4 simple steps to bulletproof laptop security

Follow these tips, tools, and techniques to protect your Windows notebook against theft, intrusion, and data loss

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On the service side, there's a system I've used for some years now: StuffBak. With StuffBak, you buy special stickers -- made of the same metal foil as industrial inventory-control tags -- that come with serial numbers. You attach one such sticker to your notebook in a conspicuous place, then register the device with StuffBak's website. If the device goes missing, you can log into the website and report it as lost. The sticker itself sports the words "Reward for return!" along with an 800 number and the Stuffbak website's URL.

If a Good Samaritan finds the device and reports it as found, they can claim a reward for returning it. You set the reward amount, and StuffBak handles all the shipping logistics; whoever finds it doesn't ever have to know your name or address. It's all completely hands-off.

The StuffBak sticker on the front face of my Toshiba laptop provides a way for a Good Samaritan to return it and claim a reward.
The StuffBak sticker on the front face of my Toshiba laptop provides a way for a Good Samaritan to return it and claim a reward.

StuffBak has a few different grades of service depending on how many items you have to protect. A basic pack of labels comes with lifetime item registration and two years of free returns, but you can buy additional levels of protection and recovery services depending on your needs. Some PC makers are now adding features like this to notebooks out of the box. Sony, for instance, includes TrackItBack recovery labels on many of its new notebooks.

The one major drawback to StuffBak (and other services of its kind) is that it depends entirely on the good graces of whoever finds your hardware. Sure, your lost or stolen laptop might end up in the hands of an upstanding citizen or at least one who will respond to the offer of a reward. Unfortunately, not everyone is motivated to be so helpful. That's why it makes sense, at least from my point of view, to also use software that can help find your computer if it goes missing.

I've since settled on the application-and-service combo known as Prey, which provides protection for both PCs and phones. You install the open source Prey software on the machines you want to track, then register each machine with Prey's website. If one of the devices goes missing, you note it as such on the site and can activate a whole slew of possible recovery mechanisms:

  • An audible alarm (useful if you think it might be nearby)
  • An alert message that warns any would-be users the device is being tracked
  • Device locking and wiping (capabilities vary depending on the device and level of service)
  • Geolocation based on GPS or network connections
  • Session spying (to see what the user might be doing)
  • Webcam access (to silently take pictures of the current user)

If the Prey client has a network connection, it checks every few minutes (you can set this interval, from 10 to 40) to see if the host has been reported lost. Prey can also attempt to automatically -- and silently -- make a connection through a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Prey's Web control panel, from which you can set options for a missing PC. Many more options relating to information gathering (such as the use of session spying or the Webcam) are below and out of sight.
Prey's Web control panel, from which you can set options for a missing PC. Many more options relating to information gathering (such as the use of session spying or the Webcam) are below and out of sight.

One of the recommendations made for Prey users, as counterintuitive as it sounds, is to deliberately leave the Windows guest account active. A prospective thief will think someone's left the front door wide open and cheerfully log in through the guest account to try to see what he can find. Windows automatically grants the guest user very limited privileges, so that account can't be used to read data stored in other user accounts. If you've encrypted the drive as well, the intruder won't be able to access your data even if he pries the drive out of the notebook.

The free version of the Prey service only lets you register up to three devices and imposes some limitations on how they can be tracked. For-pay versions of Prey's services can be purchased at different tiers for different numbers of devices, and they add more tracking functionality, like the ability to connect persistently to your stolen device if it's on the network.

This story, "4 simple steps to bulletproof laptop security," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in mobile technology, Microsoft Windows, and network security at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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