Stop, thief! Laptops on the loose

What do the US State Department, the British military and the FBI have in common? Each has recently lost laptops with sensitive information.

What do the US State Department, the British military and the FBI have in common? Each has recently lost laptops with sensitive information.

The cost of losing a laptop can be much greater than the US$2,000 or so spent on the hardware. Gartner estimates laptop loss or theft costs a company more than US$6,000 per incident--and that doesn't even account for the value of whatever data may have been lost or the liability that the loss might create for the company.

Many cheap devices on the market can help prevent laptop theft. Kensington Technology Group makes one of the best-known, the MicroSaver lock, which sells for about US$45. The MicroSaver's cable attaches to a tiny hole on the side of the laptop and latches the machine to a desk or whatever other furniture is nearby, just like locking a bike to a bike rack. Kryptonite, which got its start in bike locks, makes a similar lock for laptops.

But despite the fact that 95 percent of laptops are equipped for such locks, only 10 locks are sold for every 100 laptops purchased, says Cathie Smithers, Kensington's senior security product manager. "It seems today everyone knows about complicated technologies like encryption and firewalls, but something simple like cables gets overlooked," she says.

Kensington has also developed the SonicLock, a motion-detection device that attaches to a laptop and can sense when it's being moved. Lexent Technologies makes a competing product for business travelers called iSpy.

Another company, Caveo Technology, has developed a system that detects when a laptop is taken beyond a given range. A user can set up a 100-foot diameter around a certain point, and a 110-decibel siren will sound if the laptop is taken out of that range.

Caveo's device--expected to be widely available early next year--is the only antitheft product on the market that slides into a laptop's PC Card slot instead of attaching to the machine's exterior. It shuts down the computer and prevent it from rebooting if it senses unauthorized access.

If these preventive measures don't work, there are other steps a company can take to protect its electronic assets even when a laptop is in someone else's possession. Several services--such as those offered by Absolute Software's Computrace, Loss Prevention Services' LapTrak, Lucira and zTrace Technologies--can track a laptop's location after it's been lost or stolen. These services typically cost US$50 per laptop per year.

Once a stolen laptop is connected to the Internet, hidden software communicates back to the provider's data centre and the laptop is traced.

With IT budgets being pared, companies are looking at ways to better protect laptops, says Gartner senior analyst Mark Margevisius. "They can't afford to lose that equipment."

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