Secure Mobile Data Means Not Taking It with You

Monday Apr 4th 2011 by Ronald Pacchiano
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Not storing data on a laptop or mobile device might be the best way to keep it secure. We show you three ways to make that strategy work.

I recently visited one of my company's satellite offices, and one of my colleagues said he was experiencing problems with his laptop. I offered to examine the system, but he declined saying the system contained "sensitive data" that I wasn't authorized to view.

After a bit more prodding, it turned out that the valuable, highly sensitive data on his laptop wasn't backed up anywhere, nor was the notebook's hard drive encrypted. That critical data was vulnerable to viruses and system failures, and it was at risk if the notebook was ever lost or stolen.

Last year, I wrote an article called Endpoint Security: How to Protect Data on a Laptop that offers various measures to protect data from unauthorized access. These include simple steps like using strong BIOS and Windows account passwords or using biometric enhancements like fingerprint readers. The most effective technique by far, though is encrypting the contents of an entire hard drive; this prevents anyone from accessing that data, even if the drive is installed into another system. With these measures in place, you can feel secure that the data is safe from all but the most talented malcontents.

The incident with my colleague made me reflect on that column. While the tips will help keep data secure, some people's carelessness will always put their data at risk. People are notorious for not backing up data regularly. This is especially true for mobile employees who store data on various portable devices.

So even if my colleague's data was encrypted and password protected, not having a physical backup of this "sensitive" data could have been disastrous. Perhaps the best way to truly keep your data safe is to never actually store it on your laptop or mobile device in the first place.

Now I know what you're thinking. "How could you do that? It's not practical." Well, at times it might not be especially convenient, but it is certainly practical. There a number of methods you could employ that would let you access your data, yet never place it at risk of being lost or compromised. Let's look at a few of them.

Access Data Over a VPN

Using a VPN, you can use a public network -- like the Internet -- to establish a secure connection to a private network -- like the one in your office. Once you establish this virtual connection, employees can access all of the network resources -- such as their data -- that would be available to them if they were in the office. A variety of methods exist for creating a VPN. Some are dedicated hardware solutions, others are built into the router and make use of 3rd party clients, and a few are even free. Windows Vista and Windows 7 both have built-in VPN support.

In 2008, I wrote an article called How to Setup a VPN in Windows Vista, which describes how to setup and configure both the host and client side VPN connection. Does your business run on Windows 7? You can still refer to that article, because the process for setting up a VPN in Windows 7 is practically identical.

Another method to consider, which is even easier is to implement, is a VPN service like LogMeIn Hamachi. This client is free for personal use, but small businesses need to purchase either a monthly or an annual subscription. The great thing about Hamachi is that this is a managed VPN designed to easily establish direct links between computers that reside behind firewalls, with none of the extensive configuration options necessary when using the built-in Windows version. Just be sure to check your company's IT policy before attempting to employ such a solution.

Remote Access

For employees that have a primary PC in their office, remote access programs are a great solution. Unlike a typical VPN connection, which will only provide remote users with access to network resources such as servers and shared folders, a remote access program will actually allow you to take control of the PC in your office and operate it as though you were sitting directly in front of it.

In addition to securely accessing all of your data, you can also check your desktop calendar and even run network applications, without the lag commonly associate with a VPN connection. As highlighted in last month's column, Remote Access with Windows Live Mesh, there are numerous remote access products available.

Features and price points vary and many of these applications are even compatible with smart phones and tablets like the iPad. Some of my favorite remote access applications include Windows Live Mesh, LogMeIn Free, and Teamviewer.

Online Data Storage

Online data storage, or remote backup, is a technology that lets people store their data on the Internet (a.k.a., in the cloud), similar to the way they store it on hard drives, CDs and flash drives. By storing their data online, you can access it from anywhere, using any computer equipped with a broadband connection.

In addition to Macs and PCs, many of these services are even compatible with mobile devices such as smart phones. Best of all, since this data resides in the cloud, it will never be at risk of virus corruption, equipment lost, damage or theft. In many cases, online data storage can also be configured to act as an automatic online backup solution, as well as providing employees with a simple and effective method of sharing data with others.

You have no lack of choice when it comes to online storage providers. Microsoft's SkyDrive, for example, offers 25GB of free space, while others like Mozy or Dropbox will provide only 2GB of free space. If you need additional space, you can buy more at anytime. Pricing varies based on the amount, but Mozy offers 50GB and 125GB plans for $5.99 and $9.99 per month.

Vendors typically provide 24×7 technical support and some vendors offer additional small business security via two factor password authentication. These benefits make online data storage an ideal solution for both small businesses and anyone who works from home.

The biggest drawback to any of these options is that you need Internet access in order to do any work. Fortunately, mobile Internet access is not hard to come by these days, and -- for the most part -- it's quite affordable. In the article 3 Easy Ways to Get Mobile Internet Access, I discussed the various methods and the cost associated with them.

If you don't have mobile broadband service yet, I suggest you consider it. Although the added expense of mobile broadband access or of being tethered to a Wi-Fi network can be inconvenient, the peace of mind of that comes from knowing that your data is secured behind lock doors should more than make up for it.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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