Securing your netbook from theft

Netbooks are terrific for computing on the go. Yet their very compactness makes them easy to lose or to forget — not to mention being a target for thieves.

The material loss is bad enough — the threat of someone getting access to your data can be catastrophic. The two obvious countermeasures include a mechanical lock or one of the various electronic solutions on the market.

There are three primary methods to protect the data on a netbook in the event of theft: encryption, BIOS and Windows passwords, or special anti-theft software.

Passwords alone aren’t necessarily secure, explains Christian Woelbert from German computer magazine c’t: “Thieves can circumvent Windows passwords by reinstalling the operating system, for example, or using a live CD.” BIOS passwords are also relatively easy to reset. If the thief removes the hard drive from the unit, it’s also possible to access the data.

Anti-theft software is also only a limited solution, Woelbert says. It works only if the thief goes online with the device. Then the rightful owner has the chance to lock or delete the hard drive remotely. If the thief avoids the web with the device altogether, then there’s nothing the owner can do.

“Encryption is the only true waterproof method,” Woelbert says.

Encryption doesn’t have to be an expensive option, either, he notes.

One major player in this area, TrueCrypt, is free.

For private users there is an entire series of encryption solutions, says Sascha Pfeiffer from the IT and data security company Sophos. The palette ranges from file packers with simple password protection for individual files or directories to commercial encryption products and on to free open source solutions.

“While the latter do offer reliable protection, they are primarily suited for technically savvy users,” Woelbert says.

In principle the entire hard drive should always be encrypted, not just individual folders or files, Woelbert adds. Otherwise thieves might be able to find copies of key files in unexpected locations, such as the temporary files folder. Another key factor is the password. The security is only as good as the password protecting it.

It should be as long and complicated as possible.

Mechanical locks are a good way to prevent amateur thieves from preying on a netbook. One best selling model is the Kensington Lock from Kensington Technology, for example.

The security mechanism features two components: the security slot located on almost all netbooks and notebooks and the cable/lock combination, explains Stephen Hoare from Kensington. The device is only secured once the owner stretches the cable around a fixed object, inserts the piece into the slot and turns the key.

“The casing on the netbooks should also be reinforced with a metal insert on the inside of the wall,” Hoare recommends. Otherwise the cable can be ripped out relatively easily. For this reason mechanical protections can only serve as an initial protection against theft.

Ultimately the safest method is to encrypt the entire hard drive of the netbook and secure it with a sufficiently complicated and long password.

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