How to Secure Your Laptop Data

The easiest way to keep your computer data safe is not to put it on a machine that somebody could easily walk away with.

Before everybody says “duh” all at once, think about all of the schools, businesses and government agencies that saved sensitive data on employee laptops that then got stolen. If those offices had stored that data securely on their own servers, accessible only via an encrypted online connection, the major cost of a stolen laptop would have been the price to buy a replacement computer.

On a personal level, this means using cloud-based apps instead of traditional, disk-bound programs-for example, using a Web-mail service instead of an application like Microsoft Outlook, or employing a Web personal-finance tool like Intuit’s Mint in place of a program like Quicken.

You should use secure passwords at these sites-see my column of two weeks ago for some advice on that point.

Your browser will offer to save passwords for many of those sites, but unless you have a separate password that must be entered before your browser logs you in anywhere-for example, Mozilla Firefox’s master-password option-a thief could take advantage of that feature.

Separate password-management programs like the free Last Pass offer one way around that. Another option, contrary to many password myths, is to write down those passwords on a piece of paper-which you then stuff in your wallet, something you already know to keep safe.

Having a strong password for your computer should block access to it (the reader who asked this question mentioned that he had a 12-character password, which is good enough). But even then, you can use widely available software to copy files off a computer without logging into it.

And unless you’re running a Google Chromebook, you’ll need to store some data on the machine.

In Windows, I suggest using the free, open-source TrueCrypt. (“Open-source” means that other programmers have had a chance to inspect and improve its code, so you don’t have to trust the developers when they say they did their job). It’s not the prettiest or the simplest app, but it will let you create a special folder that turns into gibberish once locked. You can even create a TrueCrypt “container” on a cloud-based storage service like Dropbox, then open its contents on any PC-or Mac-running TrueCrypt.

On a Mac, use the FileVault encryption built into Mac OS X-it’s under the “Security & Privacy” heading in System Preferences-which automatically secures all of your data from anybody who doesn’t have your computer’s password.

Tip: Backup DNS can keep you online

The Domain Name System-the invisible switchboard your Internet provider runs to translate addresses like our official website uFlysoft studio- into numeric Internet Protocol-identifiers like XXX.XX.XXX.XX-is usually the least-dramatic part of Internet access. It works so well that you never know it’s there, in the same way that you don’t stop to think how calls reach your phone from any other phone in the world.

But on rare occasions, your Internet provider’s “DNS” may go out of service; for example, Comcast suffered an hours-long DNS outage in November 2010. If that happens, you’ll find that you can’t get to anywhere on the Web —not even a site like Google that should stay up in any event short of a Mayan apocalypse. More annoying yet, the lights on your cable or DSL modem (and maybe even your provider’s tech support) may still suggest everything’s fine.

Two alternate services, Google Public DNS and Open DNS, can back up your provider’s domain-name service, connecting your computer to other sites when your ISP stops doing that job. At other times, they may also work slightly faster and provide a little extra security against malicious sites.