How to Prevent Laptop Theft

What’s worse than losing a $2,500 laptop you just bought a couple of months back? It’s losing the data inside, which is usually more valuable than the hardware itself. It’s not uncommon for laptop users to consider the contents of their computers as priceless, regardless of what these are. For business users, these can be important company documents or sensitive, confidential communications. For individuals, these can be personal files like family pictures or other such multimedia documents that are likewise valuable and irreplaceable.

A quick estimate pegs the value of a laptop’s content at about $800,000, and that’s just for personal email alone. What more with business secrets and data?

Some companies have even experienced losing laptops that contained huge client and user databases in unencrypted format. These proved to be very embarassing P.R. nightmares, where the involved parties lost some public confidence due to the lapse in security.

IT rumour site The Register has quite a number of articles on laptop theft. We also have some news snippets and quick tips on how to protect yourself.

Why they do it

laptop bag
This screams “Steal me!”

The primary reason thieves steal laptops is because of the hardware value. While laptops are becoming cheaper and cheaper every few months, with some models retailing for as low as $600 online (even less with rebates), fenced laptops can still be sold or pawned for about 50% of market value. A quick sale would be sure to leave the offending party with quite a sum. With the more expensive laptops (going upwards of $2,500) the financial return is even better. Sometimes, the sum of the individual parts can even fetch better prices than the whole, especially considering that hot items are more identifiable and may not be as as easy to sell as individual parts, which can pass off as used spare parts.

Some steal laptops under the guise of ordinary theft, but are actually doing acts of industrial espionage. In this day and age where knowledge is the primary capital, it pays to be one step ahead of your competitor. And sometimes, this involves underhanded tactics like stealing information, plans, or communications just to know what the other company’s up to. In this way, client databases (with contact information and usage patterns or other research) are lost to the competitor. There was even a well-publicized incident where a laptop containing nuclear weapons data was stolen from a government office.

How to protect yourself

These days, with WiFi-enabled cafes becoming popular, what’s stopping a thief from picking up your laptop from your table while you purchase a beverage or perhaps even right in front of you while you’re busy typing away or surfing? Or perhaps you’re in a cubicle in a public restroom and someone grabs your laptop from under the door. You can’t just run out with your pants down!

Let’s cover all our bases, from hardware, to software, to people-ware.

Hardware

Hardware is your first line of defense against laptop theft. If they can’t get to it, they can’t steal it!

  1. Cables and locks. Virtually all latops come with those small holes marked with the “K” logo. These are intended to accommodate Kensington-type locks, which let you tether your laptop onto a stationary place with a steel cable so it cannot be carried away without the cable having to be cut (or without significant damage to the laptop’s frame–which would take some time and effort, either way). Use these if you intend to leave your laptop on an office desk unguarded, or if you need to use your laptop out-of-doors, particularly when you doubt the safety of the location. Combination-type or key-type locks retail for about $40 or so. Not such a big price to pay for some peace of mind. Popular brands include Kensington (of course!), Kryptonite, and Targus.
  2. Alarms and sensors. In the event that your laptop gets taken while you’re not looking, alarms can be a good deterrent to a thief’s being able to just run away with his loot. You can install aftermarket devices (such as from Targus) that study your usage patterns and knows when the laptop is picked up and taken by an unauthorized person. And alarm is sounded when the device is suddenly transported outside of the known motion patterns, unless moved with a motion-password is issued (a pre-defined pattern of tilts and turns). Cable-type solutions are also available, in which a central alarm sounds when a cable-type tether is detached from the laptop.
  3. Proximity and location-based systems. You can also employ proximity sensing devices, which usually constitute a separate portable transceiver that would alarm when the laptop is separated by a defined distance (say five feet or so).
  4. Lock it away. If you’re in an office environment and you leave your laptop in your office for extended periods of time (if used as a desktop replacement, for instance), then you can both tether it using a Kensington-type lock and lock the laptop inside a secure cabinet, just to be sure, as cables can be cut–with some effort, of course.
  5. Leave your mark. Consider engraving your (or your company’s) name on your laptop. This would minimize the likelihood of your computer’s being fenced, as it would be obvious that the computer is owned by someone who is evidently not interested in selling it.
  6. Transporting your laptop. The leather or nylon shoulder-bags that come as default laptop carrying cases–especially those with the brand badges–only scream out “Steal me!” It’s best to carry around your laptop in discreet carrying cases to avoid being spotted by would-be laptop thieves. Such are available as aftermarket accessories. Many popular luggage and bag manufacturers create backpacks and shoulder-bags with sleeves and pouches specifically made for laptops. What’s great is that they don’t necessarily have to look like there’s a laptop inside. You can also purchase neoprene sleeves that let you insert your laptop into any bag (where it fits, of course) without worrying about dings and scratches.
  7. Biometrics. Now here’s something new. Some higher-end laptops these days have fingerprint scanners that work in conjunction with software. These let users lock down the system (or sets of documents) and open these up with the swipe or scan of a forefinger or thumb.

