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2/22/2017
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6 Tips for Preventing Laptop Data Theft

Experts point to stronger passwords, full-disk encryption, and multi-factor authentication as ways to stop data theft in the event a laptop is lost or stolen.

Anybody can have their laptop stolen. It happened to Hillary Clinton's campaign last fall, when three laptops were stolen from campaign workers in Philadelphia. In that case, the devices were ultimately recovered and no data appeared to compromised in what was considered a routine theft.

But laptop thefts can cost money. An Intel study from several years ago found that the average laptop theft costs companies roughly $50,000 – and up to $1 million in some cases.

Such thefts can be very damaging. Last year, Oregon's Health Co-op, a nonprofit health insurance company, reported that a stolen laptop compromised the personal information of more than 15,000 current and former members.

Al Sargent, senior director of products at OneLogIn, notes that Kaspersky Lab found that the average worker takes more than 24 hours to report a lost or stolen device. That's plenty of time for criminals to steal data or access the company's corporate network.  

"Gartner reports that one laptop is stolen every 53 seconds," Sargent says. "What we suggest is that companies look to a single sign-on solution to change the social contract. Basically, it's the IT department telling the users to come up with one strong password in exchange for better security."

Frank Dickson, research director for worldwide security products at IDC, says SSO with a strong password only goes so far, however.

"The problem I have with SSO is that it still relies on the password," Dickson says. "There are other forms of authentication, such as push notification to a cell phone and a YubiKey that companies can use. SSO needs to be paired with strong authentication to add that extra level of protection."

Alex McSporran, director at Control Risk and International SOS, adds that companies need to spend some time training employees on these issues, especially the ones who travel for business.

"The training will equip them with a better understanding of the nature of the risk, and the measures they can take to better secure their information," McSporran says. “While technical defenses remain critical, appropriate training, planning, preparedness and vigilance can make a real difference."

Here are some tips compiled from Sargent, Dickson and McSporran, for reducing laptop and laptop data thefts:

Deploy a single, very strong password. Companies moving to more cloud applications understand that it's become impossible for users to manage a password for each cloud app. By issuing a single sign-on system with one strong password, they will make life easier for both the IT staff and the rank-and-file users. It's much tougher to break into a well-thought out strong password. But SSO still has its single point of failure weaknesses, so experts recommend using multifactor authentication (see next tip).

Employ strong authentication. IDC’s Dickson is a stickler for strong, multi-factor authentication. He especially likes a push notification that gets authenticated on a cell phone. For example, if someone steals an employee’s laptop, they also need to have stolen their cell phone to access the laptop. Plus, people generally know when they’ve lost their cell phones and don’t wait 24 hours to report a loss, and most cell phones require a fingerprint ID or password.   

Rotate passwords. Teach people about the credential supply chain. When credentials are stolen they get bundled with other stolen credentials for sale on the black market. Change passwords every 30 days. In the event that a laotop is stolen, there's a better chance that the password that was stolen will no longer be valid.

Do research on your travel site. Before your remote employees travel, have them research the potential threats to your company's sensitive commercial information specific to the location they will be visiting. This will help them take effective security measures to help prevent problems during the trip.

Don't broadcast your trip. Unless it's your spouse, significant other, or key people at work, don't advertise a business trip. People are free and easy on Facebook today about their travels and it may not always be a good idea.  

Think in terms of BYOD. Companies may decide that it just makes more sense to get out of the business of managing technology. Many companies are just giving people an allowance for a laptop and smartphone and making each person responsible for the device’s maintenance. From a security perspective, this can be scary, so if your company goes this route, know what kind of encryption the devices have. Macs come with FileVault and it’s possible to remote wipe devices via iCloud. For PCs, make sure they have full-disk encryption, experts say.

Related Content:

Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

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