How to protect your laptop

The use of laptops has greatly enhanced productivity in our highly mobile business environment. But it has also created a very valuable

target for thieves.

Small and lightweight favor both the traveler and the thief. Perhaps

one of a pair of thieves distracts you while the other makes off with your

computer. Maybe there is a moment's inattention while you collect your suitcase

at the airport, and your laptop is stolen behind you. Worse than losing

the computer, which may be worth a few thousand dollars, the hard drive

may contain millions of dollars of proprietary information or trade secrets,

or even national security information.

Protecting the laptop physically is your first line of defense. Be aware

that it is a target for thieves and take extra care to protect it as you

travel. Backups are also a problem. Back up your work to removable media,

and store them separately from the laptop in a pocket or a different case.

If physical protection fails, however, and thieves get the hardware,

you can still make sure they don't get the secrets that your laptop contains.

Your second line of defense is software that controls access to the computer.

For this purpose, you cannot rely on protection built into the operating

system. In systems using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, for example, the thieves

just boot with their own DOS disk and gain access to the directory structure

and to your files. You need software that controls the boot process itself,

denying all access to the computer unless the proper password is given.

In earlier columns, I discussed choosing strong passwords.

Your third line of defense is at the application level. Here again,

it is unwise to rely on the password-based access control built into most

off-the-shelf applications. Password-cracking software for many is available

on the World Wide Web and can open "sealed" documents in a few seconds.

Fortunately, high-quality encryption software is also available and, for

a few moments' inconvenience encrypting and decrypting your files when you

store and retrieve them, provides excellent protection for your valuable

information assets.

Some encryption programs are designed for ease of use, allowing you

to drag-and-drop files into folders where they are automatically encrypted.

Other programs require a mouse-click or two and a password to encrypt and

decrypt. It's a small price to pay to protect valuable information.

Most thieves will simply wipe your hard drive and sell the laptop. But

if they don't, there is software available that will periodically and surreptitiously

check to see if the laptop has been connected to the Internet. If it has,

the laptop will send you a message telling you where it is. That can sometimes

lead to recovery of the laptop and prosecution of the thieves.

Finally, don't overlook insurance protection. You can usually get protection

for the hardware, and policies are beginning to be marketed that protect

valuable information assets being created, stored, processed and communicated

online.

Ryan is an attorney, businessman and member of the George Washington University

faculty.

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