Most laptop thieves not after data

While the value of data on a laptop usually far exceeds the cost of the hardware, thieves are usually only interested in making a quick buck

Laptop thieves are usually after a quick profit, not the valuable data that's on the device, said experts Monday, the day after the high-profile theft of the chief executive of Qualcomm's laptop.

"Fortunately, most laptop thefts are to buy drugs, not to sell to competitors overseas," said Lee Curtis, managing director for high-technology in the Western US for corporate-intelligence provider Kroll Associates. While laptops can be worth thousands of dollars, the data on the laptops can be valued in the millions, said Curtis. "It's really fortunate that the criminals aren't any more intelligent."

On Sunday, Qualcomm chief executive Irwin Jacobs had his laptop stolen off the podium of a hotel conference room where he had just finished giving a talk to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Jacobs had been talking to several members of the organisation not 30 feet away, when he noticed that the laptop had disappeared, reported the Associated Press Sunday.

The laptop hardware was valued around $4,000, according to the report, but contained "proprietary" data that could be valued in the millions.

Qualcomm, well-known for its Eudora email program, has also had a lead role in developing a wireless communications technique known as Code Division Multiple Access, or CDMA, technology. The wireless technology is on the track towards playing a major role in connecting personal devices to the Internet in the next decade.

Yet, Qualcomm could be a target of corporate espionage.

While informal surveys have indicated that one out of every 1,000 laptops are stolen, about ten to 15 percent of those laptops are stolen by criminals intent on selling the data, said William Malik, vice president and information security research director for market researcher GartnerGroup.

"Some hacker rings have bounties on laptops from certain companies, such as Intel," said Malik, who added that boring laptop bags -- without a spiffy logo or flashy business card -- can go a long way towards reducing targeted laptop theft.

For most thieves, a laptop merely represents a valuable, but light, piece of equipment, he said. "It's the weight of the thing that matters. If it were a diamond, so much the better."

Noted identity-theft litigator Mari J Frank added personal information to the list of worried for the Qualcomm chief.

"If I were this chief executive, I would immediately put fraud alerts on my credit reports," she said. Frank has aided both TV network CBS and car maker GM with identity thieves who have stolen personal information from the companies in order to apply for credit in the name of their executives.

"In this day and age, information is currency," she said.

That sentiment has made technologies, such as encryption, all the more valuable as a security measure, said Jim Magdych, security research manager for the PGP security business unit of software maker Network Associates.

"If [Qualcomm] has any proprietary data on the laptop, competitors could use it to get a leg up," he said.

"While Qualcomm can replace the data lost from the backups, preventing others from using that information requires encryption." Several security software makers, including Network Associates, offer such technologies.

Time will only tell whether Jacobs' laptop -- which had no such protections -- will be valued at $4,000 as a computer, or possibly $40m as a Rosetta Stone to decode Qualcomm's business.

To have your say online click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.