It had to happen eventually. After many years of traveling and having to go through the hassle of pulling my laptop out of my carry-on luggage to oblige with the U.S. Transportation and Safety Administration’s airport security requirements, my most important work tool was stolen last week in the blink of an eye.
And by the least expected person: a well-dressed, well-groomed, older man who at plain sight, did not look like a thief, but rather a seasoned business traveler en route to a meeting.
But when he slipped it into his carrying case, my (former) laptop became one of the estimated 625,000 machines that are lost or stolen at airport security checkpoints each year. According to flyertalk.com, only 33 percent of laptops left behind or stolen at security checkpoints are ever recovered.
While I flew back from Cancún to Ft. Lauderdale, my laptop traveled to Mexico City in the hands of a stranger, never to be seen again.
Why the rule?
Having gone through this experience, I began to seriously question the reasons why since the events of 9/11/2001 the TSA has been requiring travelers who carry laptops bigger than 13″ to put them in a separate bin as they walk through the checkpoint scanner. Especially since all other small devices — smartphones, netbooks, e-readers and tablets — are allowed to remain inside the passenger’s carrying case.
Why the distinction? Apparently, the TSA believes that a thicker device such as a standard-size laptop provides a greater chance for wrong-doers to do their thing: replace the insides with explosives or drugs, and slip them on the plane.
However, it seems that not everything is black and white in this scenario. As it turns out, in 2008, the TSA issued a press release announcing it would allow passengers to leave their laptop computers in bags that met “checkpoint friendly” standards.
For a bag to be considered “checkpoint friendly” it should tick off all of the following:
- A designated laptop-only section
- The laptop-only section completely unfolds to lie flat on the X-ray belt
- No metal snaps, zippers or buckles inside, underneath or on top of the laptop-only section
- No pockets on the inside or outside of the laptop-only section
- Nothing packed in the laptop-only section other than the computer itself.
Needless to say, finding and purchasing one of those “checkpoint friendly” bags will be next on my list! And even then it is possible that it will end up being a useless investment, as many U.S. airports have their own protocols in place for inspecting carry-on baggage. Whether inside a special pouch or out in plain view, the requirement of taking out a laptop represents a huge risk for its owner, who is exposed to never seeing it again.
Backup, backup, backup
So, what other lessons did I learn the hard way from this incident? The first, and most obvious is to back up my computer constantly. That’s the only way to give yourself the chance of getting your data back. And since there are so many ways to move your stuff from your computer to alternative storage — whether in the cloud or on an external hard disk — there really is no excuse not to do it regularly.
However, the last time I backed up my information was about a month ago, which means that everything that I worked on after that is gone. While for anybody else who may not depend on their computer nearly 100 percent of the time, losing a month’s worth of data may not be a big deal, for this reporter it is a devastating, life-altering event.
Another weapon laptop users have to recover from such a loss is to sign up to any of the options available to track the device once it leaves their hands. LoJack, “Find my Mac” and other such software programs are indispensable tools designed to offer at least a small chance of finding the stolen or lost equipment.
“Find my Mac” (which can be activated on newer Apple devices) takes the fight against data theft a step further by allowing the owner to remotely erase the content and lock the laptop, making it harder for the thief to use it. That feature has already proven quite effective in finding lost or stolen equipment — the latest case being the recovery of Apple founder, the late Steve Job’s iPad, which was swiped from his home last week.
My laptop ran on an older operating system that unfortunately did not integrate the feature.
Ultimately, the loss of a laptop is not just about the economic blow, but rather of getting over the shock of not having something so personal anymore and the fact that a total stranger has snatched a device containing years worth of work and information, which are completely irrelevant to them.