4 simple steps to bulletproof laptop security
Follow these tips, tools, and techniques to protect your Windows notebook against theft, intrusion, and data loss
Laptop security step No. 1: Strong passwords
I know, I know, you've heard this drill too many times, and it never sounds any more compelling each time it's repeated. That's why you're using your birthday or "password123" or some other too-easy-to-guess string ... because when you get down to it, you don't really believe someone's going to crack open your notebook and ransack it for everything they can find. Right?
The point of a long password is not just to annoy you, even if it feels like that at times. It's to provide a nontrivial first line of defense for the system. Passwords are one of the first and easiest protections to attack if a system falls into the wrong hands. By that token, they're also one of the easiest protections to make secure in the first place -- provided you choose them properly.
Fortunately, it's quite possible to create secure passwords without exceptional stress on your part. The trick is to pick a password that means something to you and that has a degree of complexity to it, but which most anyone else -- even someone with a casual amount of knowledge about you -- will have a hard time guessing. Above all else, it should not be a word that can be found in a dictionary.
One of the best ways I've found to generate a secure password is to start with a phrase -- a short sentence, something you can easily remember. A song lyric is perfect for this sort of thing, since almost anyone can remember one that they like. The trick is not to use the lyric or the short sentence itself, but to use the first letter of each word to compose the password. Example: The opening words of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" might be rendered "ouatydsfyttbadiyp."
The end result is usually fairly long, complex enough to meet most passwords requirements, and easy to bring back to mind. If you're using a system where password length and complexity have been set by an administrator, you can enhance any of the above schemes by swapping symbols for letters ($ for S, @ for A, and so on).
What's crucial is that you find a way to keep your passwords in your memory and not rely on some external storage (such as a Post-it Note). Using a passphrase as a mnemonic is one way to avoid having to write it down. The less of your laptop's security you make available to prying eyes in any form, the better. This takes practice, but not as much as you might think, and it creates good password-generating habits that can be used elsewhere.
Laptop security step No. 2: Fingerprint readers
If your laptop comes equipped with a fingerprint reader, that's another layer of protection you can use. Fingerprint readers complement existing ways to secure a system; they can be used to log on instead of a password, but you can always fall back on a password if the fingerprint reader goes out of whack or you don't have a finger handy anymore (ouch). It's also often faster and more convenient to log in via a fingerprint than it is to type a password. There's nothing to memorize; you are the credential.
Note that fingerprint readers are not offered in all notebooks; they're mainly found in business-class machines. It is possible to add a fingerprint reader to a notebook after the fact, by plugging one in via USB. That said, I'm not crazy about the idea, if only because of the form factor. Having something the size of a stick of gum perennially hanging off the side of one's notebook sounds like an invitation to smashing it against something -- doubly so if you're a commuter.
When you set up a fingerprint reader, here are a few tips to keep in mind: