[HOWTO] Secure Your Laptop

Category: Laptops , Security

The mobility and convenience that laptop computers provide has made it imperative for users to take steps to secure their laptops, and the data stored on them. There are several simple things that you can do to keep your laptop safe. Read on to learn how to protect your laptop from theft, snooping and data loss...

Laptop Security Tips

According to FBI stats, over two million laptops are stolen every year, from cars, coffee shops, college campuses, and hotel rooms. And only 2 or 3 percent are ever recovered. Keeping your laptop or netbook safe involves a combination of common sense, physical security devices, and software strategies.

Let's start with devices that make it harder for your portable computer to be carried off by someone else.

Physical security devices are used to keep your laptop from being stolen or used without your authorization. One that won't cost you anything is the trunk of your car. To avoid a "smash and grab" theft of your laptop, store it in the trunk while traveling, instead of on the seat where it's visible to passers-by. If you have to leave your laptop unattended, the most basic physical security device is a laptop security cable. This cable connects to your laptop and secures it to a non-moveable item in your home, office, hotel or conference room. For example, you can connect your laptop to your desk, or the leg of a conference room table.

laptop security cable

The cables usually have a combination or key lock device, and attach to the security slot found on most laptop computers. Expect to pay about US$40 for a high-quality laptop security cable. A determined thief with a bolt cutter could foil this device, but it certainly makes it a lot harder to grab and run.

Another physical security device that you can add to your laptop is a theft protection plate. This plate, which applies like a sticker on steroids, is used to identify the owner of the computer and to prevent people from trying to resell your stolen computer. If the plate is removed then it leaves a permanent acid "tattoo" on the laptop, indicating that it has been stolen. These security plates are available from STOP for about $25. A small version is also available for tablets, smartphones, cameras and other mobile devices.

Biometric devices can also be used to ensure that if your laptop is stolen, it can't be used by someone else. Biometric devices include fingerprint scanners and retina scanners. These devices can be added to just about any laptop. The fingerprint scanner comes standard on some Toshiba laptops. I expect that in the next year or two, we'll see more mobile devices using biometric or voice recognition. Some smartphones have the "face unlock" feature, and the latest iPhones offer fingerprint scanning. These technologies are not fool-proof, though. A recent article showed how the Samsung Galaxy S8's face unlock could be fooled by holding up a photo.

laptop security tag

Security Software

FrontDoor Software's Laptop Security software can help to get your laptop back if it's lost or stolen. The program displays ownership information at startup, and can also report tracking information to the owner if the laptop goes online. Also, if your laptop is stolen, you can login to the Front Door website and enter a lockdown code that will help to protect your information. You can even send a personal message to the thief, or cause an audible "This laptop was stolen!" alarm to be played. FrontDoor Laptop Security works on Windows and Mac OS X. The software has a free Basic version, and a Deluxe version with a 90-day free trial. Deluxe costs $30 for 3 year license.

Prey is a free cross-platform tracking app that runs on Windows, Linux, Mac, Android and iPhone/iPad devices. If your laptop or other mobile device is lost, Prey provides location data, Webcam, and screenshot reports. Prey can make your lost or stolen device sound a loud alarm, snap a photo of the person using your computer, or display a message onscreen. It can also lock down your device or wipe stored passwords, via remote command. The free version supports up to three devices.

Absolute Lojack (formerly called Lojack for Laptops) is another software-based laptop recovery product. This company provides you with a Theft Recovery Team that's actually a licensed private investigation agency. They will work with local law enforcement and Internet Service Providers, using information sent from the stolen computer, to assist local police in recovering your computer. If your stolen device isn't recovered within 60 days, Absolute LoJack will help to pay for a replacement.

And of course, there's always the "inside job" that nobody sees coming -- the threat of hackers and snoops that attack through viruses, ransomware and other forms of malware. Every laptop should have an up-to-date anti-virus software package installed, to identify and remove malware from your system. Read my companion article Free AntiVirus Programs for my recommendations to keep your computer safe from viruses, ransomware and other threats.

