Traveling with Technology

By Jeffrey Allen

What better title for an article on traveling with technology than the title of Willie Nelson’s hit song about travel? Well, let’s see, I could have used Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”; or I could have . . . you get the idea. Traveling has inspired a great many songs, books, paintings, movies, and photographs. Throughout history, people have traveled for migration, fun, social reasons, and business. As we have developed technology, we have used it to help us plan and carry out our travel plans. Of course, as technology became more and more portable and useful, we have taken increasing amounts of it with us when we travel.

I am old enough to remember well the days when we did not have all that much technology to take with us when we traveled. A camera, a tape recorder (reel-to-reel), or maybe a transistor radio and a watch pretty much covered the field. Fast forward to the age of portable computing, and travel gear changed remarkably. Now we had luggable computers that we could take with us when we traveled. I call them luggable as they approximated the size of a small suitcase. Computers shrank in size and weight as they correspondingly increased in power and utility. Other technology evolved and shrank to make itself more portable.

We have reached the point in our technological evolution where we have so much portable technology that deciding what to take on any given trip has actually grown difficult. Anyone can travel with technology. Traveling well with technology, however, actually requires some planning. In this article, I will explore with you some of the options, some of the risks, and some of the solutions available to those of us who, having grown increasingly dependent on technology, cannot bear to (or simply choose not to) travel without it.

Assessing Your Trip
The first step to traveling well with technology is to assess the purpose and the circumstances of your trip. Will you travel for business? Will you travel for pleasure? Will you travel alone? Are you going on a vacation with your family? How much work do you want to do during your travel? How accessible will you make yourself to your office? To your clients? To your family? Will you travel by plane, train, automobile, boat, or some combination of the above? Where you plan to travel also has a significant impact on the decision about what technology to take with you. Will you travel to large urban areas, smaller towns, rural or remote locations? Will you travel domestically or internationally? All these questions factor into the decision about what technology to take and how to take it.

In the not-too-distant past (“pre–9/11”), traveling with technology caused far fewer problems. In the aftermath of 9/11, traveling with technology has grown more problematic—even more so because the airline industry discovered that it had the need and the ability to cut costs and increase revenue by making it harder (or at least more expensive) for people to check bags.

The process of getting through the security check-in with lots of technology means that you must plan on being delayed by bag checks. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff look through their screens at your bag and see wires, cables, batteries, and circuit boards and feel a compelling need to look more closely. They want to ensure that your bag contains computer equipment and not a bomb. Now that almost everyone travels with a laptop, the TSA people don’t find them that scary, but when you start adding to the basic laptop, crossing from the outside world into the sterile environment of post-security airport space gets more hairy.

So, let’s get down to basics. You should first decide whether you will need (want) a computer on your trip. If you decide that you don’t, you travel a far easier path. If you decide that you do, you next need to address what group of accessories will accompany the computer on your trip. Power for your computer should be a primary concern. You will undoubtedly need an AC adapter. Will you also need a DC adapter? What about an airplane adapter? If your plans include a long plane flight or train ride and you plan to use your computer, you may want to consider one or more extra batteries. If you take a computer, you should have some means of backing up your work. That may take the form of a small external hard disk or a USB flash drive.

If you are traveling to do a presentation or a trial, you may also find it necessary to bring a projector along with you. In the old days, we often found it advisable to bring a small, portable printer. Nowadays, it is rarely necessary to carry a printer. You can find them in most offices and hotels as well as places such as FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s). Transferring the file you wish to print to a USB flash drive makes it possible to print it easily at such facilities.

In deciding what type of computer to take with you, consider what work you plan on doing. If all you want is a tool to facilitate e-mail, some web surfing, and maybe a little word processing, a netbook will work just fine and save you some weight. If you need to do some serious number-crunching or use a program that requires greater computing power, you will need a more powerful computer—and that means more weight.

If you take a laptop with you, do not put it in your checked baggage. You should carry it on with you and keep it with you and under your control and observation all the time you are at the terminal or airport. If you carry it on, you need to take it with you through the security checkpoint. When you do, TSA will expect that you put it through their X-ray equipment. That should not be a problem as the generated field lacks sufficient power to do harm to most laptops. My laptops go through the machines regularly and repeatedly and I have noticed no problem as a result of that exposure. If the TSA inspectors have some question about your laptop, they may require a further inspection. Ask for a hand check rather than put it into other, unknown, equipment that could possibly damage the computer or its data.

TSA regulations allow a computer to remain inside a case if the case is built so that nothing else goes on top of or underneath the computer to impair the inspector’s view of it as it goes through the X-ray machine. Any number of manufacturers has turned out “TSA-friendly” cases that have a computer compartment that can be viewed separately from the rest of the case and its contents. I have used some of these cases and found that they work, but I really don’t think that they add much convenience to the process. I keep my computer in a sleeve and put it, sleeve and all, into a larger case. When I get to security, I remove the sleeve from the case and send the computer, in its sleeve, through the X-ray machine. I have had no problems with that process passing TSA muster; it takes less time to pick up the sleeve and put it into the larger case than it has taken to reassemble or refold the TSA-friendly cases, and my computer has reasonable protection throughout the process.

Whenever you travel with a laptop computer, keep your laptop close at hand; lots of them disappear in airports and train stations every year. Don’t let it out of your sight, and don’t leave it sitting somewhere after asking a stranger to watch it for you while you go to the restroom or to Starbucks for a coffee.

