Putting Stickers On Your Laptop Is Probably a Bad Security Idea
From border crossings to hacking conferences, that Bitcoin or political sticker may be worth leaving on a case at home.
Image: Nate Angell
Plenty of hackers, journalists, and technologists love to cover their laptop in all manner of stickers. Maybe one shows off their employer, another flaunts that local cryptoparty they attended, or others may display the laptop owner’s interest in Bitcoin.
That’s all well and good, but a laptop lid full of stickers also arguably provides something of a red flag to authorities or hackers who may want to access sensitive information stored on that computer, or otherwise cause the owner hassle.
“Conferences, border crossing[s], airports, public places—stickers will/can get you targeted for opposition research, industrial espionage, legal or investigative scrutiny,” Matt Mitchell, director of digital safety and privacy for technology and activism group Tactical Tech, told Motherboard in an online chat.
Mitchell said political stickers, for instance, can land you in secondary search or result in being detained while crossing a border. In one case, Mitchell said a hacker friend ended up missing a flight over stickers.
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Plenty of people take disposable devices with limited information or account access on them to events like the annual hacking conference DEF CON. That way, if the device is stolen or otherwise compromised, the attacker should only be able to obtain information you’re more prepared to expose. But it’s still probably not a great idea to draw a target on yourself with an identifying sticker.
Mitchell said he saw a person on a plane likely flying to DEF CON with a sticker of a particular media organization. “This person had a Chromebook, I guess as a travel laptop,” Mitchell said. “But it had a media sticker on it.” Mitchell also sent Motherboard a photo of the laptop.
Naturally, a journalist’s computer, which may contain information on sources, could be an attractive target, not necessarily for some sophisticated attacker, but just someone who fancies trolling and making that reporter’s life more difficult.
Of course, this all depends on your own particular threat model, and the motivation of the attacker. As Moritz Bartl, who heads a group that runs parts of the Tor anonymity network, pointed out on Twitter, when burglars broke into his van, the only thing they did not steal was the stickered laptop.
“Police assumed it was [left behind] because it is hard to resell,” Bartl wrote. So, petty thieves looking to fence a laptop may be somewhat dissuaded from picking up a computer covered in stickers.
But in certain contexts, it may be worth not parading a bunch of stickers around.
“Buy an outer case and sticker that shit up,” Mitchell told Motherboard. “Keep it at home when you travel or swap with a clean outer case.” Mitchell sent Motherboard a photo of his current laptop post-DEF CON—clean, and with no visible affiliations.
“It's ok to be yourself and have fun,” Mitchell said. “Support your favorite nonprofits, open source projects, and surveillance circumvention tech. But nothing comes at no cost or risk.”