How to physically secure your business hardware

Laptop-padlock-462x348There seems to be something of a misconception, at the smaller end of the business scale at least, that data security is somehow a terribly complex thing that is also expensive to achieve properly. This myth is no doubt massaged just a little bit by small business consultants with one eye on the invoice.

How to physically secure your business hardware

The truth of the matter is somewhat different, of course, and basic data security is neither difficult nor expensive to achieve. All it takes is a little bit of technical know-how and an awful lot of common sense.

One aspect of data security where common sense often gets thrown out of the window is that of physical theft. Sure, there is an argument that as long as your data is properly encrypted it matters not a jot if the bad guys access your hardware, steal your laptop or find your USB stick.

It’s an argument that holds a fair amount of water, and I’m the first to advocate an ‘encrypt everything’ approach to data, but safeguarding your hardware against physical theft is so obvious that I’m always amazed to discover so many small businesses doing no such thing.

I’m the first to advocate an ‘encrypt everything’ approach to data, but safeguarding your hardware against physical theft is so obvious

Many will say that they already pay hefty insurance premiums, and if the old laptop is stolen then it’s a good opportunity to upgrade with the claim money. But what if all your data wasn’t properly encrypted, what about the interruption to your business continuity (even if it’s only a matter of an hour or two while a current backup image is squirted onto a spare machine) and what about the notion that not becoming a crime statistic is actually a good thing?

The bottom line is that taking any risk with your data is a bad thing and ensuring that your hardware is protected from theft or loss to the best of your ability is a no-brainer. The Absolute Theft Recovery team monitors laptop thefts, and has compiled a top ten list of the most common places where hardware is stolen from, after analysing the details of thousands of reported thefts during 2010. I was somewhat surprised that most thefts of laptops occurred from school, but have to imagine that’s because Absolute do a lot of business monitoring hardware in the education sector.

It came as no surprise at all that the home and the car made up the rest of the top three, with work following close behind at number four. Hotels, restaurants, public transport including taxi cabs, and airports were also common venues for computer crime.

So what can your small business do to prevent becoming part of the statistics? Actually, quite a lot and most of them are low cost and easy to implement.

Physical locks

Take the straightforward, if rather retro sounding, matter of making use of the Kensington lock slot and looping a decent quality cable around an immovable object to secure your laptop against casual theft in your office? Please note that the leg of a chair or desk is not an immovable object, and a five quid cable that can be cut using a pair of nail clippers isn’t decent quality. Cables are fine for protecting against opportunistic thefts during office hours, but if laptops are left in the office overnight then you should consider investing in a made-for purpose lockbox or secure storage cabinet and suitable alarm systems.

Also, when it comes to in-situ hardware, a cable will not stop the determined thief equipped with a pair of bolt cutters. The good news is that such thefts seem to be on a downwards spiral. While I have no official figures to support this claim, I’ve not been reading about so many hardware thefts as I used to and the business grapevine would suggest that offices are not being targeted as much as they used to be.

I suspect that the falling price of memory has a lot to do with the apparent decline in such crimes, as ripping a machine open and stripping it of RAM to sell down the pub or on eBay used to be high on the agenda of a petty thief. Couple that with a general decline in desktop computing and the ready availability of cheap netbooks, and it’s hardly surprising that demand for knock-off RAM and second-hand machines has fallen like a lead balloon.

Mobile alarms

Opportunist and professional thieves would appear to favour the mobile hardware market these days, and that means laptops, netbooks and smartphones. So how should you go about protecting these from the bad guys and moments of stupidity when things get lost? The latter is, actually, a much harder proposition that the former. Losing things is a fact of life, although losing a lappy can often be a rather expensive one in terms of both the hardware cost and the interruption to your working day and beyond.

Attach a transmitter to your laptop and keep the receiver in your pocket; if the two should be separated by more than the preset couple of metres or so an alarm will sound to remind you

You can buy alarms which work on a proximity principal, such as the Zomm reviewed in this month’s issue of PC Pro. Attach a transmitter to your laptop and keep the receiver in your pocket; if the two should be separated by more than the preset couple of metres or so an alarm will sound to remind you (and everyone in the vicinity) that you’re stupid.

At the low end of the budget scale such devices provide a simple method of preventing both the accidental loss of laptops at airports and train stations, for example, as well as opportunistic theft. For the one-man band business they make a lot of sense, but slightly bigger concerns might want a slightly more complex and costly solution such as a lojack service.

These use a software agent embedded in the BIOS firmware that maintains contact with a service centre, either via GPS or Wi-Fi depending upon your hardware, and allows the laptop to be located if lost or stolen. Lojack services are also useful in that they can keep a log of all activity after the theft was reported and remotely block access to your data, or even delete it if you prefer.

A similar service can be had for free if you happen to have an iPhone, using the Apple MobileMe service and an app called Find My iPhone. Once installed, you can locate your missing iPhone from any web browser and have a custom message pushed to the home screen and lock screen, together with an alarm sound. An email is sent to let you know that the message has been pushed to the handset, and another provides a date and timestamp when that message has been viewed on the iPhone itself. You can also remotely lock the iPhone or wipe all data, and the precise location of the device is displayed via Google Maps.

Laptop anti-theft measures

Don’t leave your laptop in the car. If you absolutely must, make sure it’s locked in the boot, preferably securely with either the Kensington lock slot and a cable, or within a specially installed car safe. Of course, if your car gets stolen then so does your laptop.

Don’t spend a fortune on a designer laptop bag, or use the branded one that was supplied with the laptop. These simply serve to identify you as a potentially valuable target. Instead, use a cheap and above all else non-descript bag instead.

Stick like glue to your laptop. If you are holding it then the only way a thief will get it is if they mug you. If you leave it unattended on your desk, in a conference room, the floor of an airport lounge, on the seat next to you on a train, things become a lot easier especially for the opportunist thief.

Consider marking your equipment to make it both easier to identify and harder to sell. So-called invisible marking systems such as ‘smartwater’ forensic liquid will leave a unique chemical fingerprint on your hardware that is all but impossible to remove, but easily viewed by the police using specialist equipment.

At the opposite end of the marking scale, hugely visible customisation (think business logos and slogans, impossible to remove identification tags and the like) which will help to prevent a casual thief from making an easy sale and a quick buck from your loss.

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