Computers and College Part III: Protecting Your Computer

August 22, 2011 by . 3 comments

A college computer can be an expensive investment, and college is a risky place for laptops. What can you do to keep your computer safe? Risks to your laptop are varied: accidental damage, theft, even just your friends sneaking in to play tricks. Read on to see our tips on how to keep your computer safe and sound.

Preventing Theft

Having your laptop stolen isn’t just expensive – it can also result in losing a lot of important data which you may need for projects and not be able to get back. Physical security is of key importance: if you keep your laptop in sight or locked up, it’s far less likely to be stolen. Laptops are most likely to get stolen in those “just for a moment” times that you have to run to the bathroom, go find a textbook, or find a friend in the library. Always put away or lock your computer when leaving it unattended, even for just a moment.

The best way to keep your laptop safe is to not put it in a risky situation to start with.

  • If you don’t need your computer, don’t bring it!
  • Use a discreet bag, not a fancy branded laptop bag, to make your laptop less obvious
  • Always keep your laptop visible, and lock it when leaving it unattended

Laptops are most likely to get stolen in the following places:

  • Libraries
  • Cafes
  • Study areas

Of course, you can’t just not bring your laptop with you ever. So let’s take a look at how to secure it when you do take it out for a spin.

Locks and Physical Security

A security lock will not stop a determined thief, but drastically reduces the chances of opportunistic theft, which accounts for most campus laptop disappearances. Almost all laptops come with a Kensington lock slot (also referred to as a “security slot”). This is a small slot in the side of the computer which a security loc. k can be inserted to. Kensington and other manufacturers sell cable locks which attach to the slot, and can be wrapped around a secure object such as a desk. Both combination locks and keyed locks are available.

While it can be inconvenient to constantly be locking and unlocking your computer, it’s far easier than recovering it once stolen. It’s a good idea to bring your lock with you everywhere you go, just in case you have to abandon your computer for a few moments.

Additional Theft Deterrents

In addition to a security cables, you can help reduce theft through some other means:

  • Use an inconspicuous laptop bag.
  • Register your laptop with your university’s department of public safety if they offer a program such as StopTheft. This facilitates recovery should your laptop be stolen, and provides stickers which act as a theft deterrent.
  • Engrave your name and contact info onto a non-removable part of the laptop

Tracking Software

There are a variety of free and paid options for tracking software which can help you to recover your laptop. These use information such as your IP address and nearby wireless signals to record your location, and then report it back to a server. If your computer is stolen, then the next time it checks in it can be configured to display an alert, record webcam video, or silently delete sensitive information.

LoJack for laptops is the most widely used commercial laptop tracking software. It is a subscription service, and costs $20-$40 per year. Laptop manufacturers often offer a discount when purchasing LoJack with a new laptop. The key advantage of LoJack is that on laptops with a supported BIOS, the software can reinstall itself automatically even if the hard drive is wiped or completely replaced. LoJack has two levels of service – standard and premium. Both services include recovery in the event of a theft – Absolute Software (the manufacturer) hires private detectives and recovery agents, and will attempt to physically locate and retrieve your laptop. They work closely with official law enforcement, which is an advantage if your laptop is stolen. The premium service also insures your laptop for $1000 against theft – if they can’t recover it, they’ll pay you back up to $1000. Because theft reports are made through Absolute’s reporting system, you don’t have very much user control over its behavior – Absolute employees can easily check things like webcams, but you can’t do it yourself.

Prey is a free, open source tracking tool. It has more user-facing features than LoJack, including the ability to view what is happening on your screen, take webcam pictures, and send text or voice alerts to the computer. The software can be configured to report to Prey’s website, or to your own server. There is also a Pro version offered, with additional features. The free version of Prey, which is available for Windows, OS X and Linux, should suffice for most users.

Tracking software is not guaranteed to get your computer back, but can help with giving police enough information to recover your laptop. It’s certainly worth installing Prey, since it’s free, so that just in case something happens, you have some extra info!

Additional Security Measures

In addition to securing your laptop against theft, it’s also important to secure it against malware and other risks. Here are a few quick tips for keeping your computer safe:

  • Install Anti Virus software unless you are confident enough in your computer skills to avoid them completely. Contrary to common misconception, even Macs can get viruses. Microsoft Security Essentials is a good, free choice for Windows users. Mac users should read our post on free OS X anti-virus solutions.
  • Lock your computer when you aren’t using it if others might mess with it. Hopefully you can trust your friends not to screw things up when you aren’t looking, but if you’re one of those people whose friends think posting funny sayings on your Facebook page on your behalf is hilarious, you might want to consider this.

Just remember: the best protection for your laptop is to keep a close eye on it and be careful. Security mechanisms can help, but can’t substitute for being attentive and careful.

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3 Comments

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  • journeymangeek says:

    As far as laptop bags go, i find that a regular laptop bag and a sleeve work pretty well – good neoprene sleeves are as good as, or better than most non rigid laptop bags.

  • [...] included some tips on preventing laptop theft in his series on college computing. In this article I’ll present some tools that can help you [...]

  • Lie says:

    As far as laptop bag goes, I’d highly recommend a very inconspicuous backpack. Many backpacks nowadays have a laptop compartment with extra padding and safety strap for the laptop. Almost nobody would suspect that your backpack hold anything more than your textbooks.

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