Data Confidentiality
If you travel domestically, TSA workers can require that you allow them to inspect your computer. If you travel internationally, inspectors may also look at your data, including encrypted data. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in April 2008 that a computer is like luggage, and border guards can search it to determine its content and the propriety of allowing it to cross the national borders. United States v. Arnold, 523 F.3d 941 (9th Cir. 2008).

The Arnold Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not require even a showing of reasonable cause for a search under the border-crossing exception to the Fourth Amendment protections. The court held that the exception includes all forms of “personal electronic storage devices.” Under Arnold, external hard disks, DVD and CD ROM disks, flash drives, media cards, digital cameras, cell phones, and PDAs (without limitation) all come under this exception. The Arnold decision places your confidential information at risk of disclosure. Fortunately, I don’t know of anyone who has had his or her data seized and inspected in this way, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or that it won’t happen to you.

If you want to risk the disclosure of your data, continue to carry it on your laptop or some other form of media that travels with you. If you want to protect the data against such inspection, you need to do some planning. If you will have Internet access available to you on the trip, you have a solution available. Before you leave, locate and arrange for space with a secure online data storage service. Next, back up your data and leave a copy safely stored in a secure location. Third, encrypt your data using a good encryption program. Be sure to set a strong password to access the encrypted data. A “strong” password means a password with a minimum of six characters that uses both numbers and letters, preferably in random form rather than your initials and birth date. An example of a strong password: “j104m234a756”. If you want to make it even stronger, add a non-alphanumeric character (#, @, $, !, *, >, etc.). After encrypting your data, upload it to your online storage location, erase the data from your computer, pack it up, and off you go. You can access your data anywhere in the world that you have Internet access.

When you want to access the data, download it, unencrypt it, and use it. Before you return to the United States, re-encrypt it, upload it to your online storage service, and erase it from your computer.

If you will cross other international boundaries, you should also check into what procedures exist at those borders and act accordingly.

Smart Phones
No matter how or why or even where you travel, you will want to have a smart phone. Today’s smart phones have the computing power and flexibility of yesterday’s desktop computers and have converged features such as digital cameras, video cameras, media storage, and music playing as well as GPS (global positioning system) and often an even broader collection of features. These devices have so much going for them that even when you find yourself out of range of your cellular system, they will have considerable utility. A word of warning, however: Just because you can get a signal does not mean you want to use your smart phone as a phone or as an Internet appliance, for that matter. The same holds true for any cell phone you may have that gets a signal. Rates for telephone and data use outside of your normal system can get quite expensive, particularly when you travel outside of the United States.

If you plan ahead, you can save yourself a goodly sum of money. If you have an unlocked GSM phone (one that uses a SIM card), you can probably get a SIM card in the country you are traveling in and use that card (with the accompanying account from a local provider). If you don’t have an unlocked GSM phone, you may be able to get one unlocked for $20 to $35. I usually take an older, unlocked phone with me and put the local SIM card in it so that I can keep my regular cell phone operational in case I need it. Another possibility is simply to purchase a prepaid cell phone in whatever location you find yourself. Generally, that will cost more than the SIM card and time but still probably less than you would pay your normal provider for the use of the foreign system.

Of the current crop of smart phones, I consider the iPhone 3GS ( www.apple.com) the best travel companion. The  iPhone gives you functional tools for photography, video recording, GPS, a voice recorder, a music player, a photographic display unit, and dozens of other tools that can provide entertainment or assist you in your work through what Apple now reports as more than 100,000 Apps (applications). An iPhone with 32 GB of memory will allow you to take a considerable amount of music, a few movies to see, other apps that you might find useful, important data, and numerous games to occupy your time. You don’t even need to take a separate e-book reader, thanks to the Kindle App that converts the iPhone into a pocket-sized Kindle. Although you cannot put an extra battery inside the  iPhone to power it for all your use, you can get an external power supply to recharge it on the go. You have many models available from a variety of manufacturers. Tumi ( www.tumi.com) makes my personal favorite.

It’s in the Bag
No matter what your travel plans, you will want to try to travel with as little wear and tear on yourself as possible. If you plan to take a lot of gear with you, don’t try to sling it over your shoulder or carry it in a briefcase that weighs so much you walk tilted over to one side. Get yourself a bag with wheels and pack your technology into it. Your back and shoulders will thank you—if not immediately, then over time as you age. If you absolutely must carry it and do not want to use wheels, you will find that a good backpack designed for carrying your technology will do a much better job distributing the weight and will prove easier to carry. Any number of manufacturers make computer backpacks. In my opinion, some of the best and most versatile technology-friendly backpacks come from Tom Bihn ( www.tombihn.com).   


  • Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the small law firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California, with a general practice that, since 1973, has emphasized negotiation, structuring, and documentation of real estate acquisitions, loans, and other business transactions, receiverships, related litigation, and bankruptcy. He also works extensively as an arbitrator and a mediator. He serves as the editor of the Technology eReport and the Technology & Practice Guide issues of GPSolo magazine. He is also a member of the ABA Journal Board of Editors. He regularly presents at substantive law and technology-oriented programs for attorneys and writes for several legal trade magazines. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix. You may contact him via e-mail at jallenlawtek@aol.com. Jeffrey Allen blogs on technology and the practice of law at www.jallenlawtekblog.com.

Copyright 2010

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