SecureMac, Inc.

Checklist 20: 5 Things to Know About Physical Security

January 19, 2017

On this podcast we frequently talk about the various “digital” defenses that you can set up to protect your Mac and iOS devices. Physically securing your devices is equally important, especially when it comes to protecting your data from prying eyes and grabbing hands in the “real world!” In today’s edition, we’ll cover what you need to know about physical security and some things you can do to improve your device’s safety.

Checklist 20: 5 Things to Know About Physical Security

  • Protecting yourself from shoulder surfing.
  • Using a screen protector.
  • Employing physical locks.
  • Staying secure when traveling.
  • The importance of off-site backups.

Welcome to another episode of The Checklist! On our podcast, we spend plenty of time discussing digital security and how to keep your Mac safe from the many threats it faces online from malicious hackers. Good password choices, anti-malware software, smart browsing habits, and other such “digital” defenses are just one component comprising overall security, though. What about the threats you face in “real life”?

It’s true that your laptop isn’t going to contract malware while it’s sitting inside a travel bag — but someone could still steal that bag and the sensitive info on your electronics. Physically securing your devices is equally important, especially when it comes to protecting your data from prying eyes and grabbing hands. In today’s edition, we’ll cover what you need to know about physical security and some things you can do to improve your device’s safety.

Protecting yourself from shoulder surfing. “Shoulder surfing” isn’t a fancy term for giving someone a ride on your back — it’s simply the act of peeking while someone types in a password or enters sensitive account information. One typical instance of shoulder surfing might occur at any bank’s ATM; someone could attempt to sneak a peek at your PIN for later identity theft.

For those in the workplace and working on the go, this is a real concern. The obvious solution is just to position yourself in a place where others cannot see your screen or what you’re typing. Even with a laptop, that’s not always possible — for example, if you enter a crowded coffee shop or you’re trying to work in a busy airport terminal. When possible, avoid logging in to personal or sensitive accounts while in public.

When that’s not an option, always make an effort to find the quietest or most protected spot; try to block the viewing angle to your screen or keyboard as much as possible.

Mindfulness of one’s environment and the people around you is the best approach. Be aware that someone may try to “shoulder surf” to glean your information. Observe your surroundings and act accordingly.

Using a screen protector. There’s no shortage of reasons to consider investing in a screen filter or protector for your devices. At its most basic level, this is an accessory that restricts the viewing angle on your monitor or screen, often making it such that the screen is only visible while directly in front of it. A filter makes it far more difficult for shoulder surfers and snoops to get a look at what you’re doing. With no end to the number of places where a filter could come in handy, you may even wonder how you ever felt secure without one.

For example, a filter for your MacBook could allow you to work on sensitive company documents worry-free while on an airplane; because the filter polarizes the light, those on either side of you won’t see anything more than a fuzzy blank space. Meanwhile, you’ll be able to see your screen as normal. It’s similarly useful in an office setting where some employees may not have the authorization to view what you’re working on; using a filter removes the temptation to sneak a glance while passing by your desk.

Taken together with other efforts to combat shoulder-surfing, you can create a much more secure setting just by being aware of the privacy concerns in your physical space.

Of course, there are other concerns for the physical security of your machine beyond someone looking at your screen.

Employing physical locks. Laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices all make incredibly enticing targets for thieves everywhere. Not only do they potentially represent a treasure trove of personal information and data, but there’s the inherent value of the device, too. For Mac users, there’s a particular risk — after all, Apple products are often visually distinctive and well known for being valuable computers. How can you protect yourself against would-be thieves and re-sellers? You might ask yourself the same kind of question about something like a bicycle, and in fact, you should arrive at the same answer: put a lock on your property.

For years, the MacBooks and MacBook Pros in Apple’s portable line have long come equipped with a “security slot” for a laptop lock. Unfortunately, Apple’s obsession with making each new model thinner and lighter came at a cost, and the security slot is nowhere to be found these days. There are some locks that work without the use of the security slot that have come to market in response, such as Maclock’s The Blade. For those of you with iMacs, we highly recommend Kensington’s SafeDome Secure Lock. These locks can come in several forms. You can permanently fix a lock to a desk in your office, or a lock could be an item you take with you as you travel. In either case, one end connects to your laptop, and a secure anchor to a fixed object on the other end of the highly durable cord keeps it in place.

While you should never leave your laptop unattended in public, a lock provides you with a degree of security and certainly some peace of mind, too. Most thieves won’t want to go to the trouble required to break the lock and free your computer, so its presence alone acts as a deterrent. Should someone try to defeat the lock, chances are good you’ll return to catch them in the act before they come close to success. While certainly not a perfect solution, physical locks are essential tools for preventing theft.

Staying secure when traveling. For travelers, device locks and screen filters cover most of the specific security issues you’ll likely face. However, they don’t cover everything; physical security means safeguarding the integrity of your system, too. When you’re planning to store your device in luggage or a carrying case, shut it down completely. It can be tempting to rely on the convenience of sleep mode for quick and easy access to your MacBook, but complete shutdown is a better option. This way, you avoid any potential issues from the machine waking while stored — and thus potentially overheating or suffering damage to the hard drive. It also minimizes risks related to unauthorized access. However, you should always have your machine prompt for a password on wake regardless.

Avoid baggage that draws attention to the fact that you have a computer; when possible, use an item that seems more like an average briefcase or travel bag. The less conspicuous your bags are, the less likely they are to pass into someone else’s possession. Consider using a cover or tape to obscure the Apple logo on the front of your MacBook as well. While not an essential step, it will help reduce the amount of unwanted attention you receive whenever you must use the device in public.

The importance of off-site backups. Sometimes, even the best planning and most diligent habits can still fall victim to chance and circumstance. While you can hopefully avoid a situation where theft occurs or your devices suffer severe damage, have a contingency plan in place. Even if you think you keep your device safe from thieves, consider that thousands of iPhones and laptops are accidentally left in taxicabs every year! It’s essential to create an “off-site” backup of your data, that is, one which is completely separate from your machine, and stored in a different physical location. A backup is something everyone should have, not just those planning to travel.

Apple makes it easy enough to create a backup copy of your Mac and its files with the Time Machine application. There are other utilities available as well; choose what will make the process easiest for you. You should back up the entire contents of the machine, and be sure to do so securely — you don’t want someone to access your stored files without permission. Store this backup disk in a safe place and update it often! If you’re backing up to iCloud, that counts as an off-site backup. Depending on how much data you’re backing up, you might need to purchase additional storage space from Apple. If you want to stick with non-cloud backups, we’d recommend backing up to an external hard drive and storing it in a safe deposit box at your local bank branch. Obviously, you’ll need to remember to frequently swap the drive back and forth so it might be a good idea to purchase a second backup drive and switch between them on a regular basis.

While you may not often give it a second thought, physical security is a crucial part of safeguarding your data and ensuring the continued stability of your digital life. From keeping unauthorized eyes off your screen — whether with filters or another technique — to ensuring your devices remain in your possession at all times, there’s plenty you can start to do right away.

Well, that’s it for this episode! If you’d like more information on the topic we covered today, or if there’s a specific topic you’d like to see featured on a future episode, send us an e-mail at!

Get the latest security news and deals