How To Secure Your Laptop PC

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Laptops aren’t as expensive as they used to be years ago, but you certainly don’t want yours to get stolen, a grim fate which afflicts hundreds of thousands of notebook PCs each year. Of course, you also want to safeguard any personal or corporate information aboard your laptop from getting lifted or tampered with, by either a laptop thief or cybercriminals. Here are eight tips for keeping your notebook PC and its data out of harm’s way.

1. Install anti-theft software.

Anti-theft software is available through a variety of software vendors, ranging from Absolute Software (the maker of “Lojack for Laptops”) to major computer software specialists like McAfee, Symantec and Kaspersky. You can even download anti-theft software free of charge over the Internet. (Just search Google for “free anti-theft software for laptops.”)

Essentially, the software works by keeping track of the physical locations of laptops and mobile devices via IP addresses, WiFi, or GPS. Many vendors add bells and whistles like remote locks or wipes of the device or commands to take photos with a Web cam.

For this software to work, though, the laptop needs to be connected to the Internet. If a thief never takes the stolen computer online, you’re not going to find the device. Yet at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that, while the crook might be able to access your data and installed software programs, he or she won’t be able to hook up to the Web without taking a chance on getting outed in a serious way.

2. Harden security with anti-theft hardware.

A Kensington lock is a time-honored anti-theft measure. Through the rubberized metal cable connected to the lock, you literally tie the computer down to a physical object. A Kensington lock uses the Kensington slot, a small, metal-reinforced hole found on most laptops. Although the Kensington lock is named after the company that created it, several manufacturers make compatible cable locks such as the PNY ThinkSafe lock. Other types of cable locks plug in to slots such as the VGA or printer port. Key locks and combination locks are both available.

Typically, the cable is wrapped to an immobile object like a pipe or a bedpost. You can also buy fasteners for attaching the cable with glue or “secure” screws to a heavy object like a desk or table. Yet while a cable lock can be very useful in an office or bedroom, for example, you’re probably not going to want to run around an airport looking for suitable immobile objects while waiting for your flight. (You’d be lucky to find one!)

Also on the down side, if a laptop thief is mean and desparate enough, the cable can be destroyed with a wirecutter.

Another alternative is to attach a security plate to the laptop, so as to squelch the resale value of a stolen PC. STOP Security Plate, for instance, is a metal warning plate that affixes to a laptop using Very High Bond (VHB) adhesive. It features a chemically bonded tattoo beneath, stating “Stolen Property,” along with high visibility stickers. Barcodes on each plate provide serialization for the tagged devices to integrate into the STOP Security Plate Online Registration System. If you use this approach, however, keep in mind that you’ll probably find it quite tough to resell your own PC somewhere down the line over eBay (or anywhere else!).

3. Protect your password access.

You’ve undoubtedly heard over and over again that you must password-protect your PC. Meanwhile, you are required to protect email, storage, and other online accounts with passwords. But it’s also very important to protect the passwords themselves.

In case you don’t know all the rules by heart, don’t leave passwords lying around on scraps of paper that others might glimpse. If a browser or a Web site asks whether it should remember your passwords, say “No.” Don’t use passwords that might be easy for others to guess, such as your birthday or “123456.” Don’t use the same password for all of your accounts. Change your passwords often. And if you have trouble keeping track of all of your passwords, use a password management utility like LastPass.

4. Try to keep sensitive data off of your laptop.

If you’re carrying a corporate-owned laptop, your company is likely to require you to keep some data and software programs aboard. Beyond that, you should travel lean. Leave your most sensitive personal information either entirely off of computers or on a desktop PC at home or in your office. Use a software program such as LogMein for remote access, if you need it.

Also consider storing sensitive information on a NAS device, or on a cloud storage service such as Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, or Microsoft SkyDrive. If you do use cloud storage services, however, be extra careful about protecting your passwords.

5. Use antivirus (AV) software.

It’s trite but true that the numbers and types of computer viruses out there in cyberspace keep expanding every year. According to a report issued last month by Kaspersky, about 200,000 new malware samples are now emerging every day, compared to 125,000 just a year ago.

McAfee Labs has detected increases not just in Android malware, but in digitally signed PC malware (where malware poses as a legitimate software program) and PC ransomware (where cyberciminals try to extract monetary ransoms from victims). Researchers at competing Symantec point to a rise in Web-based expoits like surveys, fake offers, and fake plug-ins.

Now that Defender is built into Windows, there’s really no excuse for not using AV software. For a relatively small price, you can also buy third-party software, offered by an abundance of vendors, which bundles in extras. For instance, Kaspersky AntiVirus 2014 supplies extras such as a privacy cleaner, for removing cookies and log files that might contain sensitive information; a browser configuration tool, for analyzing your Internet Explorer installation for security vulnerabilities; and a virtual keyboard, for fighting keylogger attacks by circumventing use of the physical keyboard.

6. Consider investing in an Internet security suite or cloud-based security service.

If you want even more protections all rolled in to a single software product, you might want to install a full-fledged Internet security suite. Symantec’s Norton Internet Security, for example, adds a number of extras beyond what’s available in Norton Anti-Virus, including Norton Identity Safe, for storing your Internet user names and passwords in an encrypted vault; Norton Safe Web, which warns you about potentially fraudulent Web sites; and parental controls.

Most major vendors now offer multi-device versions of their suites, designed to safeguard not just Windows PCs but Macs and mobile devices.

Increasingly, too, Internet security is moving into the clouds. For example, the recently released McAfee LiveSafe provides cloud-enabled security services for unlimited numbers of Windows PCs, Macs and mobile devices for an annual subscription fee. Special features include the new McAfee Personal Locker service, for biometrically protected, encrypted online storage of up to 1GB of highly sensitive documents.

Also in the interests of fending off cyberattacks, make sure to keep your Windows installation and Web browsers up-to-date with the latest security patches and fixes.

7. Look into encrypting (some of) your onboard data.

Corporate-owned PCs are typically outfitted with the Enterprise edition of Windows, which includes BitLocker, a drive encryption system that automatically encrypts all files saved to the hard drive. Most consumer versions of Windows don’t come with BitLocker., except for the Ultimate edition of Windows 7 and the Pro edition of Windows 8. As an alternative, some users turn to software programs like TrueCrypt, a free open source “virtual drive” encyption utility available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

There are potential disadvantages to full drive encryption, though, and a big one is that the hard drive is in effect unencrypted while you are using it. After you’re entered your password, that guy sitting next to you on the airplane or at the coffee shop can see everything on your screen (or even worse, access your data if you get out of your seat and leave your PC running). So if you really need to tote sensitive data around with you, it’s generally wiser to either encrypt only specific files and/or folders or to use an encrypted USB stick.

8. Be wary of Wi-Fi hotspots.

When it comes to security, all Wi-Fi hotspots are not equal. Before going online at a hotspot, check to see what level of network security encryption it provides. WPA2 is best, followed by WPA and WEP. (Then again, there are still some hotspots around that are “Unsecure.”)

Where possible, it’s safer to use a 4G/3G mobile data network from a cellular provider like Verizon Wireless or AT&T. You might also set up your software programs to use only encrypted connections. For an extra measure of protection, log in over your corporate VPN, or use a third-party VPN product such as HotSpot Shield or a cloud-enabled solution like HotSpot VPN.

Want to find out more about how cloud computing can help to ease your work life? Check out the “Working in the Cloud” series to learn more.

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