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Do You Know Where Your Laptops Are?

I got an urgent e-mail from IT yesterday about a company-owned laptop I never returned upon getting a new one. It's not the first time those guys have asked, but the old laptop got stuck in a box during a move and I forgot about it. It was on its last legs back then. Heck, it's probably got a 486 chip. What's the rush?
I got an urgent e-mail from IT yesterday about a company-owned laptop I never returned upon getting a new one. It's not the first time those guys have asked, but the old laptop got stuck in a box during a move and I forgot about it. It was on its last legs back then. Heck, it's probably got a 486 chip. What's the rush?Then I got to thinking, the request may not be about the machinery, but about the potential data inside. The old thing doesn't contain any customer files or Social Security numbers; mostly just scraggly reporter's notes. Still, from a corporate management point of view, a laptop might as well be a walking file cabinet overflowing with secrets and liabilities.

Not enough organizations view laptops that way, but some are learning the hard way. Just look at the red-faced Veterans Affairs Department, which just experienced another data loss, this time involving a desktop, on the heels of a laptop theft.

You rarely heard about such data losses prior to laptops. That's because customer files were crammed into manila folders and stored in metal file cabinets. Instead of loading said folders into the trunk of a car to work on at home, it made more sense to just go into the office on the weekend. Even if a thief got into the trunk, most would ignore file folders: difficult to transport, difficult to extract information from.

Lo and behold the laptop, which makes life easier, yet riskier. So easy to carry, so easy to search. Massive amounts of data are crunched into a few gigabytes. And any thief worth his salt knows that even if he has no interest in any personal information contained within one, he can probably get a pretty penny for it on the Web's black market.

In a recently published story by Dark Reading (an InformationWeek sister publication), Burton Group Senior Analyst Eric Maiwald talks about the perception of epidemic data losses, given what's happened at the VA and elsewhere. "There's a real profit motive now to gaining access to [laptop] data, whether it's personal information or a company's trade secrets," says Maiwald. "So while it seems like the attacks and threats are increasing, it's actually the value of the data, along with the skill level of attackers."

No valuable data on my old laptop, but kudos to IT for taking extra precautions. But for so many others, laptops aren't a briefcase--they're more like 500 briefcases crammed into one. That's hot property, for sure. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a laptop to get in the mail.

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