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Securing Your Laptop

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Two of the greatest strengths of a portable device or laptop also make it attractive to thieves: It is portable and it is valuable. Michelle Johnston identifies some solid ways to deter thieves from stealing your laptop or the data inside.
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The workforce in the United States is becoming increasingly mobile. Gartner predicts that by the year 2005, 60% of workers will have mobile access to corporate data, and more than 40% of corporate data will be stored on portable devices outside corporate walls (such as laptops, PDAs, and smartphones).

Many of these devices will be accessing corporate data via wireless networks. Gartner predicts that by the year 2007, there will be nearly 120,000 WLAN "hot spot" gateways worldwide, providing access to private and public networks for more than 200 million mobile devices used in business.

Two of the greatest strengths of a portable device or laptop are also its greatest weaknesses: (1) It is portable and (2) it is valuable! These "strengths" make laptops more likely to be lost or stolen, or for information on them to be stolen, such as via wireless network sniffing.

Consider these points:

  • A laptop is easy to carry to and from work, presentations, and client meetings—but, unfortunately, that means that it is also very easy for a thief to carry.

  • Because a laptop is smaller and more portable than your desktop PC, it is also more easily left behind by accident.

  • Your laptop is valuable to you because it can speedily provide you with access to important data, information, and software—but that also makes it valuable to someone else and, therefore, of interest to thieves.

The Safeware Insurance Group reports that, in the United States, a laptop owner now has a 1 in 14 chance that the laptop will be stolen.

Foiling Thieves

In light of this knowledge, you should be aware of where your laptop is at all times. If you are standing making a phone call, make sure that your laptop is tucked tightly between your ankles.

If you leave a conference room for a break during a presentation, be sure that the room is locked while you are away, or take your laptop with you. If you cannot take it with you because you are leaving for only a short period of time, at least remember to log off from any network or software that you are logged into.

When carrying your laptop between locations, be sure to carry it in a bag or backpack that is not designed solely for laptops, so as not to draw the attention of potential thieves.

Airports and hotels are favorite places for thieves. Never check in laptops as luggage when flying because they can often disappear. Keep a close eye on your laptop while it is on the conveyer belt at the metal detectors also: Laptops and other valuables are often stolen from here. In particular, do not let your laptop out of your sight if you are picked out for a head-to-toe check. And don't forget to pick it up again after it has passed through the security check! Harried passengers rushing to catch flights often leave behind their laptops.

Once on board the plane, stow your laptop at your feet under the chair in front of you. Do not leave it in the overhead bins to which other passengers will also have access, especially on a long flight, when you might fall asleep and not notice someone relieving you of your precious laptop.

If you have to leave your laptop in the car, always leave it either in the locked trunk of your car or well hidden within the main part of a locked car. Never leave your laptop in an unlocked vehicle, even if that vehicle is in your own driveway or garage. Of course, keep it out of view as well, even if the vehicle is locked. Be especially aware if your car is parked in the parking garage near your workplace: Thieves know that they are more likely to find expensive computer equipment in cars here, and such garages provide them with exit options and cover.

When leaving the office at night, ensure that your laptop is locked securely in a drawer or laptop locker, or is secured to the desk by a cable lock to which only you have the key. Remember that office cleaners, maintenance workers, and others often have access to the office keys, so it is not enough to simply lock your office door.

Cable locks are extremely effective deterrents because most of them fit onto the security slot (most laptops have one of these) and then around a heavy table leg or fixture. Removing one is too much trouble for all but the most determined thief. Note that a really determined thief can get around most cables with a bolt cutter, but most thieves will be deterred altogether by this measure; even determined thieves will be slowed down, at least. If your laptop does not have a security slot, glue-on and screw-on options are available from a number of vendors.

Another extremely effective deterrent measure is to have a theft-prevention plate fitted to your laptop (or PDA). Such a plate usually includes some kind of barcode to uniquely identify the laptop and is, at least in part, indelible and permanent. It works by clearly indicating that the laptop is police-traceable (and that it has been stolen if it is in the wrong hands). It is almost impossible to resell a laptop marked with such a plate, and it makes it easy to return the laptop to its rightful owner if and when it is found. This also makes the plate an effective method of retrieving mislaid property.

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