The most serious threats to your computer include theft of the machine itself, viruses and other forms of software vandalism, and efforts to steal valuable information. If you leave a computer unattended in a public place, it will probably disappear; if you connect the computer to the Internet without some kind of firewall, antivirus program, or other security software in place, you can expect online intruders to find you within minutes.
Therefore, security is not an optional enhancement to your computer; it's an absolute necessity. If you don't take control of your computer, both inside and out, somebody else will take it away from you.
This chapter contains information about the steps you can take to protect your computer against theft, viruses, and software attacks, and how to restore your system to secure operation after an attack has occurred.
Personal computers, especially laptops and other portables, are very attractive targets for thieves. Even if your computer doesn't ever leave your home or office, you should take some practical steps to protect it.
Chapter 26 includes an extensive discussion about security for laptop computers.
It's difficult to discourage a really dedicated thief, but you can often slow him down by making your computer and other personal property more difficult to steal. If your computer is stolen, there are things you can do beforehand to make your property easier to recover.
Obviously, the location where you use your computer makes a difference. In your own home, or in a secure workplace, the risks are different from an office cubicle or some other location where unknown passers-by can easily get to your computer when you're not there.
First, don't leave small and easily removed equipment and parts in plain sight. In an unsecured office, lock your spare parts and loose accessories (including PC Cards) in a cabinet or a desk drawer overnight and when you're away from the computer. If you can, secure larger components like the monitor and the main processor box to a desk or heavy table with a lock and heavy cable or chain, a clamp, or a lockdown plate.
If your computer is in a high-risk area, you can also install an antitheft alarm mounted on a PCI card. When the alarm card is in place inside your computer, it sounds a very loud warning signal if somebody tries to lift the computer, remove the cover, or disconnect cables unless he or she enters a security code first. A battery keeps the alarm card active when the computer itself is turned off.
You should also try to improve the chances that you might retrieve your computer equipment if it is stolen. These techniques can help police and other authorities return your computer to you:
Keep a list of makes, models, and serial numbers in a secure place separate from the computer.
Mark some kind of personal ID code on each piece, inside and out (don't try to cut into printed circuit boards or hard drives with your marking tool), and take a photo of each marked item. In many places, you can borrow an electric engraving machine from local libraries, police stations, and fire stations. Copies of your photos are useful when you want to report stolen property to the police, and when you want to make an insurance claim.
Notify your local police as soon as possible. Law enforcement authorities can distribute a description of your property to pawnshops, used computer stores, and other local resellers. If the thief tries to sell your computer to one of these places, the store's owner may find your equipment listed on a hot sheet and notify the police.
Use security labels with bar codes that are listed with an asset tracking and recovery service. These labels use a permanent adhesive that leaves an indelible "tattoo" that identifies the item as stolen when somebody tries to remove them.
Install tracking software that can quietly call home to a tracking center with information about the computer's current location (telephone number or Internet address) every time it connects to a telephone line or the Internet. If you advise the tracking center that your computer has been stolen, they can work with police, the telephone company, and Internet service providers to find and recover your property. One tracking program, called LostPC, is available at no cost from Mountain Systems (http://www.lostpc.com).
There's not much you can do to completely avoid random accidents and natural disasters such as fires and earthquakes, but there are a few ways to minimize the consequences. If you apply some common sense when you install and use your computer, you can reduce the likelihood of serious damage.
Some of the things you can do to prevent or minimize damage include:
Don't place your computer in a precarious location where somebody could accidentally knock it off the table or desk to the floor below.
If you live in an earthquake zone, don't stack the equipment too high.
If you're using the computer in a basement or some other location where flooding is possible, don't place the processor case on the floor; put it on a table or a riser to keep it up off the floor.
If you're working in a room with a sprinkler system, cover the computer when you leave or remove the computer from the room.
One more possible source of damage to your computer is a spike or surge from the AC power source. Chapter 17 of this book describes the problems that can be caused by an inconsistent power source, and explains how to protect your computer from them. Most of the same tools and techniques, including a surge protector, can also protect a laptop.