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Of course preventing them from getting stolen is the top priority, but invariably, someone is going to get jacked. What are some good practices to minimize the damage incurred when your PC is stolen?

Given most of our PCs contain our entire lives, its frightening to know that all this information can be in someone else's hands.

Some ideas i had (a bit paranoid, i admit).

  • keep encrypted backups. Use truecrypt to have double encrypted (with strong password) volumes where you store your personal data.
  • schedule Eraser to run every evening so that potential thieves couldn't undelete (and subsequently retrieve) sensitive data
  • do all your banking in a virtual machine. Keep the virtual machine volume encrypted, and on a portable usb drive that you carry with you / keep in a safe.
  • have applications that phone home (or hit something to leave an IP trace) upon connection to the internet (can someone suggest a good solution for this?)

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

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Obligatory xkcd link: xkcd.com/538 –  Badaro Aug 3 '09 at 21:03
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19 Answers 19

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Here are a few detailed tips & tricks (mostly from Lifehacker)

10 Tips to Keep Your Notebook Safe when Traveling

How to Set Up a Laptop Security System

You could 1 put some baby photos as wallpaper or in the laptop bag
2 Never use a Laptop bag (thats a neon sign)
3 Uglify your laptop if you are visiting a crime prone area

Use Software

Top 10 Ways to Lock Down Your Data

Prey Phones Home to Help You Recover Your Stolen Laptop

Goto: Lifehacker for many other articles on theft.

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One thing you can do that will make theft less lightly is to uglify your laptop.

  • Put some duck tape around the hinges and/or battery hatch.
  • Put on a godawful sticker on the back.
  • Remove an unused key or two from the keyboard if you can, they are easy to snap back into place.

All these are reversible, if you don't care about resell value give the cover a good scratch with a key.

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I purchased 4 year protection from Lojack for Laptops. They have you install something that gets embedded in the BIOS. It allows tracking of the laptop to still be possible, even after a reformat. They also maintain a relationship with law enforcement to quickly determine the location of any activations after theft.

I can't testify to their recovery efficiency, b/c the laptop was never stolen. But at least one time, I got a email warning "LoJack for Laptops has not received contact from your computer - Action Required". I had to call the owner and they confirmed, "Yeah, I haven't turned on my computer in over a month, how'd you know?"

They have other testimonials here: http://www.absolute.com/resource_center/search?market=home. I was satisfied with the piece of mind it bought.

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I believe that Absolute works with many manufacturers to include a dormant copy of their software in the BIOS before you even buy it. When you purchase a license for Lojack, it activates the software and you're protected! –  Travis Aug 3 '09 at 20:02
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Prey. An free, open-source anti-theft solution for PCs, Macs, and some smartphones...

Prey lets you keep track of your phone or laptop at all times, and will help you find it if it ever gets lost or stolen. It's lightweight, open source software, and free for anyone to use. And it just works.

The thing I like about Prey, is that you can lock the computer, change the password, take screenshots, grab images from the webcam, and see a list of all modified documents within a certain time frame...works well and free, have experimented with it, and love it!

One thing I recommend for all anti-theft softwares: get to know the software beforehand, and learn how to use it before you lose it!

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Three words: rig to explode.

(I kid, I kid!)

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I wish. But I'd be scared to have the thing blow up by mistake :( –  Manu Aug 3 '09 at 21:06
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Who are you and how do I subscribe to your newsletter? ;) –  NoCarrier Aug 3 '09 at 23:36
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  • Encrypt your drive with an insanely strong password. If it's hard to remember, and you need to keep a copy of it, store it apart from your laptop.
  • Turn off your browsing history, saved forms, and make sure to destroy any private data after browsing. Firefox has a number of ways to do this.
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There is only one thing you would need to do if you only want to have one security measure: system wide encryption, say with TrueCrypt.

alt text


Note: I am not saying TrueCrypt will solve all your backup issue, but for the security matter I do not see any other solutions as a requirement. With system wide encryption, your data is safe. The end. Your backups is a different matter, but that's something I'll leave to someone else to give an insightful view upon.

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while truecrypt is an excellent security solution, for highly-sensitive material, it's important to know about it's weaknesses, such as what happens when the PC is running, leaving it vulnerable to the pretty cool coldboot attack: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_boot_attack –  Keck Aug 3 '09 at 18:38
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That attack is cool, but I'm guessing that most laptop theft are the work of kids or dumb people, not james bond. –  Manu Aug 3 '09 at 21:05
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I assume that someone is going to take off with my computer eventually. So far I've been wrong. But what I do:

  • Backups are run weekly and tested monthly. At a minimum.
  • Backups are stored separate from the laptop. I have two sets of backups: Vista Backups on a USB drive attached to a dock in a secure location, and one online-backup that my employer has me run.
  • Important data should never be stored exclusively on the laptop. My mail is delivered through Exchange, and all my mail is stored on the server, even though it is cached locally.
  • Sensitive data is encrypted on the laptop, and kept there only as required. I have a small TrueCrypt file that I use to store the sensitive stuff when working off line. However with connectivity being what it is these days, I can usually get at that kind of information through VPNs just as easily, so it is rare that I have stuff locally.

