Statistics and solutions for computer theft

People are constantly leaving their systems in vulnerable situations, where thieves can easily take them. I once was at a public Wi-Fi hotspot at a cafe and decided to browse the network for connected computers (heck, they conveniently pop up automatically on the OS X Finder's sidebar). While most systems ask for a password and deny access, I was surprised to find at least two computers out of about 10 available that had fully shared hard drives and documents folders.

People are constantly leaving their systems in vulnerable situations, where thieves can easily take them. I once was at a public Wi-Fi hotspot at a cafe and decided to browse the network for connected computers (heck, they conveniently pop up automatically on the OS X Finder's sidebar). While most systems ask for a password and deny access, I was surprised to find at least two computers out of about ten available that had fully shared hard drives and documents folders, with one having everything from personal bank statements and finance spreadsheets to saved job applications available for anyone to download and read.

Not only were these computers open for reading, but they also allowed people to copy files to them, which posed another security threat since people could copy malware directly to the system. Looking around it was also obvious people were otherwise being rather careless with their systems. One girl had her system set up in a corner of the cafe next to the back door, and repeatedly got up to get coffee and go to the restroom, all while leaving her laptop and iPod for anyone to snatch.

While it may seem obvious that these are ways to just welcome theft, its apparent that many people are not aware of how vulnerable their systems are. Recently some findings of the 8th Annual 2010 BSI Computer Theft Survey were released, which show some interesting details about computer theft in the US.

Overall, about 5.5 million computers were stolen in the U.S.A. in the past three years, with only 165,000 (3 percent) of those being recovered. In most cases, the computers were laptops (68 percent) followed by mobile devices, and finally desktop systems. These were primarily stolen when people were on the move somewhere, instead of being at a home or in an office.

Not surprisingly, only 21 percent of those surveyed used extensive data protection (more than a simple log-in password), but about 70 percent did not use any safeguard or security protection at all and fewer than 10 percent use any form of encryption. A little over half of those who had computers stolen also had been subjected to other thefts in the past year, and because of theft, more than 70 percent of those in the survey claimed their computer downtime was at least a few days but as long as a month after the theft.

These numbers are very similar to those in earlier years of the survey, indicating people are not protecting their systems any more than they did about 5 years ago. The technologies for combating theft are readily available and are advancing, but people are not putting them to use.

Security system preferences
Apple's "Security" system preferences have options for preventing automatic log-in, as well as file-vault data-encryption options (click for larger view).

There are some easy ways to protect your system from physical theft or data theft, and they all revolve around a simple idea that, when said in its polite form, "Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups." In observing this, when running your computer do not at any time assume your data is safe. Either know it's safe, or be under the impression it is not safe at all.

Protecting the device

  1. Locking

    Most computers come with a way to lock the device down. Laptops come with Kensington lock ports that when coupled with a good locking device will secure the computer's chassis to a solid device. Desktops usually have a lock loop on the back of the case that interferes with the side-panel of the Some of these locks have alarms on them that have a blinking light to further dissuade thieves.

  2. Lo-Jack Software

    Absolute Software, Inc. has a LoJack package that will track your system if a thief uses it, and Brigadoon Security group also has a "MacPhoneHome" package to do the same thing. These and similar software packages can help police locate a thief and recover your system.

  3. Set a firmware password

    After booting to Apple's OS install disk, run the "Firmware Password" utility from the Utilities menu, which will prevent people from booting into safe mode, single user mode, or alternate drives without first either disabling the password or providing it when prompted.

  4. Keep it with you

    Whenever you can, take your laptop with you. Do not leave it on a desk, especially if it is a publicly accessible table.

Sharing system preferences
Turn off unused services to help protect your system from hackers and malware (click for larger view).

Protecting the data

  1. Encrypt when you can

    The use of encryption is by far the best way to secure your data. Without it, if thieves get physical access to your machine then they can relatively easily recover your data by putting your hard drive in an enclosure and attaching it to another machine.

  2. Back up

    Granted this does not protect your data from theft, but it does allow you to more easily get up and running on a new system in the event a thief steals yours. Having a regularly updated clone or a Time Machine backup (but preferably both) will allow you to quickly boot to practically any Mac and be up and running instead of waiting up to a month to get yourself to where you were.

  3. Turn off sharing

    Unless you need them, turn off sharing services in the Sharing system preferences. Sometimes people only need to use these services once but then keep them running on their systems, which while not a major security threat, does leave potential avenues for attack open. Apple is constantly plugging security holes in these services, but there may be others that are undocumented or that can crop up in future versions of the software.

  4. Uninstall networking software

    If you have social networking software or peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing utilities, turn them off unless you are using them. Many times people's systems are littered with these tools that are constantly running in the background. Some of them automatically share folders to the entire p2p network, so people can list and download whatever you have in that shared folder, even though you may have the OS X firewall and a router firewall enabled.

Test it out!

Once you have implemented these and other security measures, be sure to test them out. Try accessing the system from other computers, using both Macs and PCs. Try seeing if you can boot to another drive even though you have the firmware password set, and see if the LoJack or other tracking software works in various conditions (will it allow the system to sleep? Does it activate right away or only under some conditions? Does it show the user that the security software is running?). In Apple's iOS there is a remote-wipe feature that you should try at least once to ensure it works properly (be sure you back up first).

Overall, its not hard to apply a few security measures to your system, but the more portable a system is the more you should implement security measures for it. Does this mean you should turn your computer into a vault? Not necessarily; however, its not difficult to get close without putting yourself through too much inconvenience.



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About the author

    Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.

     

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