What happens if a U.S. customs agent wants to know what's on a laptop belonging to one of your globe-trotting users? Right now, he can demand to see it. Or copy it. Or confiscate the laptop -- or phone, iPod, USB flash drive, handheld or any other electronic device that a traveler brings into the U.S.
This month, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) proposed a law to limit that. Her bill won't go anywhere. But it's a nice try.
The reason why H.R. 6869, the Border Search Accountability Act of 2008, will die in the House Committee on Homeland Security is that the congressional session is almost over. There just isn't time for it to wend its way through the normal lawmaking process. And because it's not emergency legislation with dozens of powerful co-sponsors, it won't get any special treatment.
But for a road warrior whose laptop is seized, the situation is certainly an emergency. Leave aside the privacy issues for the moment. In practical terms, everything on a confiscated laptop is gone -- meeting notes, contract negotiations, customer and price databases, one-of-a-kind files. By the time a laptop is returned, any deal that depends on that electronic information may be toast.
If we want that data protected, we're not going to get help from a law anytime soon. It's up to us.
Of course, an overzealous customs agent isn't the only problem for road warriors and their electronic devices. Laptops are lost and stolen at airports all the time. Smart phones are left in taxis. Briefcases full of gadgets disappear in hotels and restaurants.
Chances are, the data on those devices isn't at risk. They'll wind up in a lost and found, or in the hands of a thief who's just interested in selling the hardware, not sifting through what's inside. Encryption can keep that data safe -- but if it isn't backed up, it's effectively lost for business use.
That's a problem. Why haven't we solved it?
We have the technology. We have VPNs for connecting with the corporate office, and the software to synchronize files. Backing up what's on a traveling user's laptop isn't rocket science.
It just isn't easy enough -- or important enough -- in the eyes of users. And it doesn't solve the problem of backing up smart phones, iPods and all the rest.
That means we have some explaining to do -- and some hard work.
We have to explain to users what can happen: customs confiscations, thefts, losses. And remind them that whatever isn't backed up is gone forever, and that could cost them time, or a deal, or a customer's trust.
We also have to explain these things to their managers, who have an interest in getting business done. And to the company's lawyers, who have their own reasons for wanting company information backed up and protected.
And then we have to stitch together a one-click backup application that will be so easy to run, no user will find an excuse not to. One click, and everything in the "save" folder is backed up and encrypted before the trip to the airport, along with flash drive, iPod and other data. Another click, and the user can work on the plane. Click once more, and if the flight offers broadband service, it can be backed up again before that trip through customs.
It's a problem IT can solve -- not just with technology, but with education and motivation for the users who will have to make sure those backups happen.
And no one else is going to solve this problem for us.
Isn't it about time we tried?
This story, "Click to Save" was originally published by Computerworld.