Outrage in Laptop Land

 
 
By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2006-08-21
 
 
 
I guess I touched a nerve when I wrote about ways to check your laptop safely when you find that you cant take it on board the airplane for your flight.

When I wrote the article, laptops (and all other electronics) were banned only from some transatlantic flights, but there was concern that such a requirement could spread. Fortunately, it hasnt so far.

The good news is that the restrictions on electronics that applied to those transatlantic flights have been removed. You can now fly again with your laptop and your iPod. Just be prepared for some very detailed screening when you go through security. And be aware that those restrictions could be back again just as quickly, and with as little warning, as they were before.

But I have to admit that I was surprised at the level of rage that I heard in response to the article. Comments on the Web page where the article appears, and in my e-mail, tell me that theres a very deep current of dissatisfaction at the way business travelers are being treated. A constant theme was that if forced to check their laptops, most business travelers would simply not fly on a commercial airline.

For many travelers, there are alternatives to the degradation, inconvenience and stupid rules promulgated by the TSA. When I go visit my editors at eWEEK, for example, Im pleased that Amtrak has succeeded in finding a way to make its trains reasonably quiet and comfortable, and fairly fast.

Downtown to downtown between Washington and New York is about the same on the train as it is by air, except that on Amtrak Im not treated as if I were a criminal. Oh, and I can use my cell phone, and theres an AC outlet for every seat. And they serve food.

So for me, theres a better alternative than paying $600.00 for the privilege of being mistreated, dehumanized, strip searched and prodded. Heck, if worst comes to worst, I can drive, although a parking space in New York would probably cost more than my hotel room.

I was also interested to see that your faith in Federal Express remains quite high. About a third of the e-mails and responses I saw suggested buying a sturdy container for a notebook (such as the cases I wrote about) and then FedExing it.

Pretty much everyone seems to accept that this way, their luggage will absolutely, positively get there when its supposed to. Thats as compared to your checked luggage, which will get opened, tampered with and stolen from, and then be left unlocked. A number of readers said theyve been told repeatedly to remove those TSA-approved locks because they would simply be cut off.

And of course, there were a number of questions about what would prevent a luggage handler from simply stealing your expensive Zero Halliburton case, with the expensive laptop inside. They have a point, although one would hope that local law enforcement would pay attention if that were to become a common problem.

The VA plans to encrypt all its notebooks. Click here to read more.

A more serious question I received from readers concerns the ethics or compliance issues relating to leaving your laptop, with its potentially critical information, in the hands of others. "Didnt you read about the VA laptop loss?" one reader demanded. I admitted that since Id written most of those stories, I had indeed, but he had a point. If you had the names and private information of several million people on your laptop, and it went missing from checked luggage, do you think Id give you a moments peace? Of course I wouldnt.

Also, there were a few helpful suggestions. One reader, a vice president for International Traveler, a luggage company, said he puts his laptop into a padded laptop carrier (like the one thats probably in your backpack or briefcase) and stashes it in the middle of his hard-shell suitcase, then packs around it. He said its always survived.

The people at Travelpro also say that laptops have been checked inside some of their suitcases successfully, but they dont recommend it, pointing out that some baggage handlers can defeat almost any padding. They have a point, too.

And a number of readers suggested that by using products such as GoToMyPC from Citrix they could simply leave their computers back at the office, and just use a computer at an Internet café or a hotel business center. For some users, this would work fine. For others who work for companies that use Web-based mail systems, its even easier. For many people, a USB memory key is really all you need.

But unfortunately, for many, those options dont exist. Because of compliance requirements involving the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), PCI and other regulations, for many the information you need for work has to remain in your control and it should be protected from disclosure to unauthorized people. That could mean no checked baggage.

Finally, thanks for sharing some true horror stories. Some are enough to turn my hair gray, except that its already gray. I guess Ive had a few too many trips through security myself. Fortunately, I dont have to travel anywhere by air until I go to CTIA in September. Too bad Los Angeles is so far away, and a sleeping car on the train is so expensive.

Senior Writer Wayne Rash is a longtime technology writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. Hes the author of four books related to technology. He can be reached at wayne_rash@ziffdavis.com.

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