Stop, Thief!

New tools keep laptop PCs from vanishing into thin air

What do the U.S. State Department, the British military and the FBI have in common? Each of these security-centric organizations has recently lost laptops with sensitive information.

The cost of losing a laptop can be much greater than the $2,000 or so spent on the hardware. Gartner estimates laptop loss or theft costs a company more than $6,000 per incident — and that doesnt even account for the value of whatever data may have been lost or the liability that the loss might create for the company.

Many cheap devices on the market can help prevent laptop theft. Kensington Technology Group makes one of the best-known, the MicroSaver lock, which sells for about $45. The MicroSavers cable attaches to a tiny hole on the side of the laptop and latches the machine to a desk or whatever other furniture is nearby, just like locking a bike to a bike rack. Kryptonite, which got its start in bike locks, makes a similar lock for laptops.

But despite the fact that 95 percent of laptops are equipped for such locks, only 10 locks are sold for every 100 laptops purchased, says Cathie Smithers, Kensingtons senior security product manager. "It seems today everyone knows about complicated technologies like encryption and firewalls, but something simple like cables gets overlooked," she says.

Kensington has also developed the SonicLock, a motion-detection device that attaches to a laptop and can sense when its being moved. Lexent Technologies makes a competing product for business travelers called iSpy.

Another company, Caveo Technology, has developed a system that detects when a laptop is taken beyond a given range. A user can set up a 100-foot diameter around a certain point, and a 110-decibel siren will sound if the laptop is taken out of that range. Caveos device — expected to be widely available early next year — is the only antitheft product on the market that slides into a laptops PC Card slot instead of attaching to the machines exterior. It shuts down the computer and prevent it from rebooting if it senses unauthorized access.

If these preventive measures dont work, there are other steps a company can take to protect its electronic assets even when a laptop is in someone elses possession. Several services — such as those offered by Absolute Softwares Computrace, Loss Prevention Services LapTrak, Lucira and zTrace Technologies — can track a laptops location after its been lost or stolen. These services typically cost $50 per laptop per year.

Once a stolen laptop is connected to the Internet, hidden software communicates back to the providers data center and the laptop is traced.

With IT budgets being pared, companies are looking at ways to better protect laptops, says Gartner senior analyst Mark Margevisius. "They cant afford to lose that equipment."