost and Found counter: it's amazing how willing the clerk is to hand me other people's property. And occasionally I steal items, such as the laptop that the claims manager left in the restaurant when he visited the washroom, or the hand-held computer that the CFO left in her pocket when she hung her Burberry on the coat-rack by the hotel's front door.

What strikes me is the amount of data that you can carry in such a small piece of hardware. A decade ago, insurers carried an electronic address book along with a laptop that held a limited number of files. Now they can carry comparatively enormous amounts of data. That humble address book has become a full corporate directory and key client index. The laptop that once held a series of memos now contains copies of proposals, contracts, letters, e-mails and policy files, with highly confidential comments regarding the client's financial status. Into the smallest palm pilot you can input thousands of medical files, or your company's complete customer directory.

What once was a single-purpose tool is now capable of doing a number of jobs. The TV built into the cell phone is no longer science fiction. The hand-held computer will soon include a digital camera. A digital camera can be connected to the Internet, and allow adjusters to perform various office functions from the field. Interconnectivity offers numerous options, but also increases the risk of data loss and fraud to you and your company.

To protect corporate travelers and the information they carry, insurers are instituting electronic "loose lips" guidelines. These cover almost every situation that a head office manager, broker or adjuster will face while travelling:

Be site-sensitive.
Remember that thieves prefer those public places frequented by tourists and business travelers: airports, train and bus stations, hotels, restaurants and famous sites. And don't think that your home town is the only honest place on earth. Your local airport has probably seen a number of thefts.

Never leave hardware of any size unattended.
Before leaving your table to visit the washroom, put your palm pilot and cell phone in your pocket. It may be inconvenient to take your laptop with you into that tiny cubicle in the Calgary airport, but to lose it and its data could cause a serious breach in corporate security. Never underestimate the value of data that you carry with you. What seems trivial to you is pure gold to a corporate intelligence scammer.

Be discreet.
Don't flaunt your technology. Don't offer the person beside you on the plane a demonstration of your hand-held computer's capabilities. If you must use a laptop in a public place, make sure that no one can peer over your shoulder at the screen. If you discuss business over a cell phone, beware of eavesdroppers. Telling your VP that you're tired of lugging around a briefcase crammed with negotiable paper is not acceptable over a cell phone from an airport-unless you want to lose that load.

Don't travel with technology that you don't need.
It's one thing to pack an extra pair of socks. It's another to carry your entire policyholder database. In fact we tend to carry far too much data, most of which we'll never need. Take what you need on a business trip, but don't take your entire IT department. And if you're travelling to Mexico or Florida for a holiday, do you really need your laptop?

If you're not using it, lock it away.
Most reputable hotels have vaults or secure storage areas for valuable items including pocket-sized IT. Remember that thieves love hotels, and that despite increased security, theft from rooms and poolside lockers is still common. Pickpockets are drawn to sightseeing tours, so hand over that palm pilot to the concierge before you leave the hotel.

Back up valuable data at the office.
Before you leave town, ensure that your draft of that speech to the AGM is backed up in your office. If you lose your laptop on the road, you'll still have a draft. Some travelers back up working papers and other data by simply e-mailing it to their office address. You don't want to gain an appreciation for an electronic document by suffering the consequences of its loss.

Record any serial numbers or identifying marks.
Two cell phones are turned in to an airport Lost and Found. They're the same brand. One's yours, the other isn't. If you have a tiny label with your initials glued to your phone, it will be much easier to identify. If there are no identifying marks, the counter clerk might refuse to hand it over. The same applies to laptops. You can boot up the machine that you know is yours, and make it obvious that those underwriting data are yours, but the clerk is not obliged to accept your word. In some parts of the world, the bureaucracy around a lost-and-found claim is so complicated that travelers will sometimes walk away without an item that definitely belongs to them. Filling out the forms might cause you to miss your flight. But identifying marks or a hard copy record of serial number often persuade the clerk to release your machine. After all, how many thieves have your initials, or keep a record of that serial number?

Hide the logo. Don't look like an attractive target.
Thieves have excellent taste in luggage. They try to steal only the best, which often contains the most interesting IT. If you're carrying something valuable, don't pack it in Gucci. Avoid carrying cases that announce name brands. And avoid using your business card as a bag label. Why would you tell a thief or potential kidnapper that you're a senior manager at a large insurer? Some companies even recommend that travelling employees dress informally when not conducting business.

If an item goes missing, inform the police.
Don't wait until you're home to report a stolen laptop. You'll get a more effective reaction from local authorities if you contact them quickly, and from the site of the theft. The police can be not only helpful, but also adept in hunting down thieves. It's possible that the police know whom to question, since the suspect has been one many times before. There have been numerous cases in which foreign police catch the thief, recover the stolen item, and ship it to the owner at no charge.

If an item is permanently lost, inform your company.
If your missing IT hardware contains data regarding security codes or network access, or any sensitive information, it's best to let your company know about the loss as soon as possible. Then your corporate security unit and IT department can change codes and protect in-house data. Of course admitting that you lost your laptop in an airport is embarrassing, but not as much as an accusation of covering up a serious mistake. Besides, most managers are sympathetic toward those who report an IT loss quickly. Who hasn't lost something valuable at some point?

If you follow these guidelines, you'll frustrate most criminals on the road. You can cruise five miles high, and the only thing you'll leave behind is the cocktail server's tip.

copyright © 2002 Guy Robertson

Bio:  Guy Robertson is vice president of planning at SafetySmart Emergency Management Inc. in Vancouver, B.C. He can be contacted at

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