SMB - Technology for rescuing stolen laptops emerges

Meanwhile, CyberAngel Security Solutions in Nashville depends on a combination of encryption and tracking. The CyberAngel system creates an encrypted partition on the hard drive, and anyone who boots the system but gives the wrong password will be able to use the machine, but will not see the encrypted partition, said CyberAngel spokesman Bradley Lide. While the unsuspecting thief happily uses the machine, in the background, the laptop will start sending out tracking pings.

"We got the CyberAngel service when we first started getting laptops two years ago and have needed it twice," said Jodea Johnson, systems administrator at Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria, Minn. She chose the service because she liked the encryption it offered, plus the fact that a thief would not know it is there. Also, the price seemed right, she recalled. A CyberAngel spokesman said the price is US$59.95 for one year in single quantities, or US$62.60 for a three-year license in the 100-to-500-quantity range.

It took about six weeks before the first missing laptop started transmitting and the police could recover it, while the second one took less than a week, she recalled.

Laptop hijinks

"Kill switches," meanwhile, are the weapons of choice, along with the encryption of Beachhead Solutions. When a machine using Beachhead's Lost Data Destruction service checks the server and sees that it has been stolen, it can commence erasing preselected files, overwriting them multiple times to preclude file recovery, said Jeff Rubin, Beachhead's vice president of marketing. It can also pull other preselected stunts, such as eternally rebooting.

If it can't get online, the machine can go through a checklist, such as noting that it hasn't been booted up in a while, decide whether it has been stolen and launch the same procedures, Rubin added. Single-user pricing is US$129 per year.

"Tracking is a great idea if you are concerned about the hardware, but a US$1,500 laptop is no big deal compared to the damaged reputation that could result from a breach," said Corey Jenrich, IT manager at Community Bank. He uses Beachhead for his bank's 80 machines. He has never had one stolen and so has never used the kill switch. In the meantime, Jenrich uses the automated encryption facilities that the Beachhead software offers.

"We could have just rolled out the Encrypting File System on Windows XP, but we thought it put too much reliance on the end user to put the right files in an encrypted folder, and if the laptop gets into the wild, I can't prove that a given file was encrypted," he said.

With Beachhead, all files with user-specified extensions will be encrypted. Jenrich also said he likes the way the software can delete files and close down the computer even if it never gets online again.

"We're covered," he said. "It would be worth it if it cost four times as much. We like it for the control it gives us over the end-user environment, extending to situations when the machine is not in our physical control," he added.

And being covered is the main reason more and more enterprises are adopting (aside from tracking) some form of encryption, said Eric Maiwald, analyst at Burton Group, a research and advisory firm in Midvale, Utah. More laws, such as California's SB 1386, require notification of victims if a company suffers a breach of unencrypted personal data.

"They want that encryption 'Get out of jail free' card," Maiwald said. "Encryption products have been around since the 1980s but have not seen much adoption outside the government and financial institutions, but now with the notification laws, we are seeing much larger deployments," Maiwald added. He noted that there are dozens of such products, falling into either file encryption or whole-disk encryption categories.

But Maiwald advised against depending on the encryption facilities built directly into some applications, such as Microsoft Word. "There are a lot of programs out there that will break them," he warned.

For more stolen laptop woe tales, go to and run a search for "laptop."

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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