It's an unfortunate fact that laptop computers are attractive targets for thieves. Any time you carry your computer, and any time you use it in public, you must protect the computer against dedicated criminals and light-fingered passers-by. A lost or stolen laptop computer can represent a tremendous loss, not only of the equipment itself, but also the data stored on its disk drive; losing confidential business data, or the only copy of an important document, can easily be more valuable and difficult to replace than the computer that contained it.
So it's absolutely essential to do whatever you can to protect your laptop computer and your files. There are several categories of tools and services that can discourage thieves and help recover the computer after somebody tries to steal it:
Locks and cables can keep the machine from disappearing.
Alarms can let you know when somebody is trying to run off with it.
Tracking software can use the Internet to send a "here I am" message to a recovery service.
As for your files, you should have two goals: preserving the data and keeping them away from unauthorized eyes. The best way to reduce the impact of lost data is to make backup copies frequently on a flash drive, a recordable CD, or on another computer's hard drive. Keep the copies separately from the computer itself-at home or in your office, or in a pocket, purse, or briefcase. To keep other people from reading confidential files on a stolen computer, use a fingerprint scanner and encrypt your files.
See Chapter 48 for more about encryption techniques and other ways to protect confidential data.
Any time you must leave your laptop out of your immediate reach, use a security cable and lock to attach your computer to an immovable object such as the leg of a desk, a heavy table, or a chair that is fastened to the floor. This might not be practical at an airport security barrier, but it's essential when you're using your computer at a library or a coffee shop.
Most laptop security cable locks are built like bicycle cables, with one end designed to fit the security socket built into the computer, and a lock that uses either a padlock, a combination lock, or a cylinder lock. The cable itself is armored or reinforced to make it extremely difficult to cut with anything short of a blowtorch or a very large bolt cutter. If your computer does not have a security socket, look for a lock that comes with a metal eye or loop attached to a pad with a special adhesive that makes the pad impossible to remove.
Of course, just about any lock can be picked, and any cable can be cut if somebody has enough time and the right tools. But an effective cable lock can encourage a computer thief to move on and look for a less difficult target.
Alarm devices that sound a very loud signal when a thief tries to walk away with your computer take several forms, but they all operate on a similar principle: they're motion detectors that use either software or a set of input switches or pushbuttons to arm and disarm the alarm. Some of these products fit the security socket or attach to a cable lock, and others are PC Cards. Either way, they produce enough noise that you and everybody else close to the signal will immediately notice; the thief will probably drop the computer and run away.
Of course, when you carry one of these alarms, there's always the risk that you might forget to disarm it when you try to carry your own laptop away with you. Depending on your location, this can be either an embarrassing nuisance or an opportunity to explain yourself to a police officer or an airport security inspector.
Tracking services are an effective form of insurance, especially for travelers and students.
Several companies offer services that can help you find and recover your laptop after it has been stolen. The tracking service provides a small (and difficult to remove) piece of software that returns information to the tracking service about the computer's location (the IP address, the location of the wireless host, or the originating telephone number) any time the computer is connected to the Internet.
When you report a theft, the tracking service captures the locator information from your computer and notifies appropriate law enforcement authorities, who can obtain a warrant and often recover the computer. Some services can also send your computer a command that locks the hard drive, so the thieves can't read or use your confidential data files. Among others, Computrace (http://www.computrace.com) and The CyberAngel (http://www.sentryinc.com) offer laptop tracking services