Is Your Laptop Secure?

Category: Laptops

We love our laptops because they offer computing with convenience and mobility. But that makes 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. Sadly, 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.

One woman was sitting in a Starbucks, 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 some laptop computers. Expect to pay about US$40 for a high-quality laptop security cable. Newer Macbooks don't have a lock slot, but the third-party Maclock product solves that problem. A determined thief with a bolt cutter could foil a security cable, 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 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. A ZDNet article showed how the Samsung Galaxy's face unlock could be fooled by a video of the owner.

laptop security tag

Security Software

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.

LAlarm is free software that emits a loud siren sound when a thief tries to steal a laptop. For example, you connect a laptop to a power outlet or fasten a laptop to a table by using a USB flash drive strap. An alarm will be triggered when the laptop is disconnected from the power outlet or removed from the table. LAlarm also warns the owner if the laptop is left unattended in an unsafe place for a period of time.

Absolute Home & Office (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.
The Basic account costs $19.99/year, which includes the Locate/Lock/Delete functions. The Standard account is $39.99 and includes recovery assistance. Premium ($59.99) adds a guarantee that if your stolen device isn't recovered within 60 days, Absolute 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.

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, Windows 10 and Windows 11.

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 How Hackable is Your Password? 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 Free Wifi Hotspots - Are They Risky? 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 your security options so that you can alter your security strategies as your computer use changes.

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

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Most recent comments on "Is Your Laptop Secure?"

Posted by:

Hugh Gautier
09 Nov 2021

Mine is especially safe, in that it doesn't go out of this house ever. Since my desktop system decided to take a nosedive 2 weeks ago this laptop system with Windows 10 Pro on it is my system of choice. Yes, it does have 21H2 on it and it is TPM ready as well.

Posted by:

09 Nov 2021

BitWarden and LastPass are both pretty good password managers. RoboForm is good, but only if you pay for RoboForm Everywhere. BitWarden is free, and LastPass is too if it's only used on one "type" of device. I had an older version of LAlarm on all my laptops at one time. At the library one day it went off, for a reason I still don't know. That siren is LOUD! It's supposed to be fairly easy to turn off, if you know how (and I thought I did). I had to use the power button, though, and take it home where I finally got it to stop.

Posted by:

09 Nov 2021

Power-up passwords are a good idea as long you remember the password you used,otherwise you could lock yourself out as stated in the article.

Don't forget to try to use WPA2 wi-fi protection whenever you travel.Some hotels still have no protection at all relying on a web browser password to get you logged in. The last hotel I stayed at had no password protection at all, making me leery of using the system at all.There were some web sites I decided against visiting when I discovered the hotel wi-fi was wide open.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
09 Nov 2021

Like Hugh Gautier above, I seldom take my laptop away from home. I have a good and relatively fast Internet connection here, so the free public hot spots are not very appealing to me, but when I do take my laptop out with me, I am very careful with it as I explain below:

I use a similar security strategy on both my desktop and laptop PCs. I use a Microsoft account with password-less log-in and a USB fingerprint biometric scanner backed up with an 8 character alpha-numeric pin (looks just like a password but is stored locally) to access Windows on my PCs. ALL drives on both PCs are encrypted with the newer BitLocker encryption and I enabled the auto-unlock feature when I encrypted the drives for convenience. Since I use Microsoft's Windows 10 (now 11) as my OS, I decided to use their Authenticator app for 2FA so nobody else gets access to my activity any more than necessary.

Any time I walk away from my desktop, I lock the screen (WIN-KEY + L). On my laptop, the system automatically locks the screen when I close the lid, which I do when I am not working with it (even when I am right in front of it, but not doing anything). If I am somewhere public with my laptop and I have to get up for any reason (place an order, get my order, go to the restroom, etc.), I put my laptop in it's auto-locking case and take it with me. My laptop carrying case is made with a metal thread infused fabric. It has a riveted-on metal thread infused strap that is long enough to go over my head and across my body (e.g.: from my left hip to the right side of my neck), so it would be very hard to cut the strap or the case, or yank the case away without me knowing. I keep the location function enabled on the laptop so I can use Windows 11's find my PC feature if it would ever get stolen or lost, although a thief would have to remove the laptop from the case for location tracking to work because the case is RFID protected.

I use LastPass as my password vault so I can securely access my passwords anywhere and from both my PCs. I have not gone so far as to set up a VPN service yet because I don't like the performance impact of the available free services and since I live on a limited fixed income (I'm a retiree), the added cost of a good VPN is something I want to try to avoid if I can, but I am very careful to look for the 'https' in the address bar when I surf the web. Another thing I do when I'm using a public 'hot spot' is to make sure that my connection is labeled as a public connection on the 'Network and Internet Settings' page when I connect before I start doing anything. I also make it a practice to look up and around (left right, sometimes even behind me) every few seconds (and I avoid tunnel vision as much as possible) when doing anything on my laptop in public.

As for anchoring my desktop PC to my desk, that is not something that has occurred to me, but it is probably a good idea. I'll have to give it some thought, and do a bit of research. It'll be interesting to see what I learn. When I decide what I'll do about that, I'll come back and add a reply to this item


Posted by:

10 Nov 2021

While not in the same category as security, our IT department recommended laptop "sleeve"-type carrying cases to us and I'm glad I got one because after I dropped my laptop down two flights of steep stairs in the case, it was undamaged. Had it be uncovered, it would've been in much worse shape. Now I always carry my laptop in its protective sleeve when traveling from one floor of the house to another.

Posted by:

10 Nov 2021

Portable Apps is great - been using it for years - but if you don't travel often, fire it up at home occasionally to keep it updated, otherwise, it might take a quite a while to update when you open it.

Posted by:

Mike Davies
10 Nov 2021

What I'd like to know is how to "password protect" a specific folder within Windows File Explorer.
I don't mean encryption, the folder/s in question are very large.
I can't find any program anywhere that does this seemingly simple task.
Ideally it would be a right-click on the folder > add password. Then right-click > open with password. Or something like that.
I've searched many times and found nothing.
Does anyone have a solution?

Posted by:

Nat Gildersleeve
11 Nov 2021

Recently, a friend had his house burglarized and one of the items stolen was his computer. He had to change all his credit cards etc because all that information was on the computer. I then became a big believer in encryption. I now keep all my data on a separate partition and encrypt it. I do this on all my computers, laptop and desktop. I probably should encrypt my system drive as well.

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