Mobile Computing: Laptop Security, Part 1

Please don't take this personally: You, dear reader, are the weakest link. And sometimes you're also a sitting duck.

That notebook you carry around, full of corporate secrets and private customer data? When it comes to security, you're a disaster waiting to happen. Companies spend tons of money protecting data and computers on site. But when you take an unprotected laptop--or other information-containing device--on the road, you're opening the door to all kinds of security mishaps.

Case in point: In March, Fidelity Investments disclosed that one of its notebook PCs had been stolen. The laptop contained the personal information of 196,000 current and former Hewlett-Packard employees, including Social Security numbers.

And here's an ever scarier example to contemplate. In San Francisco, there's been a rash of notebook robberies, many occurring in wireless Internet cafés. The trend took a violent turn in April when a café customer was stabbed in the chest by a thief, who, with an accomplice, made off with the victim's PowerBook. (Luckily, the victim had no serious injuries.) Though San Francisco appears to be at the epicenter of this trend, who's to say similar crimes won't happen in other cities?

So what do you do, short of leaving your laptop in a bank vault? For starters, don't carry data around in your notebook unless it's absolutely necessary. And if you do have to carry sensitive information, encrypt the data and use strong password protection to keep unauthorized users out of your system. I'll tell you more about protecting your data next week; this week, I've got tips for keeping your notebook safe when you're on the go.

1. Never Leave Your Notebook Unattended

In the Fidelity example, an employee stowed the notebook in the back of a rented SUV while their group was having dinner at a restaurant, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Initially, the vehicle was locked. But during dinner, an associate of the employee retrieved an item from the SUV and forgot to lock it again.

What kind of Bozo would do that? You, for instance, or me. Show me someone who isn't careless on occasion and I'll show you a 99-year-old trapeze artist.

To minimize the risks of theft, always make sure your notebook is locked up if it's not with you. For instance, if you're meeting someone at a restaurant, lock it up in the trunk, if your vehicle has one, and make sure it's stored out of sight if you don't. An extra security maneuver would be to stow it before you arrive at your final destination to eliminate the possibility that a thief will see you putting it away. Always double-check to make sure the vehicle is locked--and don't offer others access to your vehicle. It may be a pain to go outside and get whatever is needed, but it's much less painful than dealing with the consequences of another person's carelessness.

At the airport, wait until it's your turn to pass through the metal detector before placing your notebook on the conveyer belt, if possible. This should reduce the amount of time your notebook sits unattended on the other side of the X-ray machine.

2. Lock It Up

Of course, taking your notebook with you isn't always feasible. In those cases, consider leaving it in the most secure place possible. If you'll be staying in a hotel, call ahead and ask if there are in-room safes. At a minimum, find out if there's a hotel safe in which you can secure the notebook when it's not needed.

Granted, a safe isn't a perfect solution. During a visit to New York, I locked my notebook in my hotel room's safe. When I went to retrieve it, the combination no longer worked, and I had to wait several hours before the manager could free my notebook from captivity. Still, the less time your notebook is left unsecured, the better.

3. Bolt It Down

What do you do if you need to leave your notebook in a room that doesn't have a safe? Invest $20 to $60 (or more depending on the device) in a notebook security cable/lock. Many notebooks today have a security slot into which you insert a locking device, attached to a cable. You then wrap the cable around something stationary, just as you would a bicycle lock.

Of course, a determined thief could snip a cable with heavy-duty wire cutters or find another way to get your notebook. But any extra step you force them to take may cause them to target another computer instead. Also, some notebook security products, such as the Targus DefCon 1 Ultra ($50), emit a piercing alarm when the cable is tampered with.

Kensington offers a wide variety of notebook security devices, including the MicroSaver ($45), a 72-inch long cable reinforced with titanium, and the MicroSaver Portable Notebook Combination Lock, with a retractable 48-inch cable and a combination lock.

Lincoln Spector wrote about notebook security products in his April Answer Line. Among those mentioned were Securitykit.com's $20 Notebook Security Kit and PC Guardian's $60 Notebook Guardian.

And in the June Privacy Watch, Andrew Brandt describes some software programs that can automatically wipe your PDA's memory or laptop's hard drive clean, should they fall into the wrong hands.

Next week: tips on protecting your data, in the event your notebook is lost or stolen.

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