Friday, October 21, 2005

Ideas for a Secure Laptop

In its October 10, 2005 edition, Federal Computer Week ran an excellent article on how the US Justice Department is implementing new technology to protect data on laptop computers. A sidebar to the article lists 8 ways to improve security such as implementing encryption and tracking devices on laptop PCs; and the use of removable storage. Let's take three of these ideas one by one.

First, turning on encryption in Windows 2000/XP is pretty simple. According to Microsoft's website you perform the following steps: 
  1. Open Windows Explorer
  2. Right-click the file or folder that you want to encrypt, and then click Properties.
  3. On the General tab, click Advanced.
  4. Select the Encrypt contents to secure data check box.
Encrypting a Microsoft Word document is also a fairly easy affair. If you have a document you wish to secure, first open the document, then go to the Tools menu, select Options, and click on the Security tab. You can then enter the password for that specific document. But of course the danger in all of this encryption is forgetting the password, so rather than writing it on a "sticky note", one might consider an embedded fingerprint scanner such as the one built into a new laptop model when it's time to upgrade.

Second, the idea of a stolen laptop being able to "phone home" is now possible. There is a number of stealth tracking software solutions available that can be installed on your computer. When a laptop is stolen one notifies the service provider and they begin a process of tracking down your computer once it has been connected to the Internet. One could argue that if the thief simply erases the hard disk drive they could thwart this system. However, most computers have hidden sectors on the hard drives where this kind of software can be placed and disguised. And besides, as we know working in the criminal justice system, thieves are often not very clever.

Third, the use of removable storage is a great idea. There are three common ways that this can be accomplished. Currently for under $150 a two gigabyte USB storage flash drive can be purchased. While you won't be able to store your entire library of Beethoven Symphonies on this drive, it should be sufficient for most judges' working document files. A second option is a removable PC Card hard disk drive that contains 5 gigabytes of storage. And finally, for those of you who wish to backup everything on your computer along with your Beethoven, there is the popular Apple iPod (or other alternative) which in the near future will be able to store 60 gigabytes of information.