Burney’s Legal Tech Reviews: Laptop Security – Tips and Product Recommendations

Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com’s Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal technology questions .

You can find a plethora of stories on laptop security today that deal with quashing viruses, blocking malicious spyware, and making sure mischievous hackers can’t wirelessly peek into your digital files.

And while most of these stories are must-reads and their instructions should certainly be heeded, I find that many people barely give a second thought to the physical security of their laptops. The strongest firewall in the world won’t stop a common thief from simply walking off with your laptop computer.

In this column, I look at physical laptop security from a high-level, providing a few suggestions and product recommendations to protect your precious portable PC.

Think like a thief

Truly, this whole topic could probably be summed up in the words “common sense.” Most of the laptops that are physically stolen or hacked into are because the owner didn’t exercise a modicum of common sense in protecting their valuable possession.

For example, public places are always prime spots for laptop thefts because owners can be distracted easily. Big crowds are easy targets for obvious reasons, but distractions can happen on a more “professional” level. For example, an innocent looking accomplice could “accidentally” spill soda in your lap and immediately help you clean it up, all the while their buddy is calmly walking down the hall with your laptop.

I know it sounds obvious, but it is imperative to know where your laptop is at all times. It is so easy to get complacent if you trust your environment, but you never know where someone could be waiting for their chance to snatch up your laptop when you least expect it.

I’m too busy to lock up my laptop

Obviously, preventing laptop theft is not simply a matter of applying common sense – if a thief is intent on taking your laptop, they will find a way to do it.
In that light, I view most of the security practices I discuss here as deterrents rather than fail-proof preventative measures.

Physical locks are probably the simplest and easiest methods of deterrence that you can put in place. Although recent stories on bike locks that can be compromised by Bic pens are certainly scary, the locked-up laptop is still an effective method of deterrence.

Consider the mind of a thief. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves – they want a quick and easy getaway. If they have a choice between clipping or picking your locked laptop, and the totally un-secured laptop that is simply sitting on the next coffee table, which do you think they will take?

In other words, the lock is not going to single-handedly prevent a theft, but it could convince a thief to move on to an easier target.

Just about every laptop on the market today comes with a tiny slot about a quarter of a inch long somewhere along one side or the back. Many may pass this slot off as a design necessity for airflow, but it is in fact a “security slot” originally designed by Kensington. Conveniently, the slot is a perfect fit for Kensington’s line of security cables which go by the name of MicroSaver.

To use a MicroSaver security cable from Kensington, you thread the lock around an immovable leg of a desk or bench, through a loop, and into the security slot on your computer. Kensington offers cables with both combination and key locks.

I’ve used a plain-vanilla security cable for many years, but I recently switched to the MicroSaver Portable Notebook Combination Lock. The body of the lock is a little bulbous (4.5″ x 2.5″ and about 1.25″ thick) since it holds the length of the cable. My old security cables just flopped around and got tangled up with other equipment. But the Portable Notebook Combo Lock retracts the cable and even houses the actual lock in the open area. All in all, the lock is really self-contained.

I don’t use my Kensington Combination Lock everywhere I go, but I usually whip it out if I’m going to be sitting in a public place for a while. For example, if I go to a coffee house, I’ll use the cable to protect my laptop during those quick runs to the little boys room. Similarly, if I go to the library, I’ll hook up the security cable while I go in search of a tome of knowledge.

Is that a purse for your laptop?

Another consideration is how you carry your laptop. Carrying around a laptop bag with a manufacturer’s logo emblazoned on it is just advertising to the world exactly what you’re carrying.

There are hundreds of laptop bags on the market that you can use instead, and many of them could easily pass for a non-descript briefcase. Something like the Samsonite Side Loader Mobile Office can double as a travel carry-on, but also carry your laptop in an easy-to-access-for-security side panel.

On the other hand, you could opt for something a little more sporty like the XL Exec from Tekstyl.

The general idea is just to find a bag that is comfortable and works for you, and doesn’t scream to the whole world that you’re carrying a laptop.

If you really wanted to throw everyone off, you could always grab a 14″ PowerPizza from Human Beans. For around $30, you could purchase a genuine Italian-style pizza box lined with foam and containing straps to secure your laptop. While I wouldn’t necessarily espouse using this to transport your laptop, it could be the perfect costume for your computer while it’s sitting unattended on a table. A hungry soul might stumble on your ploy by accident, but there’s a good bet that no laptop thief will think to look inside.

Register your laptop

If you’re like most people, you throw away or ignore those registration cards that come with any new piece of consumer electronics. You’re so excited to turn on your new laptop, that you totally forget to fill out the registration card and send it back to the manufacturer. Some people simply choose to not fill them out because they view them as a invitation to get junk-mail or extra spam.

But registering your laptop can accomplish a couple of major goals. First, it will ensure that your laptop is cataloged for any necessary warranty repairs. Second, registration lets a manufacturer “flag” your laptop if you should ever report it stolen so that it can be traced if it comes in for repairs. It’s not a lock-tight solution, but having the serial number of your laptop recorded with the manufacturer could help if it ever goes missing.

Hold it close and never let it go

Physical security for your laptop should never be lost among the constant concerns of spyware and viruses. Just few simple common sense precautions will ensure that your laptop will stay with you for a long time. While I’ve just barely scratched the surface of the products available for laptop security, I hope you will take the ideas to heart and perform a little security check on the life of your laptop today.

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