Technology

Securing Your Laptop Against Theft


Just about every technological step forward comes with a trade-off. The benefits of the advancement have to be weighed against a weakness or flaw. In the case of the increasingly popular notebook PC, that flaw is the greater risk of theft.

Portable and productivity-enhancing, notebooks are also easily stolen. And the costs associated with losing a notebook can go far beyond the replacement cost of the machine itself. By the reckoning of IT research firm Gartner Group, the loss of a single laptop to theft averages $6,285 when you include replacement of not only hardware and software but also the loss of productivity. And that's before you factor in the cost of any data stored on the hard drive.

With the value of that information in mind, hard-drive manufacturer Seagate Technology (STX) has just launched a new line of hard drives that protect data using encryption technology, which renders information useless to anyone who doesn't have the coding key—and, in particular, potential notebook thieves.

Extra Security Seagate's new technology uses 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard technology to lock away all the data on the drive. The technology also allows data on the drive to be erased instantly. Seagate says it will deliver the first DriveTrust-enabled drives for notebook PCs in 2007.

Locking up the contents of a hard drive isn't exactly a new idea, and software for doing it has been available for years. PGP, the company behind the well-known e-mail encryption software, has long included the ability to create encrypted disk partitions, and recently added the ability to encrypt the contents of an entire hard drive. Apple Computer (AAPL) in recent years has added a feature to its Mac OS X called FileVault, an option that lets users encrypt the contents of a hard drive.

Of course, the risk in both cases is that users who lose or forget a password also get locked out of data. There's a host of other options for computer users looking for extra, or different, ways to protect against a stolen laptop (see BusinessWeek.com, Slide Show: "A Guide to PC Security Products").

Tracing Technology

In a world where it's increasingly easy to stay connected to a network from just about everywhere, a stolen PC can theoretically call for help, and even tip you off to its whereabouts. Absolute Software of Vancouver, B.C., has a service that lets your computer do just that. For $50 a year, you can get signed on to CompuTrace LoJack for Laptops. If your laptop is stolen, installed software quietly reports its location to Absolute Software the next time it's connected to the Internet. The company's recovery team then contacts local cops to coordinate recovery. If your notebook isn't recovered in 30 days, you get your money back.

Nuclear Option

Then again, if it's the data on the drive—and not the notebook itself—you're most worried about, then perhaps your notebook needs a poison pill that erases the contents of the drive in the event it's stolen. Think your notebook was jacked by a corporate spy hired by a competitor dying to see your product specs or customer lists? Inspice Trace is a notebook trace package that offers remote data destruction as a last-ditch option. After reporting your stolen laptop to the company's tracking service, you have the option of invoking your own little nuclear option via the Inspice Web site.

Doing so sends a remote command to the machine to destroy—irrecoverably—all files and folders in the My Documents directory and everything in the Settings folder, where all user data, including Internet history, cookies, and logon information, is stored. All that's left is the operating system. Meanwhile, the Inspice Trace software continues to track the machine's location.

Nuclear Option Plus

On the Mac side, a Belgian company called Orbicule has developed a program called Undercover that does many of the things that CompuTrace does, but with a few twists. First, it sends screen shots of what your Mac is being used for. And if your machine has a built-in iSight camera, as most recent Apple notebooks do, it snaps a picture of the person who has your machine every six minutes. If the machine can't be recovered, Undercover makes it start misbehaving. The screen starts to go dark, until it is unusable after 30 minutes. The idea is that the unreadable screen will prompt the thief to seek help from a certified Mac repair tech. At the repair shop, the previously darkened machine reveals itself to be a stolen machine, offering a finder's fee for the machine's prompt return.

Sound the Alarm

Nothing impedes a thief like a nice loud alarm. Targus' Defcon 1 sounds a 95-decibel alarm when the steel cable connecting it to your notebook or its carrying case is severed, or when the motion sensor embedded in its body is triggered.

Travel Smart

The best prevention is often good ol' common sense. When traveling, don't let your notebook leave your person, carry cables to secure it to furniture in your hotel room, and, if one is available, lock it up in a hotel-room safe when you're not in the room. And, finally, as a hedge against all good intentions, regularly back up your important data to an external hard drive at home or at the office.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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