Backing-up and encryption can alleviate some of the pain caused by losing a mobile device.
'The government loses a laptop every other day." This may sound like an accusation voiced by a character in the fantastical BBC spy-series Spooks, but worryingly it actually refers to real events. Liberal Democrat MP Dr Vincent Cable made the observation in July, in reaction to news that police had charged a man with the theft of at least one laptop from the UK Cabinet Office.
Cable is rightly incensed at the government's poor record of mobile security, citing the possible repercussions if confidential information fell into the wrong hands. Three laptops went missing in July alone, although the man in question was only charged with stealing one. The incident adds to the theft or loss of hundreds of government laptops in recent years.
The Secretary of State for Defence recently confirmed, in a written parliamentary answer, that some 400 laptops have gone missing from government departments in the past two years. If you go back further, things are even more frightening. Another parliamentary question last year put the figure closer to 600 computers having disappeared from the Ministry of Defence in the past five years.
There is a lot of publicity around the issue of hackers breaking into wireless networks -- a recent survey by RSA Security in the City of London revealed that one in three access points are not secure -- but stolen or lost mobile devices are an older and much more prevalent security issue if government figures are comparable to the private sector's
The UK government is not alone when it comes to sloppy laptop security. The US Justice Department recently announced it was reviewing security procedures, after admitting more than 700 weapons and 400 laptops had gone missing in the past three years. Most of the laptops belonged to the FBI and contained classified information.
Although these figures seem incredible, they are probably not unique to government departments. Public agencies are required to disclose embarrassing security information that enterprises prefer to keep confidential -- making it difficult to gauge how many mobile devices go missing in the UK.
A recent investigation by insurance firm Complete Computer Cover indicated that, assuming there are around 5 million laptops in the UK, about 100,000 will be damaged and nearly 67,000 stolen every year. The trend towards wireless working means notebooks and other mobile devices are only going to become more common.
PDAs and increasingly sophisticated mobiles are also catching up with laptops when it comes to devices for working on the move. No longer purely for personal use, these smaller -- and consequently easier to lose -- devices are carrying increasingly important data.
Although slow to take off, Gartner predicts that technologies such as Bluetooth -- a short-range wireless protocol that allows devices to communicate wirelessly -- will drive the uptake of smaller mobile devices. By 2005, more than 560 million Bluetooth-enabled devices will be purchased by businesses and consumers. However, implementing the technology will cost an additional $5.6 billion annually as a result of usage and security issues, the analyst claims.
"Bluetooth deployment costs will be higher than other wireless technologies because of limited interoperability and the need to implement policies to safeguard against data corruption and theft," says Bill Clark, research director for Gartner.
A survey earlier this year from security firm Pointsec Mobile Technologies revealed that 41 per cent of those surveyed used their PDA to access a corporate network but only around a third encrypted data to prevent unauthorised access.
Worryingly, the report also revealed that 40 per cent of people had lost a mobile phone, and 25 per cent had lost a laptop or PDA. The most notorious places for losing mobile devices are taxis, closely followed by bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.