Portable protection

In his second of three reports on security, Laurence Cohen looks at ways to keep your laptop out of the hands of opportunist thieves

Thanks to the Government's "laptops for teachers" scheme and a general reduction in the price of PCs, a growing number of teachers use computer laptops or notebooks for school work. But while use of laptops has increased, so has theft. Laptops are particularly vulnerable to theft, as they can be carried more easily than a desktop PC and can easily be concealed in a bag by a thief.

Teachers and their computers, though, need not be sitting ducks for computer criminals. There are a number of inexpensive ways to protect your laptop PC or handheld PDA (personal digital assistant).

Schools and LEAs that supply their teachers with laptops should try to ensure that all laptops are given an electronic serial number or have an ID security code provided by companies such as Selectamark etched into them. Viglen, a leading provider of PCs to UK schools, gives each computer an electronic serial number. Bordan Tkachuk, CEO of Viglen UK, says: "If a computer is stolen and someone requests technical support for that computer, we won't give support until we are given the electronic serial number."

More sophisticated asset tracking is now possible due to the emergence of the internet. Asset tracking software, such as Computrace from Eurotechnix, can be loaded on to a laptop. (Computrace is already used by Sheffield's two universities to help recover laptops.) If that laptop is then stolen and hooked up to the net, the software transmits information on the laptop - such as its location and IP address (which reveals the laptop's location) - to either the software supplier or the police who can then trace and recover the stolen laptop.

Computrace is also used by many UK schools to protect teachers' laptops. One of these schools is Nine Stiles School in Birmingham, which uses the software to track laptops that have been misplaced as well as stolen. Eurotechnix director Norman Shaw says that thieves would find it hard to delete the asset tracking software: "Once it is installed on the hard disk, unless you are a real computer wizard, it is not going to come off." Asset tracking packages usually run on all major laptop brands such as Dell and Toshiba.

As well as security marking and asset tagging, there are physical security measures which can help to protect portable PCs. Adam Hougham, product manager for hardware peripherals for school ICT provider RM, recommends that teachers protect their laptops with a bike lock-type cable called Kensington Microsaver, available from Insight Computers.

The Microsaver cables are already being used by teachers with laptops at Smallheath Secondary School in Birmingham. The school's IT manager, Khal Rozak explains how they work: "The cables are attached to the laptop and screwed on to the table. You then need a key to open the cable lock."

Although a cable can prevent a thief from snatching your laptop PC from your desk and running off, a cable might not be enough to protect a laptop left unattended. According to some security consultants, a determined criminal can cut through a computer cable in just a few minutes.

Being "streetwise" is just as important as security products to your chances of safeguarding your laptop. If you are carrying your laptop, have the laptop strap across your chest with the PC in front of you, rather than carrying it over your shoulder. Also, don't advertise that you have a laptop. They are often supplied with a carrying bag sporting the manufacturer's logo, so ditch the bag or cover up the logo.

If you are driving or parking your car, do not leave you laptop in full view on the passenger seat. It is also important to protect any personal data stored on the laptop; do not write your password down and leave it with your laptop.

Regardless of what measures you take to protect your laptop, it can still be vulnerable to theft, which means it is worth insuring your computer. A home contents policy should provide you with sufficient insurance cover, but it is worth confirming this. Better still, if your school has provided you with your laptop, see if they can insure it for you. Viglen UK can provide insurance for the laptop and desktop PCs it supplies to schools.

In short, insure and secure your laptop.

The threat

* Teachers increasingly have their own laptops

* Due to their portability and high value, they are attractive to thieves

* One in 14 laptops is stolen. (Source: International Data Corporation) Key actions

* Security mark your laptop or PDA, either through etching, electronic serial number or asset tracking software

* Use a computer cable to secure it in public places

* Do not leave your laptop unattended

* Carry your it in a discrete, anonymous bag

* Don't leave a piece of paper with your password written on it near the machine

* Don't leave your laptop or PDA on view inside your car

* Be sure to have insurance


Insight Computers: 0800 102030


Eurotechnix: 01635 247100


RM: 08709 086868


Selectamark: 01689 860757


Viglen: 020 8758 7027 (schools)


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