Exploding laptops

Hazel Blears made headlines when a laptop containing sensitive files was stolen from her constituency office. Here's how she could have protected the data.

Putting the expense and impact on productivity to one side, there are hefty compliance issues surrounding the loss of confidential data.

UK bank Nationwide was fined £980,000 by the Financial Services Authority last year after a laptop containing the details of 11 million customers was stolen from an employee’s home. Meanwhile a laptop belonging to the Royal Navy containing personal information on 600,000 recruits was stolen from a car park in Birmingham, while the governor of the Bank of Ireland admitted he was ‘horrified’ over the recent theft of four laptops containing the confidential data of 10,000 customers.

Even the supposed leaders in information security can be slack – laptop accessories manufacturer Kensington found 81 per cent of exhibitor laptops at the 2008 Information Security conference were left vulnerable to theft.

‘It’s quite a faux pas for these experts in computer and data security to neglect the physical security of their laptops, especially at the most “secure” show in Europe,’ says Kensington’s regional sales director Bruce Sykes. ‘Many had locked up their TFT monitors – a relatively cheap and data-free piece of equipment – but had no provision for computers.’

Aside from common sense there are many tools available for protecting laptops and their contents, ranging from physical security such as cable locks to data encryption packages.

The first is cheap and highly effective but inconvenient, while the second is expensive and more a cure than prevention. In addition, a growing number of companies, such as Alcatel-Lucent and Absolute Software, are responding to the rising number of thefts with packages that allow the laptop to be remotely destroyed or traced by police.

Absolute claims to have traced 5,000 stolen laptops across multiple countries, including two belonging to the Swiss Football Association. If a laptop turns up in a country where local police “aren’t cooperative”, the software can remotely wipe all data on the device (the so-called “exploding laptop” trick). Other companies offer packages with features as sophisticated as using the laptop’s webcam to snap a picture of the offender.

Meanwhile the Alcatel-Lucent package can destroy all data held on a device even if it is turned off, utilising a built-in ‘always-on’ system with a separate 3G broadband card. The second the thief steps into any broadband, 3G or WiFi zone – boom.

For more on laptop security, click here.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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