Laptop computers are a prime
target for theft from your office, your home, or at airports, hotels,
railroad terminals and on trains while you are traveling. They are an
extremely attractive target for all types of thieves, as they are small,
can be carried away without attracting attention, and are easily sold for
a good price. They are also a favorite target for intelligence collectors,
as they concentrate so much valuable information in one accessible place.
Safeware, the largest insurer
of personal computers in the United States, paid claims for the theft of
319,000 laptop computers during 1999.1 Of course, most
laptops are not insured, so this is only a small fraction of the total
number of laptop computers that were stolen during that year.
When a laptop is stolen, you don't know whether it was taken for the
value of the information on the computer or for the value of the
computer itself. This makes it difficult to assess the damage caused by
This topic offers guidelines
for keeping your laptop from being stolen, discusses technical measures
for protecting information on the laptop if it is stolen or entered
surreptitiously, and notes special problems relating to traveling overseas
with your laptop.
The basic rule for protecting
your laptop is to treat it like your wallet or purse. Your laptop is a
more attractive target for thieves than your wallet or purse, and if you
lose your laptop, the cost to you in money and inconvenience is probably
greater than if you lose your wallet or purse. If your laptop has
sensitive government, commercial, or scientific data on it, the loss may
be valued in the millions.
Even in your office, unless
it is a controlled secure area, it is advisable to keep your laptop out of
sight when not in use, preferably in a locked drawer or cabinet. The
Washington, DC police recently formed a task force to fight a surge in
thefts from downtown offices; laptops were the thieves' preferred target.2
Your laptop is especially
vulnerable while you are traveling. Here is a summary of basic precautions
- Disguise your laptop. The
distinctive size and shape of a laptop computer make it an easily
spotted target for thieves. Carry it in a briefcase or other,
preferably grungy-looking, case.
- Never let a laptop out of
your sight in an airport or other public area. If you set it down
while checking in at the airport counter or hotel registration desk,
lean it against your leg so that you can feel its presence, or hold it
between your feet.
- When going through the
airport security check, don't place your laptop on the conveyor belt
until you are sure no one in front of you is being delayed. If you are
delayed while passing through the checkpoint, keep your eye on your
laptop. See Theft
While Traveling for discussion of techniques used to steal laptops
- When traveling by plane or
rail, do not ever place the computer (or other valuables) in checked
baggage. If your aircraft departure is delayed and you are directed or
invited to deplane and wait in the terminal, take your computer and
other valuables with you. Don't leave them unattended at your seat or
in the overhead.
- Never store a computer in
an airport or train station locker. If you must leave it in a car,
lock it in the trunk out of sight.
- Avoid leaving your
computer in a hotel room, but if you must do so, at least lower the
risk of theft by keeping it out of sight. Lock it securely in another
piece of luggage. Placing the computer in a hotel vault or room safe
should make it secure from theft, but in some foreign countries it may
not be secure from access by local intelligence or security personnel.
- Never keep passwords or
access phone numbers on the machine or in the case. Do not program
your computer's function keys with sign-on sequences, passwords,
access phone numbers, or phone credit card numbers. If the machine is
stolen or lost, these would be valuable prizes.
- Try to keep only software
files on your laptop's hard drive. Store your data files on diskettes
and carry them separately from the computer.
- Back up all files before
- Beware of power surges.
Don't be connected to either power lines or a copper phone line during
a storm with lightning.
While in any public place,
such as an airplane or hotel lobby, don't have up on your laptop screen
anything you don't want the public to know about. A survey of 600
American travelers found that over one-third admitted looking at someone
else's laptop while flying. Younger travelers were the worst offenders,
with 49 percent of the men and 40 percent of the women under 40 admitting
they look at what their seatmate is working on. Most are checking to see what
their fellow passenger is doing, while others are more interested in who
they are working for.3
Be prepared for the airport
security check. You may be directed by airport security personnel to open
and turn on your laptop to demonstrate that it is actually a functioning
computer. Be sure the battery is charged or have the power cord handy. If
you can't turn your laptop on, you may not be permitted to take it on
board the aircraft. The airport security X-ray machines will usually not
affect hard drives. Floppy diskettes, having less shielding, may be
affected. If possible, pass these to the attendant for hand examination.
It is even more difficult to
protect your laptop, and the information on it, when traveling in foreign
countries where your laptop may be targeted as a treasure trove of
information. Precautions while traveling overseas are discussed in Theft
While Traveling and Security
and Safety Recommendations in the Risks
During Foreign Travel module.
Information on Your Laptop
Due to the very high risk and
high cost of laptop theft, many products are being developed to protect
the security of information in your laptop if it is stolen, prevent the
surreptitious entry into files on your laptop, make it more difficult to
steal a laptop, or make it easier to find a stolen laptop. Specific
products are not discussed here, as the technology is changing so rapidly.
The following general types of products are now available.
- Encryption software.
Storing all data files in encrypted form will prevent disclosure of
the data even if your computer is stolen.
- Software that hides
information on your hard drive, so that it is not found by the average
thief who steals your laptop or, for example, by an intelligence
collector who gains surreptitious access to your laptop in your hotel
- Various types of locks,
keys, and biometric identification devices designed to prevent anyone
but you from using the computer, and perhaps to alert you to any
unauthorized attempt to use your computer.
- Software utilities that
wipe the hard disk clean when deleting sensitive data files. These
overwrite the deleted data making it totally unrecoverable, as opposed
to the normal Delete command that only deletes the "pointer"
that allows the computer to find the file on your hard drive. The file
itself is not deleted until it is overwritten by another file. See Security
of Hard Drives.
- Tracers that identify the
location of a stolen laptop. When the stolen laptop is linked to the
Internet, it transmits a signal to a monitoring station that
identifies the user's telephone number or Internet account.
- Proximity alarms that go
off if the laptop gets too far away from its owner or user.
Ask your system administrator
or computer security specialist to evaluate which of the available
alternatives best meet your needs.
Overseas with a Laptop
Your is even more vulnerable to theft or
unauthorized access while traveling abroad than in the United States. For
discussion of this, see Theft While
Traveling in the Risks During Foreign Travel module.
If you are traveling
overseas, be aware that some countries have import restrictions on
laptops. Check before you leave to avoid delays and possible confiscation.
Also some countries do not allow encryption of telecommunications traffic
within their borders --because they want to be able to monitor your
messages. See Overseas
When you return to this
country, U.S. Customs may try to impose an import tax if they think the
computer was purchased abroad. There are several ways to establishing
prior ownership. One is to carry with you a bill of sale for the computer
and/or insurance policy endorsement showing the serial number. You may
carry a property pass from your employer that shows the serial number. Or
you may register your laptop and any other valuables that might be
mistaken as imports with U.S. Customs prior to leaving the country. You
can do this at the Customs Entrance and Clearance Desk at the airport in
advance of your flight.
and Safety Recommendations during foreign travel.
1. Safeware web site at www.safeware.com.
2. Arthur Santana, "Office Thieves Target
Laptops," Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2000, p. A1.
3. Rob Lenihan, CNNfn, Laptop peeking takes off,
April 12, 2000.