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Keep Your Laptop Safe

One man's bitter experience

When it comes to taking care of laptops, I'm sitting in a glass house throwing hand grenades. I have a bad track record so what I am about to tell you is based on bitter and hard-won personal experience.

I lost my first laptop in 1993. I was having a drink in a local pub after work with a colleague. We were playing pinball and I put the laptop bag by the legs of the machine. Minutes later when the game was over (I'm bad at pinball), the laptop was gone. It took seconds for someone to make off with it, but the insurance paperwork took weeks. I had an ‘interview' with a loss adjuster that would put American prison guards to shame. I lost a lot of work which took weeks to reconstitute. The cost of replacing the laptop was about a third of the cost of time it took to sort myself out.

I broke my second laptop in 1996. I was attending a computer games trade show in Atlanta. I took my very expensive, top-of-the-line Toshiba laptop to do demos to prospective clients. How can I put this without appearing completely foolish? I don't think there is a way. Basically, I stood on it. Luckily, I was able to find a Toshiba dealer about an hour's drive from my hotel and he was able to replace the broken screen. It took half a day of my valuable week in Atlanta, not to mention a lot of unnecessary stress.

In my defence, I'm not alone. Of 5m laptops in the UK, about 100,000 are damaged each year and another 67,000 stolen.

How to secure your laptop

1. Backup your data. In Microsoft Windows XP, you can use the Synchronise tool to keep copies of your data on the office server or your home computer and synchronise before and after each trip. At least if you lose the laptop, you won't lose your data.

2. Get a security lock. A Kensington Microsaver or equivalent will secure your laptop to something immovable like a radiator. Ideal if you have to leave it unattended in a hotel room or an office.

3. Set a boot password. Most laptops have the ability to set a password so that an unauthorised user cannot start the computer. This is unlikely to be more than a speed bump to an experienced hacker but it will make it harder for casual thieves to access data on your computer.

4. For more security use encryption. Microsoft Windows XP has an encrypted file system which can be used to make confidential files completely unreadable to unauthorised users.

5. Watch what you store. The most secure file of them all is the one that isn't on your laptop when it is stolen. If you're very nervous, only take files you need and leave the rest behind.

6. Proper insurance and maintenance contracts. It's important to have a policy that covers your laptop anywhere you take it. Many household policies won't cover laptops away from the home without an extra premium and car insurance rarely covers items stolen from cars. Also, some manufacturers offer worldwide maintenance support and if you travel extensively, this is worth having.

7. Get a padded, nondescript bag. Many laptops are broken simply by dropping them. Get a good, well-padded bag that doesn't have a manufacturer's logo on it and which doesn't shout ‘I'm a laptop bag, steal me'.

8. Be security minded. Keep your laptop in sight whenever possible. When it is unattended, keep it hidden or physically locked down. Carry laptops in hand luggage when flying - don't check them in. Don't leave them with hotel porters for safe keeping. Your insurance company may not pay up if they think you weren't taking enough care of the laptop.

9. Security mark your laptops and individual components, if possible, to increase the chance that they will be returned.

10. Log serial numbers. This will help police identify them if returned.

Back in the office

Laptops are the weakest link, but there's a lot you can do back in the office to protect your assets. In terms of physical security, your insurance company or local crime prevention officer can give advice but think in terms of establishing a security perimeter using self-shutting, lockable doors, window locks, alarms and so on. Control who comes inside the perimeter, especially into critical areas like server rooms. It's worth considering security-minded strategies like a ‘clear-desk' policy and pin-coded faxes and printers that don't leave confidential printouts lying around. Lastly, sign out computers and other equipment loaned to staff and make sure that they are responsible for them and trained to take care of them properly. Don't let people casually ‘borrow' stuff.

Where next

See our security area for general advice and information.

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