Saturday, September 6, 2008

SAM Goes Back To School, Part 4: Secure Your Laptop, Secure Your Data

Most college students have a laptop computer to work from. We did a survey a couple of years ago and the majority of the seniors we questioned actually recommended a laptop over even a high end desktop for intel studies students.

Many students keep the laptop in their rooms but, increasingly, I see students carrying their laptops with them everywhere: From dorm to class to work, etc. Obviously the more you have your laptop with you, the more use you are going to get out of it. Just as obviously, the more you move it around, the more chance you have for an accident, have someone steal it or just allow someone to mess with it.

Lifehacker had a great post earlier this week about setting up a free (or cheap, anyway) laptop security system. They talk about the different levels of security you can download, install or enable and cover applications for the Mac and the PC. Worth reading.

If you have one of those monster desktop replacement laptops or you just don't like carrying a laptop all the time, there is an alternative: PortableApps. You will need a flash drive (sometimes called a thumb drive). Get one with as much space as you can afford (They have gotten inexpensive, particularly through the online retailers. You can get a 1 gig drive for 3 bucks and an 8 gig drive for about 26 bucks at Amazon right now, for example).

The PortableApps website has some pretty clear instructions on how to download and load the apps (If you are having problems look for a Mercyhurst intel studies sophomore -- we gave a little extra credit for students who set up the system for themselves in Advanced Intel Analysis last year and most of them took advantage of the offer...).

The net result is that you can plug your thumb drive into any computer, work on the computer, and, when you are done, eject the thumb drive and leave taking all your work (and your browsing history) with you. Once enabled, all your work gets saved to the thumb drive.

The portable apps system comes with a whole host of open source software that you can use as well. Can't afford even the student version of MS Office? Then OpenOffice is for you and it comes pre-loaded in the PortableApps package (along with the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email tool, Pidgin for IM, etc). If you find yourself going from the dorm to the computer lab and back, then PortableApps can keep you from carrying a ton of weight and reduce the risk of damage to the laptop from theft or, more likely, accident.

A third option (and one that teams of students working on various projects seem to be increasingly turning to) is Google Docs or some other online productivity suite (such as Zoho). Google's offerings are not as fully functional as the MS Office tools you likely use right now but most people use very few of the functions in MS Office anyway.

The Google tools do have the enormous advantage of making collaboration a snap. This has proven to be particularly true with the spreadsheet application and team projects. With Google Docs, the team knows that everyone is working from the same format. While you can ensure the same thing with email and MS Excel, it simply is not as easy to set up and monitor. In addition, since everyone can see the whole spreadsheet everytime they log on, input mistakes are less likely to go unnoticed.

People worry about the Google hegemon and what it might do with all the docs that are uploaded there, and whether your data is truly protected, etc. I agree that these are obviously legitimate concerns for businesses and other formal organizations. I think the equation is bit different for college students. Here the question is something more like: "Is my 20 page term paper on 'Correlates of Bubble Gum Consumption In Burkina Faso' safer with Google or with me and my buddies and their coffee, beer or wine and my busy schedule and my cheap backpack without any padding, etc." I know what the answer would have been when I was a student...

Related Posts (Sam Goes Back To School):
Part 1: Wake Up!
Part 2: Top Firefox Add-ons
Part 3: Blogs Of Note

1 comment:

Justin said...

If I may add speaking of laptop security, I would suggest to any student doing foreign travel, leave your laptop at home if you can. While I have never had any problem in the past, I've read countless articles about how business people have had their laptops seized at the border with confidential business info on them. The laptops were always returned, in some cases after a few months, but there has been some concern in the business community about what this means for data security.