It's a word every small business IT manager wants to hear: free. But does this popular F-word -- especially given today's ailing economy -- also apply to computer security, too?

While there are a number of paid products and services designed to protect data while employees are on the go, there are also solutions and tips to guarding your sensitive business data -- and in some cases, customer information, too -- that won't cost you anything to implement.

"There are thousands of cases of security breaches on laptops that have hurt the owners of those laptops and compromised the privacy of customers, citizens, and others," explains David Daoud, an analyst with IDC's personal computing for PC trackers and green IT programs. Examples include the recent announcement from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services about a laptop security breach involving an estimated 85,000 citizens.

"Travelling can be an important source of theft and the consequences can be devastating from a legal and personal standpoint," adds Daoud, whose offices are based in Framingham, Mass.

If budgets are tight, the following are some free ways to help protect your data.

The most obvious way to deal with laptop security is using existing encryption technologies and passwords, says Daoud. "BIOS-level passwords help in that they add more security at the operating system level," along with setting up a password to launch Windows, too, he says. "For added security, you could use password protection at the folder or directory level."

Many mobile executives use Windows Vista's built-in BitLocker encryption technology that can protect the data on the laptop should it fall into the wrong hands. Available in Windows Vista Enterprise and Windows Vista Ultimate, this data protection tool encrypts the entire Windows operating system volume on the hard disk (including user files and system files) so that the data is inaccessible unless the user provides the right password or biometric identification.

Others prefer free third-party encryption options, such as PKWare's SecureZip or TrueCrypt's software.


Many laptops now -- from the likes of HP, Lenovo, Sony, and Dell -- offer an integrated fingerprint reader, so only the user can access files. Usually this finger scanner is located near the keyboard or just underneath the laptop's LCD screen.

Daoud says common sense also comes into play. "These biometrics security features are efficient on a certain level, but savvy hackers can certainly find ways to break into the system if they really need to," he says. "So during travel make sure you keep your laptop with you all the time."

Another tip is to avoid unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks -- even if they seem tempting because they're unlocked -- because these could be rogue connections by malicious types out to steal your data. On a related note, wherever possible, users should log into their company's secured network to send messages or files rather than relying on free Web-based e-mail programs. Try to avoid using a public PC, such as at an airport lounge, but if you must, be sure to delete Internet history, cookies and clear cache before you're done.

Virtual desktops

Some business owners prefer their employees not carry around any company files with them. Instead, mobile workers must log into the company's secure network "in the cloud" and access files remotely. This technology is sometimes referred to as a “thin client” or “virtual desktop” solution.

"The hosted virtual desktop concept is good for data security, in that data is not attached to a hard drive. The industry is still relatively immature, however, and users should balance the need for data security with other needs such as information accessibility," advises Adam Hils, an Atlanta-based principal research analyst with Gartner's security, privacy, and risk division. "It is true that users should limit the information on their laptops to what they need for the trip."

Daoud agrees: “The best advice is to have some centralized storage system at home or in the office where all the critical data is stored and secured… that can be securely accessed via Web browsers when someone needs to access the data.”

Finally, there are free ways to back-up important data, in case a laptop is stolen, lost, or damaged. For example, Microsoft offers up to 5 gigabytes (GB) of free storage per month with its Windows Live SkyDrive service. Not only is this password-protected online file storage solution easy to use but you can access your files from any Internet-connected computer in the world, which can prove very handy while traveling.

"And because remote laptops are outside the protection of the corporate firewall, every laptop should also have a personal firewall installed," adds Hils. "These are available with Windows, and with most anti-virus products, for free."