Go Lock Your Laptop, Right Now

Posted June 14, 2012

My father's home was burgled today. Fortunately, everyone is okay and everything that was taken can be replaced. As with most burglaries, the list of items taken is a little strange and the list of items not taken is even stranger.

One thing the burglars did get was my dad's laptop. It's a first-version MacBook Air, probably of little value at this point. But, it did have a wealth of information on it.

My first question to my dad was "Did the computer have a password?". He didn't remember, which probably means it didn't. Of course, requiring a password to log in by no means guarantees that someone can't get in to the computer. But it does pose a significant road block to most people, and that's the point of any type of security: make it difficult enough that it's no longer worth someone's time or effort to break into it.

Consider for a second what sort of data someone would have if they got a hold of your computer. If you're like most people, your browser knows most of your passwords. That means access to your email, which means access to everything else. Speaking of email, they'd probably have access to every email you've ever sent or received, especially if you use a desktop email client like Outlook or Thunderbird. And then your files. Pictures of friends and family. Financial documents.

Now consider how easily your computer could walk off. As humans, we tend to have a flawed belief that it will never happen to us, but it has to happen to someone. Laptops are designed to be portable. And desktops are pretty easy to pick up and carry off.

So consider this a reminder to at least make sure your computer have a good password. It will act as a solid castle wall, if your computer is stolen. Also, get all of your passwords into a password vault, not your browser. Personally, I like LastPass, but there are many good ones out there. (If you do choose LastPass, make sure your sessions time out after a certain amount of idle time, so the passwords are harder to use.) If you have any sensitive files on your computer, consider encrypting them with a tool such as TrueCrypt.

Lastly, make sure you secure all of your computers. Especially that one in your pocket. It's the easiest to lose, and contains as much information as any of your other computers.

Update: I forgot to add this part, but you also may want to consider installing a lojack. Personally, I use Prey, which will send you location information, screen shots, and pictures from the webcam. You can either pay them for service, or set it up yourself, which is pretty easy to do.

Update 2: A reader wrote in suggesting that I also mention using full drive encryption. If you're using Windows, BitLocker (built into some versions of Windows 7) or TrueCrypt can do this for you. On Mac, use File Vault. Full drive encryption would completely prevent an attacker from gaining any access to the data on the machine.