Software


Someone might steal
your finger, instead!

Your second line of defense is software. This basically involves securing your data for protection in the event that your hardware falls into the hands of other people. Hey, we wouldn’t want your secret nuclear plans to be stolen by an evil mastermind genius.

  1. BIOS and hard disc passwords. The BIOS password feature is installed on computers for a reason–it’s so your computer cannot easily be accessed at BIOS level. Some notebook manufacturers also employ hard disc security, which ensures your hard drive will not work on any other device unless the correct HDD password is used. While BIOS passwords can be reset if the computer’s CMOS battery is removed, the HDD password usually cannot be re-set, and the hard drive would be rendered useless if the password is lost.
  2. Location-based software. Install software that “phones home” everytime the laptop connects to the Internet. This would help pinpoint the location of a lost laptop, basing from IP addresses and ISP records.
  3. Encrypt sensitive information. Be sure to password-protect email accounts and web browsers (so your saved password cache cannot be accessed). If you are storing sensitive documents in your laptop, then it’s best to encrypt these with commercial-grade security software.
  4. Backup your data. In the unfortunate event that your laptop gets lost or stolen, you would at least have your valuable data left if you have backups. Assuming you don’t have sensitive information stored (or you have everything encrypted and locked down), then you would be limiting your loss to the actual hardware costs.

People-ware

Perhaps the best line of defense against laptop loss or theft is people-ware, that is, the security of both hardware and software is dependent on the people who install and utilize them. This means your having common sense, and being in-the-know, as the laptop owner, so your precious gadget and the even more valuable data inside would stay safe, whether at the office, outdoors, or while being transported.

  1. White-collar crime. A good number of company laptops are stolen by employees, themselves. Some would report their company-issued notebooks lost while on travel, but in reality keep these for personal use or pass them off as used items for sale. Some would have their laptops stolen while left unattended on their desks or inside offices. If you’re in IT management, do remind your employees to keep their laptops secure while in office premises. And do warn them against falsely reporting loss or theft, as the company would be vigilantly tracking down items lost/stolen.
  2. Common sense. Many laptop thefts occur because of oversight (or sometimes sheer stupidity) on the part of the owner. Leaving your laptop on a cafe table while going to the restroom, for instance, is an open invitation for people to run off with your laptop. Leaving your laptop inside your car in the open view of passers-by also says “steal me!” Using your laptop in public places deemed unsafe is also inviting trouble.
  3. Education. Many laptop thefts and losses occur because users are too lazy to implement security measures that are otherwise already available. For instance, locking down your laptop using a Kensington cable would take but two minutes. However, some would rather not spend the two minutes on what can be considered an effective means to deter the casual laptop thief.

Sometimes we may be too lazy to tie up the laptop onto the desk. Or we may be too lazy to set-up BIOS or even Windows (or Mac, or Linux) passwords. This beats the entire purpose of securing our devices.

In the end, it all boils down to your vigilance and awareness as a laptop owner or user. If you treat your laptop and the data inside it as valuable and important, you are more likely to use safer practices that would deter theft, or at least minimize the repercussions. You know what to do. Better start doing it in practice.

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