Throwaway Travel Laptops

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 12/17/2012 | 32 comments

Andrew Froehlich
Corporate and government espionage isn't just for the movies. It's very real and it is growing, but there's a James Bond-like solution you can make use of to stem the tide.

When your employees travel overseas with company laptops -- and company secrets -- they are particularly vulnerable to having their laptops broken into. Data gets stolen and spyware is installed so additional information can be lifted once that laptop goes back home and connects to the company network. Security tactics like hard disk encryption go a long way, but it's often not enough. That's why many business travelers are now getting into the habit of buying cheap, throwaway laptops for the sole purpose of international travel.

As businesses expand their business internationally, it should come as no surprise that there will be competitors and even governments that would love to get access to company secrets. While it's possible to remotely hack into networks from abroad, many are finding that it's easier to target individuals (and their laptops) as they travel overseas.

Known as "bag-ops," thieves will attempt to get access to your company laptop while it's in a hotel room, stored away on busses/trains/planes, or just about anywhere else you leave it unattended for a period of time. Once in their possession, the thieves use any number of techniques to access the operating system and locally stored files. And even if you happen to have hard disk encryption, there are methods and ways around even this, including the "evil maid" attack, or installing a hardware-based keylogger to retrieve the encryption passwords.

And once a laptop is successfully broken into, the next step for most hackers is to install backdoor software. This software can later be remotely activated when you are back within your corporate network. This gives the hackers an easy backdoor to retrieve all kinds of new data. Sure, your internal security systems may catch and quarantine the infected laptop in time -- but then again, they might not.

There are some organizations out there that simply can't and won't take any chances with corporate espionage. Throwaway loaner laptops for international travelers limit exposure. The laptops are generally cheap units with decent security and the absolute minimum of information on them. The traveler uses the laptop for the duration of the trip and then returns it to the IT department on their return -- never to touch the corporate network.

This eliminates any chance that malicious software or hardware gets brought back into your network and ensures that secrets are kept safe. When you're traveling internationally on business trips, you should always just assume that your hardware and software has been compromised. It may seem like overkill, but better safe than sorry.

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singlemud   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/28/2012 9:44:06 AM
Re: throwaway travel laptops
It is a very interesting post. Throwaway laptop is by all means the best solution.
JPoe   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/23/2012 7:35:12 PM
Re: Throwaway Travel Laptops

Yeah, me too. I _get_ the need and stuff, but I'm just not ready to part w/ my hardware.
JPoe   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/23/2012 7:34:08 PM
Re: It's horrifying

I can't imaging traveling w/o my iPhone and/or iPad, and that's in addition to my laptop. I think we are going to have to find solutions that allow for keeping access to all the usual devices.
JPoe   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/23/2012 7:34:07 PM
Re: It's horrifying

I can't imaging traveling w/o my iPhone and/or iPad, and that's in addition to my laptop. I think we are going to have to find solutions that allow for keeping access to all the usual devices.
angelfuego   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/22/2012 7:14:28 PM
Re: Throwaway Travel Laptops
Although we all have work to do, we don't necessarily have to do it while flying. It is convenient to do so, but not imperative. It is more of a luxury. It is risky to do, without the throwaway laptop. I guess one would have to evaluate is doing work on the computer worth the risk of security breach or worth investing in a throwaway laptop.
angelfuego   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/22/2012 7:06:26 PM
Throwaway Travel Laptops
This article was very interesting. It made me consider something that I haven't done before. I am not ready to invest in throwaway laptops yet. I would just not use my laptop.
SaneIT   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/20/2012 8:29:27 AM
Re: It can be a form of recycle
There are cheap and easy ways to wipe drives that would make it so time consuming to get even a tiny bit of data that it wouldn't be worth it.  I had the whole process automated, I would boot to an image on a CD or floppy depending on the device, do three passes on the drive writing random strings then put the clean image back on the drive.  I could start the jobs on a dozen or so laptops before I left for the day and they'd be finishing up in the morning and ready to go out the door again.  If you're that worried about your data the time it takes to wipe drives thoroughly isn't going to stop you from doing something like this.
DBK   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/19/2012 1:35:48 PM
Re: It's horrifying
David - at the end of the day we still have to do business.  There are risks involved and we just need to do what we can to mitigate the risk.  And companies with the most to loose with establish rules of engagement and polices to support and physical security and intellectual property.  The underlying theme is that there are countries that support espionage and piracy as a legitimate for of business.  And when doing business there that needs to be factored into the business justification and overall cost of doing business.
David Wagner   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/19/2012 11:41:49 AM
Re: It's horrifying
@DBK- I guess thats the problem. If it was a really reputable big company, I doubt it would be worth their time. If it was a smaller company in a country I've never been to before, I may not trust the company. There's a reputation gap for a relatively small business offering.
DBK   Throwaway Travel Laptops   12/19/2012 10:44:09 AM
Re: It's horrifying
David - And from necessity is birthed great ideas.  David Wagner, espionage plotted, wars waged, countries toppled, technical writer/editor and all around good guy.  All kidding aside, and I was kidding who do you suppose would start such a service offering?
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