Saturday, October 16, 2010

Locate a Stolen Laptop

The statistics for stolen and lost laptops in the US alone are staggering. As a traveling tech guy, I’m at constant risk of accidentally leaving my laptop at a TSA checkpoint, or having it taken off a Starbucks table when I get up to get a napkin.

Stop for a second and think what you have on your laptop? Will access to your email reveal some finance information? Is your client list in the open? Is your credit card mentioned in any document? Social security number in the latest DMV email? The loss of data, risks to privacy and damage to ongoing business is quite frightening.

Preventing physical theft

While every laptop today has a Kensington security slot as a standard, all it does is deter your casual opportunity thief. Someone with 5 more minutes can easily saw through it, or break the plastic bit.

Locating a stolen laptop
Services like Lojack will allow you to locate a stolen laptop (much in the way they locate stolen cars), for a fee. Some laptops even have such a service enabled in the hardware (Lenovo offers it for free for the first year, if I’m not mistaken).

I recently came upon an online service called Prey that will protect up to 3 laptops for free. To test it, I installed it on my main laptop, took my tablet to a nearby café, logged into the site, and marked my laptop as “stolen”.

Within 10 minutes I got a report that included a screenshot displayed on the laptop, the name of the logged in user, the list of open applications, and the laptop’s location, based on its IP. I would have pasted the report in, but the map is so accurate it actually showed my apartment (!). You can also annoy the hell out of the thief, displaying messages, logging onto the machine etc. Mind you, if your thief decides to format the hard disk, this entire scheme goes out the window. But for immediate response, I installed this on all my computers.

Which brings me to the next discussion point: should you confront someone who stole your laptop? This might be quite dangerous in certain areas. I recommend alerting the police once you ascertain the culprit’s definite location, or taking with you a friend who moonlights as a ninja.

Protect against data theft
Even if your laptop does get stolen, beyond the hardware costs, there are several ways to combat data theft.

  1. Always use a password protected user. Make sure you log off (Windows-L in Windows) before getting up from your computer.
  2. Use a BIOS password. This will add 2 more seconds to your boot time, but will mean it’ll be harder to get at your hard drive.
  3. Encrypt your data: either use the Windows built-in BitLocker mechanism (Vista and 7), or a free application like TrueCrypt to encrypt a file, folder, a whole partition or even a full disk.
    This is the ultimate data-theft deterrent. A thief will have to format your HD to be able to use the computer.
  4. Backup – make sure you have your sensitive information backed up. At home use a large hard disk and/or a NAS, and start using online services like Mozy, or Dropbox

All said, if you travel a lot, there are good chances you and your beloved laptop may part ways on a less than happy circumstances. Never let a laptop theft create more damage than beyond the theft itself. Protect, prevent and backup.

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