My goal has always been to assume that the laptop is going to die or be stolen or whatever, and to have a zero data loss when that happens. I'm not there, but all the important stuff is protected.

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Keep backups at home/office/bank (security place)


Buy Dell laptop - Theft Protection for Dell laptops

http://www.dell.com/content/topics/segtopic.aspx/theft_protection?c=us&l=en&cs=19

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Lifehacker search on "laptop security". Seriously, they cover this area quite well. Importantly, they cover all OSes. Important when you dual-boot.

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On the tracking piece there is an open source project: http://adeona.cs.washington.edu/, though they seem to be having difficulty at the moment.

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A couple simple tips:

  • Do not have your machine auto login. Make sure you have to type in a password.
  • Try and avoid using password savers or anything in that category. This includes browser auto save/fill features.
  • Keep rarely accessed sensitive documents backed up and stored on another drive.
  • Encryption will help greatly in preventing/delaying most average thieves out of your stuff.
  • Password protect sensitive files on the machine

Keep in mind however, no security measure is perfect, but you can make it very difficult for most dumb thieves out there.

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+1 for ensuring auto-login's not set. –  ChrisF Aug 3 '09 at 20:41
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Renter's or Homeowner Insurance may cover laptop and other electronics theft (whether or not it occurs at home) so you can buy shiny new kit (for say, $500, if that is your deductible) when someone makes off with your sexy hardware and useless (to them) encrypted data.

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LAlarm™ is free laptop alarm security software. LAlarm sounds an alarm when a laptop is in danger of being stolen or losing data, and it can recover and destroy data if the laptop is stolen. LAlarm consists of five alarms and other security functions designed to protect laptops and sensitive data. LAlarm--->http://lalarm.com/en/index.htm

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One other option is using the cloud. Do you have a bunch of pop e-mail on your machine? Why? Gmail or Yahoo have plenty of space now. Do you have a financial/budgeting program? Why? Mint.com works better and means the data doesn't live on your computer. Do you have a bunch of photos on your machine? That's fine, just make sure you've put them on facebook, photobucket, or flickr as well.

Do this and securing your data after a laptop theft is a (relatively) simple matter of changing your passwords.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that you're now trusting these other parties to keep your information safe, and there have been some very public and very large breaches lately. Just remember, though, that keeping this data is what these companies are in business to do.

Even with the chance of an internet data breach, I like my odds online a little better. This is especially true considering the worst breaches are usually committed by old-line brick and mortar companies (with TJMaxx being a notable example). The younger internet companies of the type that keep and store a lot of data are generally built up by more internet-savvy entrepreneurs; keeping data safe is their primary business rather than a distraction for the company.

The only thing these days that I don't trust to an online service is a direct bank transfer. I'll check my my balance and transactions online, but nothing that involves using the internet to set up a funds transfer. I'll even pays bills online, but only to companies that let me use a credit card; then I write an old-fashioned check each month to the credit card company. This fits the guidelines I noted above, as banks are generally old-school companies that definitely view the web site as a distraction to their main business

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In regards to the locating, have a look at Prey. Not used it myself but it does come highly recommended by other SU members.

For encryption, TrueCrypt is a good bet. Not sure how it works with two different file systems but it's pretty robust and dynamic, including boot-sector passwords (passwords to startup) to hidden file containers.

There's also no problem in common sense, keeping an eye on it and not leaving it unattended in public places such as coffee shops or libraries. You can get kensington locks from £20/$30 and it's never a bad idea.

Others may suggest security by look, i.e. stickers, visual damage, but if it's a new-ish laptop then you probably won't want to do that.

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You can do whole-drive encryption using TrueCrypt - in fact, it's something I'm trying on my own laptop. Supposedly, you can set it up to work with a dual-boot system, though I haven't tried it.

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If you buy a enterprise-class laptop, like a ThinkPad T or X series, it will be an Intel Centrino one with Intel vPro.

Intel vPro includes Intel AMT which, in turn, includes Intel Anti-Theft Technology.

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Bruce Schneier has a number of articles and pointers on his blog that talk about this topic. In general he talks about whole-disk encryption for your data and the threats of someone stealing it whilst you're using it, or more recently, being required to decrypt your data by some authority.

A couple of examples:

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