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Keep your guard up

How to protect private information when you’re traveling

David Baugher//May 30, 2011

Keep your guard up

How to protect private information when you’re traveling

David Baugher//May 30, 2011

Attorneys are famous for taking the office with them on vacation. But for many, that habit can carry a hidden risk.

What if the office doesn’t come back with you?

A lost laptop or misplaced client file is not just a great way to ruin a great getaway. It also can present a nightmare of potential confidentiality problems for lawyers who now have a wealth of sensitive client information in the hands of a person or persons unknown.

How can you safeguard your client information on a working vacation?

Create a strong password. Come up with a password the computer will ask for whenever it wakes up. Jim Snyder, managing partner of forensics and valuation services for BKD, a Kansas City-based accounting firm, says the rules are easy to remember — even if your password may not be. Use a mix of numbers as well as capital and lowercase letters. “The basics of password security would be: ‘Avoid the obvious,’” says Snyder, who is also an attorney. “Don’t use your birthday. Don’t use your address. Don’t use your Social Security number.”

Encrypt it. Encryption technology is another must, Snyder says. Such systems can be bought online. “Password security is an important part of that, but you would also want to have some sort of encryption that would prevent somebody from getting in and being able to uncover what you’ve got on the hard drive,” he says.

Keep it nearby. Don’t leave your laptop unattended. Laptops are a classic target for crimes of opportunity. “Treat the computer as though it’s latched to your wrist except for those few minutes that it’s going through the airport screening devices,” Snyder says. “If you are tempted to leave anything for a few minutes, don’t have it be your computer.”

Have a backup server. Kristie Prinz, an attorney and legal management consultant in Los Gatos, Calif., says it’s helpful to keep data on a server. That way, the attorney has a backup copy of information that otherwise would be lost. Systems can consist of a remote computer or a cloud-based system. “My recommendation to small firms is always have a server,” she says. “Don’t carry everything around in one computer.”

Go remote. Some remote systems can download your information each time you use the machine. Then it’s safely erased from your laptop when you’re finished. The laptop is treated as a terminal, not a storage device, Prinz says. “I personally don’t like to carry client files around on my computer, so now I travel with a blank computer with no data on it and just log in remotely,” she says. “That’s what I would recommend to people.”

Beware of WiFi. Snyder says he thinks it’s hard to hack into a wireless system at a lodging establishment, but Prinz advises caution anyway. “Be wary of wireless systems like those in hotels,” she says. “That’s a concern. It’s better to log in to a landline.”

Keep private what’s private. You needn’t lose a laptop to let sensitive information get out. Working on files in close quarters with strangers is not smart. “I’ve been on some planes where I’ve been sitting next to a lawyer and the files are just in plain view,” Snyder says. “And with very little effort you could look over and see what was going on.”

Stay quiet. While on a plane, monitor your own voice when on important phone calls. “I don’t know if there are many people who do dictation anymore,” Snyder says. “But I’ve also been on planes where someone is dictating, and, of course, there are lots of confidentiality issues there.”

Watch your wastepaper. Your hotel room is not your office, even if you may treat it as such. Be careful what you toss in the trash. “What is it you are throwing away?” Snyder says. “Just be mindful of the fact there may be confidential information on some of these things.”

Use care with public computers. Many hotels have business centers where guests have access to computers. Snyder says some have special security precautions, but others may not. “Be careful about using the business office to open up confidential email,” he says. “I have seen some situations where I have been on a hotel business office computer and someone has not clicked out of their email account, so there it is front and center, ready to be looked at by anybody and his brother.”

Think before you print. Printing leaves the possibility of accidentally leaving important documents on the tray or — equally problematic — in the print queue. “Make sure that they get printed, and recognize that there is some lack of security that goes with printing outside your office,” Snyder says.

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