How can I keep my content safe if my computer is taken?

Updated:July 2016

Freelancers are getting more things done in the field with mobile phones and laptops. Inevitably, these devices often contain quite a lot of private or sensitive information.

If it's out of your hands, it's insecure. Your computer, mobile or other technology can be taken from you under a variety of situations: It could be stolen, you might lose it or leave it on a train or bus, it could be confiscated by police, soldiers, border control agents or a hostile group. You need to be prepared for the difficult situation in which your computer or phone falls into the wrong hands.

GET STARTED:

  1. Protect all your devices with passwords
  2. Encrypt your hard drives
  3. Create a secret partition on your hard drive for sensitive work
  4. Back up your work and information elsewhere
  5. Make sure you permanently erase files you don’t want to be found
  6. Create methods to remotely delete your computer’s files
 

Protect all your devices with passwords

If you’re planning to travel with a laptop computer, mobile phone, or an external hard drive, then setting up password protection should be on your list of required things to do right now. Not doing so is like leaving your keys in your car or your house door open when you go out for the day.

Many devices allow you to set a maximum number of password attempts. Once exceeded the device can either become locked, or will automatically erase all its data. Visit our page on creating strong passwords.
 

Encrypt your hard drives

Passwords aren’t always enough, and new ways are always being found to bypass them. Encryption is a step better. Password protection restricts access to a file. Encryption scrambles the data of a file, reducing the chance of gaining access to the content through other means. If you need to use a smart phone for your work, set up encryption on it as well. Find out more about encryption here.
 
Encrypt your drives:
 
  • BitLocker Drive Encryption (available for some versions of Windows)
  • How to Encrypting Your Hard Drive (Linux)
  • How to turn on fileVault (Mac)
  • VeraCrypt (Mac, Windows, Linux). This is an open source encryption software that works on all three systems. It is based on TrueCrypt source code, which has been independently audited. Use it carefully, as encrypting a file or hard drive without remembering a pass phrase or disrupting it while it's in process can make your files unaccessible.

Create a secret partition on your hard drive for sensitive work

How can I keep my content safe if my computer is taken?If you’re dealing with sensitive information on your computer that shouldn’t be seen by anyone else, then a secret partition may be what you need. It essentially involves creating a work space within your hard drive that isn’t visible to anyone who doesn’t already know it’s there. In this space, you can store software, documents, images and any other digital files that you don’t want others knowing exists on your computer.
 
There are different ways of creating secret partitions on Apple, Windows and Linux computers. One method is to use Veracrypt. Take note, however, that an intensive search would likely locate the partition, though it would still require login information to access it. This will help for the situation when a quick or casual search is conducted, though.
 
Alternately, it’s very easy to create an encrypted partition on a USB stick. Doing this means you can more easily hide or dispose of it should the need arise.
 
Guides on hiding a partition and keeping it secret:
 

Back up your work and information elsewhere

Storing a file online is another way to make sure your work isn’t lost, and also allows you to delete files you may not want to be found with. This does mean you’ll need to be in regular access to an internet connection, and it can be frustrating when using these services in areas with poor or slow internet.
 
Most systems offer ways to automatically back up your content on a remote server or cloud system instead of on your device. Services such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Zoho Docs also offer free space, but you will need to pay if you need more.
 
Some services take privacy more seriously than others. SpiderOak and Tresorit (we used to promote Wuala but that is now discontinued) are two examples of services offering file storage and back up with an emphasis on privacy and security. You should encrypt your files on your machine, locally, before uploading them to an onlinse storage service.
 
Learn more about this:
   

Make sure you permanently erase files you don’t want to be found

You may not know this, but when you empty all the files in your computer’s trash bin, they end up in a little landfill that’s still on your hard drive. Someone with the right set of tools can dig up what you thought you threw out. What you want to do here is erase, or "wipe", the file. Using a computer’s ‘Secure Empty Trash’ option or a data wiping tool, overwrites file data several times, making it virtually irretrievable. See more on erasing data here.
 
Tools to use:
 

Create methods to remotely delete your computer’s files

Your device has been stolen or confiscated. Or maybe you just left it on a bus that’s just pulled away. There are contact lists, classified documents and pictures of your family that you’d rather not see end up in the wrong hands. They’ve still got to either figure out or bypass your password (you set that up, right?), but it’s only a matter of time. So what do you do?
 
If you can, a remote wipe be an excellent solution. Sadly, being able to remotely erase your computer or mobile’s content relies on a few variables that may be out of your control; the main one being that it has to be on the internet at the time. Still, it’s a nice extra bit of security if its available with your system.
 
How to remote wipe:
 
Special thanks to mobile security researcher Bernard Tyers for contributing to this section. Image credit: Victor Bayon.
Created: July 2013

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