Mobile Computing: Laptop Security, Part 2

My guess is that your notebook is worth several thousand dollars. I'd also guess that the data stored on it is worth much, much more--and that you'd be entering a world of woe if your notebook were stolen or lost.

Last week I offered tips on how to protect and physically secure your notebook when you're out of the office. This week, I've got tips on protecting your data, should fate--or a criminal--separate you and your notebook.

1. Password-Protect Windows

Windows XP gives you the option of requiring a user password to log on. Though certainly far from bulletproof, a relatively complex password provides more protection than none at all.

A complex password includes upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and one or more special characters. For example, suppose your name is Pat. You wouldn't use "Pat" as your password, would you? (You would? My, aren't we feeling lucky?) A better password would be something not easily identified with you.

The more complex your password, the more difficult it is to crack--and, potentially, for you to remember. Don't make your password so complex you can't remember it. Or, if you must store your passwords, keep them somewhere safe. Some software programs for PCs and PDAs give you the ability to manage and secure passwords. One example: DataViz's Passwords Plus ($30), which lets you manage and secure passwords on your notebook as well as your Palm OS PDA.

To create a password for your account in Windows XP, go into Control Panel, then open User Accounts. Select the account you want to protect with a password and click the "Create a password" button.

For more about passwords, read Scott Dunn's June "Windows Tips."

Some laptops now come equipped with biometric fingerprint scanners, as an alternative or enhancement to Windows password-protection. For more on this, see number 3, below.

2. Encrypt Your Data

Another option is to encrypt any files on your notebook that contain sensitive data, such as customer Social Security numbers. (Of course, as I said last week, it's best not to place any sensitive data on a mobile system.)

In essence, encryption scrambles data into code that only an authorized user can access. However, encrypting files, or your entire drive, can be time-consuming, slow system performance, and increase the likelihood you'll lose access to the data.

Windows XP Professional (but not XP Home) includes an option that lets you encrypt files on an NTFS-formatted hard drive. After encrypting a file, you can open it just as you would any file or folder. However, someone who gains unauthorized access to your computer cannot open any encrypted files or folders.

To encrypt a folder in Windows XP Professional, right-click it in Windows Explorer, choose Properties, click Advanced, select the "Encrypt contents to secure data" check box, and click OK twice. In the Confirm Attribute Changes dialog box, do one of the following: To encrypt only the folder, click "Apply changes to this folder only," and click OK; to encrypt the folder contents as well as the folder, click "Apply changes to this folder, subfolders, and files," and click OK.

Some third-party security applications offer stronger, additional encryption tools and features. One example is Folder Lock, a free download that's available from us.

3. Know Your Hardware Security Options

New security tools are appearing on a regular basis, so it's a good idea to keep up. Here are a few examples:

Seagate has developed a hard drive for laptops that automatically encrypts data with a minimal drag on performance. Read "Seagate, Secude Show Encrypted Laptop" for details.

Portable USB flash drives, designed to prevent data loss, are becoming increasingly popular. One example is Research Triangle Software's CryptoStick ($110 for 1GB), which uses the secure Blowfish algorithm to encrypt files. "Privacy Watch" columnist Andrew Brandt found this drive to be among the sturdiest portable USB drives available. Read his November 2005 column for more information.

Also, some notebooks now come equipped with a biometric fingerprint scanner. In essence, the scanner uses fingerprinting to prevent unauthorized access to your files. The Fujitsu LifeBook P7120, for example, offers a fingerprint scanner as an extra-cost option. For more information on biometric fingerprint readers, read Andy's May 2006 "Privacy Watch."

Bottom Line

Before taking your notebook out of the office, always back up your most important files. Think twice about leaving your notebook unattended, even for a moment. Be on guard in airports, hotel lobbies, train stations--anywhere there are others moving about. And, of course, look both ways before crossing the street.

1 2 Page 1
Shop Tech Products at Amazon