File Encryption

File encryption is used to protect your data from hackers, thieves and others who may access your computer without permission. Windows Vista, Windows 7, 8 and 10 have BitLocker, which can be used to encrypt an entire hard drive. Another option for encryption is the free VeraCrypt software, which can encrypt a hard drive partition, USB flash drive or external hard drive. VeraCrypt works on Windows, Mac and Linux systems. Learn more about encryption in my related article Time to Start Encrypting Your Stuff?.

Password Security

In addition to physically securing your laptop and protecting your computer with security software, you also need to take steps to protect your laptop with strong passwords. While it is important to set up a user account password for your laptop you will also want to set up a power-on password. These passwords will prevent unauthorized people from logging in to your computer, or accessing it by using a boot-up disc. To create your and power-on password you will need to enter your BIOS security set-up menu. This is usually accessed by pressing the Del, F1 or F2 key while your computer is starting up. Try to use passwords that include a combination of at least eight letters and numbers, and stick to a password rotation schedule that changes your passwords on a regular basis. Make sure you remember the passwords, or you'll lock yourself out!

Here's one other point on passwords, particularly relevant for travelers. If you allow your web browser to store your passwords, and your laptop is stolen, you've given away the keys to the kingdom. Roboform and similar tools can keep all your passwords handy, but with the protection of a master password. See Is Your Password Hacker Proof? for more information on password strategies.

Keeping Your Laptop Safe

Here a few more practical tips you can use to secure your laptop and your data.

Consider using free Portable Apps that can be loaded on a USB flash drive. Using this approach, all your software and your personal files never need to be stored on the laptop's hard drive. This has the additional advantage that you can plug the flash drive into any available computer, and work without fear of leaving behind any personal data. Just be sure that the drive and the laptop don't travel together in the same bag.

If you'll have Internet access while traveling, an even better solution might be cloud-based apps and storage. By managing your email, documents and other tasks with free cloud-based services, all your data is stored online, and you don't need to carry a flash drive that could possibly get lost or stolen. See Eight Free Cloud Services You Should Try and Free Web-Based Photo Editors to get an idea of all the tools available.

And finally, if you use wifi while away from home, you need to take some extra security precautions. See my article The Big Problem With Free Wifi Hotspots to understand the risks, and learn how to protect against them.

To keep your laptop as safe as possible you will want to combine physical, software and use password strategies. While not all of the above security methods are applicable, practical or necessary for all laptop users, it is still important to understand what your security options are so that you can alter your security strategies as your computer use evolves.

What strategies do you use to keep your laptop safe? Post a comment below...

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Most recent comments on "[HOWTO] Secure Your Laptop"

Posted by:

18 Apr 2017

Is proactive encryption (e.g. Bitlocker) a means to prevent ransomware encryption?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't think so. The ransomware would attack your volume while you're logged in and using the computer. So it would have access to the files in their unencrypted state.

Posted by:

18 Apr 2017

Even a bolt cutter may not work. When replacing computers at our school, we didn't need the cable, and the worker didn't want to wait for me to find the key, so he tried to cut it with his two foot bolt cutter. Snap! the bolt cutter blade went flying while the cable remained.

Posted by:

18 Apr 2017

Rick: No, Bitlocker or other full-disk encryption will not protect you from ransomware. Once one enters the password the machine can get infected exactly as it would if it were not.
Full-disk encryption protects your data in case the machine is lost or stolen.

Posted by:

19 Apr 2017

I'm skeptical of anti-theft stickers. What would prevent any telltale marks from being covered up by another sticker?

Posted by:

19 Apr 2017

I just clicked on BitLocker as you said it's available for Win 7. Not strictly correct--only for certain versions of Win-7--**not** for Home Premium though. (Someone suggested TrueCrypt. Any thoughts on that suggestion? Thanks as always for looking out for us.

Posted by:

19 Apr 2017

@butch: VeraCrypt is the successor to Truecrypt.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2017

LOVE Veracrypt!
(formerly a TrueCrypt user)

I use it with Full Confidence on my Windows and Linux kernel computers!!!


Posted by:

22 Apr 2017

Some business-grade laptops have built-in TPM (Trusted Platform Module). It has been said that BitLocker combined with TPM provide higher grade [?] of security.
"If you allow your web browser to store your passwords, and your laptop is stolen, you've given away the keys to the kingdom." seems misleading and maybe even inaccurate if the browser requires master password, along with user log-on password-on-wake.

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