[HOWTO] Security for 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 sensitive data often 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 homes, cars, coffee shops, college campuses, and hotel rooms. Only 2 or 3 percent are ever recovered. I'm always surprised when I see people set their laptop or smartphone on a table, then saunter up to the coffee shop counter to order. But it's not always carelessness that results in a laptop being swiped.

Last November, a woman sitting in a Starbucks was actively using her laptop, when three men grabbed it and took off. So keeping your laptop or netbook safe involves a combination of common sense, awareness, 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 are commonly found on newer smartphones, but can be added to just about any laptop. The fingerprint scanner comes standard on some Toshiba laptops. Some smartphones have the "face unlock" feature, but these technologies are not fool-proof, though. An ArsTechnica 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 costs $9.95 for a one 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 pay up to $1000 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 has BitLocker, which can be used to encrypt an entire hard drive. Bitlocker is available on Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate editions, Windows 8.1 Pro and Enterprise editions, and Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, and Education editions.

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. Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides together provide online word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation capability. Microsoft offers a similar suite of online office tools. You can even find free web-based photo editors.

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] Security for Your Laptop"

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

Quote -- If you allow your web browser to store your passwords, and your laptop is stolen, you've given away the keys to the kingdom. - end quote

Are you saying that the strong password used to protect passwords stored on the browser is easily hacked if someone gets hold of your computer? It needs to be entered to have passwords filled in on websites you visit and again if you want to see the passwords you have saved.

I can't see how it is easier to hack than the one you use for Roboform et al, but I am always willing to learn.

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

If you're going to be using portable apps to store your info on a usb stick instead of a laptop, why not just go with a Chromebook, as it's cheaper than a laptop, and your data is stored in the cloud.

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

Jonathan: The passwords stored in the browser DO NOT have any password required to use them and are stored in easily readable form in your computer.

This is the saving where IE, Chrome, etc. ask if you want them to save the password for the site.
Not you using a password manager that enters the password for you.

Posted by:

Lady Fitzgerald
22 Mar 2018

The STOP protection plates are a joke. VHB adhesive is easily removed with 91% or higher isopropyl alcohol and fine fishing line. The remaining "tattoo", if not removable with something like acetone, is easily covered with another protection plate or sticker.

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

Is there a way to reduce/stop ,
the traces we get from using the Web? Just reading the news will get me several Hundred even from sites I did not visit.

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

Cloud storage is not that big a plus in my opinion. If I can't secure my own data on my own hardware then why would I think some unknown person out there using some unknown hardware/software configuration will provide me better security?

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

The following is copied from Firefox Help. Hopefully it will reassure those who read that there is no master password protecting passwords saved in the browser. It is not set by default but should be set IMHO

Even though the Password Manager stores your usernames and passwords on your hard drive in an encrypted format, someone with access to your computer can still see or use them. The Use a Master Password to protect stored logins and passwords article shows you how to prevent this and keep you protected in the event your computer is lost or stolen.

After you've set a master password, it needs to be entered the first time you remember a new password or remove passwords and each time you show your passwords, for each Firefox session.

Posted by:

22 Mar 2018

Not all laptop robberies are because the victim was stupid, as per your story of 3 men attacking the victim and taking her laptop.

First of all, we are talking about a mobile, portable product and a laptop is no different than a cell phone. I have used LastPass and am now using RoboForm. I would not be without a Password Manager, especially when I have about 400+ Web-page bookmarks. No, not all of those are password protected, but at least 1/2 are, so RoboForm is mighty handy for me.

I don't use RoboForm's or LastPass's password generator, for my at home desktop computers. It really isn't necessary. Yes, I know that the generator is for the best, but I do worry that I will forget my main password. Heavens, at 74 your memory isn't as good as it was when you were 20, right?!

But, I do use LastPass and RoboForm for my cell phone, along with Bitdefender Total Security 2018. I also, try to keep my cell phone on my person, not my back or side pocket. I happen to keep mine in my bra and have for years. Trust me, I will know if anyone tries to take my cell phone away from me!!!

I am still using LastPass, since I just got RoboForm in the past couple of months. I personally think, LastPass is a bit easier to use, but thankfully, RoboForm will export the information from LastPass. I am still getting use to using RoboForm and I am beginning to like it a lot. I had been a LastPass customer for years and this past year, the annual price went up, about double. I was not even offered a discount. So, I went to RoboForm and got a great deal for me and my personal use, much cheaper and for several years. I am still learning how to "edit" passwords, when I change them. This is a typical learning curve for any new program.

It is vital that those who do use mobile products, laptops or cell phones or tablets to have excellent Anti-Virus/Malware programs either Free or Paid, as well as a good solid Password Manager. One small note, having a Password Manager is extremely helpful for us older folks. It also helps that you give the password to the password manager to a trusted family member, in case they need to get to your passwords for death or an emergency.

Posted by:

Paul Morris
23 Mar 2018

''FREE ANTI-VIRUS PROGRAMS", ah, in one word, like "NO"! Yeah, free 'TRIAL', but; completely "Free Anti-Virus Programs", have Not found one Yet. And I have been Looking on and off for 3 Months. "Kaspersky", had it, took me to use another program, to UNINSTALL ALL OF IT! NO, not to fond of RUSSIAN COMPANIES. So, when it says, FREE ANTI-VIRUS PROGRAM, they should emphasize the word ''TRIAL''! Free Trial, means, YOU got to Pay for it. Good subject Bob, and keep them coming.

Posted by:

Charles Tompkins
23 Mar 2018

This article like all of your others is very informative and helpful.

Thanks very much and keep the articles coming


Posted by:

26 Mar 2018

@Paul Morris. . .I am not really sure where you are looking for a FREE Anti-Virus Program, because there are several in existence.

Avast has one, AVG has one, Bitdefender has one, Malwarebytes has one, Zone Alarm has one and I could go on and on.

I used FREE Anti-Virus Programs for years, before I purchased the last 2 that I have used these past few years. I highly recommend Avast and AVG, both programs are now owned by the same company Avast. So, right now I think that Avast is the largest Anti-Virus company in the world? If memory serves me correctly - Both Avast and AVG come out of the Czech Republic.

It is wise to choose either of these 2 products. They are time honored products that have been ahead of the anti-virus/malware game for quite awhile. Their AV Test results are very, very good and this is what you strive for, when looking for a good, solid AV/Malware product.

Bob has an archived article or two, for good, solid AV/Malware products and many of the top notch ones come FREE.

I would advise you to really get searching, first on Bob's website and then start "trialing" the FREE Anti-Virus programs.

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