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Mitigation of Data Loss On Stolen Laptops

Check Point : 09 June, 2010  (Special Report)
With laptop theft reaching as much as 10%, the risk of losing more than just the equipment is extremely high unless certain measures are taken to reduce the impact of losing hardware, as explained by Belinda Sproston of Check Point
What's not to like about laptops? They're powerful, connected, portable, have great graphics and sound - and they don't cost much more than their desktop counterparts. So it's no surprise that laptop shipments rose by 16% in 2009.

Unfortunately, their portability makes them easier to lose, not to mention prime targets for opportunistic theft. Analyst firm Gartner says that 10% of laptops are stolen annually. That's over 500,000 laptops globally.

This also highlights a big issue with the majority of security software suites that are available for laptops. They'll protect you, your data and your online identity against viruses, spyware, phishing and other Internet threats - that is, until you lose the laptop, or have it stolen.

Then what should you do? Unless you never put sensitive information of any kind on the laptop, never ask it to remember logins and passwords for banking or shopping websites, and rigorously delete cookies or form data every single day, you have a big problem.

But until you're able to cancel or change username and password details on all the online accounts you use - which can be difficult if the misplaced or stolen laptop is the main computer you use - you're at the mercy of the person with your laptop. So conventional PC security suites can leave you unprotected against one of the most common security risks - loss or theft.

With this in mind, what can you do to mitigate these risks, and protect the data that's on your laptop? Here are some practical tips that could save you a headache if you're one of the unlucky 10% that has their laptop spirited away.

Out of sight

Whether you're travelling or at home, the best thing to do when you're not using your laptop is to put it away - in a cupboard, in a desk, in the boot of a car, anywhere where it cannot easily be seen. If a potential thief can't see it, there's a better chance they'll move on to an easier target.

Passwords matter

These are the window-locks on your computer. Make sure that you create a complex password with letters, numbers, upper and lower-case characters. Make it at least 8 characters long - and don't let Windows or the applications you use autofill the password, or remember it. Also, whatever you do, don't write it down on a sticky note and keep it on the laptop or in the laptop bag.

The last point may sound stupidly obvious, but it's exactly what happened with a laptop containing confidential military data that was stolen from the Ministry of Defence HQ in December 2009.

Go on a data diet

If you do need to keep your laptop with you, then don't carry data on the hard drive that isn't essential. Consider having sensitive information on a removable drive that you can keep safe at home, or storing it in a webmail account that uses encryption, such as some web-based mail offerings (remember that you need a strong password, and don't let the computer remember it).

Encryption options

The points I've mentioned above are sensible, free precautions that can help mitigate the risks to your data if your laptop is lost or stolen. However, there is a method that secures all data on your laptop, making it more or less impossible to access without the right key. Data encryption turns the contents of your laptop's hard drive into a puzzle that only you can unlock with your password.

However, it's worth noting that not all encryption solutions work in the same way. Some solutions will encrypt only individual files, or folders. Which is fine, providing you remember to place the data you want to protect in the right folder. Some others only apply encryption if you remember to do so - which again, is fine providing you remember every time you leave your laptop.

More advanced solutions - such as the encryption built into the ZoneAlarm Extreme Security suite - use a technique called hard disk encryption (HDE).

Hard disk encryption - no half measures

As the name implies, hard disk encryption ensures that all data stored on or retrieved from your laptop's hard disk is encrypted or decrypted on-the-fly and automatically as it is accessed. You don't have to remember to apply encryption, the software does it for you. Once you are set up with your personal encryption login, no-one else can access any of your data.

What's more, the encryption process is transparent to you and will not slow you down, as it can handle up to 500MB of data per minute. It's also unaffected by power losses or computer crashes, so it keeps your data secure even during unforeseen circumstances.

In conclusion, if you're a laptop user, you need to extend security a little further than what's offered by conventional PC security suites. With a little planning, and the use of hard disk encryption, your data will be safe if your laptop is lost.
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