The safety and security of our laptops—and all of the important and sensitive information they hold—are of the utmost importance. Let's take a look at several free and cheap methods you can (and should) use to keep your laptop safe, secure, and out of the hands of thieves. We'll also take a look at software that tracks and even snaps pictures of the thief in the event he did get away with your precious gear. Photo by presta.
Phase One: Lock and Key
They aren't free, but an inexpensive laptop lock can do wonders for securing your laptop and deterring thieves. Whether you know it or not almost all laptops support them. They're relatively inexpensive, and for the price they're an excellent deterrent. After all, if you were a thief scoping out two laptops—one with a lock and one without—which which would you go for?
Phase Two: Laptop Alarms and Security Cameras
You've got your laptop physically locked down, so you're off to a great start. For phase two of your laptop security system, try setting up a software-based security system and alarm. Here's how they work.
Say you get up from your seat for a minute but you want an added layer of protection on top of your laptop lock. Car alarm-like applications for your laptop let you walk away for a moment without breaking down your whole work area and packing up your laptop. The benefit of an alarm in a crowded library or coffee shop is that all eyes are on your laptop and the potential thief when it goes off. An alarm is a second phase deterrent if a potential thief still goes after your laptop despite your lock.
For Windows users, free application Laptop Alarm (original post) will sound an alarm whenever anyone unplugs the power cable, the mouse is moved or unplugged, or the laptop is shut down. It's a very simple application that could use some improvements (especially compared to the Mac alternative below), but it's not bad for what it does.
Mac users, try the nearly identical applications iAlertU or Lockdown (original post). (Lockdown is based on the open-source iAlertU.) You can arm and disarm both applications car-alarm style with your Apple Remote, and both use the motion detection system in any newer MacBook to set off the alarm if someone moves your laptop. The alarm also sounds with any movement of your mouse, keyboard activity, and more. Whenever the alarm is triggered, your MacBook's iSight camera snaps a picture and can send it to any email address.
Alternately, you can also automatically upload iAlertU pics to your FTP server if you'd prefer that to email.
If your laptop has a webcam, turning it into a backed-up security camera while you're away can also help if your laptop were to get stolen. On Windows, you can install and run a free tool like Yawcam (original post) to turn your webcam into a motion-sensing security camera that can back up pictures it snaps to an FTP server. Just switch on Yawcam whenever you step away from your computer.
On a Mac, you could try out Gawker, a killer open-source time-lapse application. You'd need to figure out a method for off-site backup with Gawker, but a method similar to backing up iAlertU pictures via FTP should do the trick. For more, check out my previous guide to using Gawker.
Phase Three: Retrieval
If worse comes to worst and your laptop is stolen, you're still not without recourse. Several tools are available to help you not only track your laptop and the thief after your laptop has been stolen, but also to secure data on your computer after it's been stolen.
Windows users should check out the free application LaptopLock. Here's how to use Laptop Lock to report your computer missing, remotely delete or secure files, run programs, and even send a message to the thief.
Similarly, the cross-platform Adeona is an open source application designed to help you track a stolen laptop by gathering information like IP addresses and access point information (like the name of the hotspot the laptop is connected to). As an added bonus for Mac users, Adeona can also snap photos with your iSight whenever it tracks the thief's location and upload that photo as well—a killer option for getting several pictures of the thief and possibly some information to determine where he/she is using your laptop.
With tracking tools like Adeona or LaptopLock, you're not guaranteed pinpoint accuracy by any means, but it is a start. Adeona does not geolocate IP addresses itself, either, but you can plug the addresses or wireless networks the application sends to you into web-based tools like Wigle or the GeoIP demo to see what you can find. If you're using LaptopLock on a Windows computer, the LaptopLock service can do the IP mapping itself.
More Security Options Worth Considering
Since the sensitive information your computer holds is ultimately more important than your laptop itself, do yourself a huge favour by encrypting your hard drive. We've already walked you through how to encrypt your drive with TrueCrypt, a free and cross-platform encryption tool that protects your data in case of theft, so that's the perfect starting point.
If you've set up remote services on your computer—like SSH, VNC, or even an FTP server—you might want to consider using the DynDNS web service as a LoJack, to connects to your computer no matter where it's located and backup or delete sensitive files if it is stolen.
As a bonus tip, consider installing tracking software on your USB devices—like iPods or thumb drives—with previously mentioned application iHound. iHound works similarly to the laptop tracking and recovery tools mentioned above, but it places an enticing passwords.txt file on your USB drive's root directory that uploads information like IP addresses when the thief opens that file.
None of these methods are foolproof. A thief could cut your lock, run off with your laptop even with an alarm sounding, and format your hard drive immediately. As a rule of thumb, however, a lot of would-be thieves either don't necessarily know how to do some of these things or simply don't take the effort. Similarly, tracking and retrieval tools aren't a sure thing. IP address mapping is inexact at best, and it's often very difficult to use an IP address to identify anyone anyway.
Every bit counts, though, even if it only means the difference between the thief making off with your laptop or your entire identity. If you've got your own methods for setting up a laptop security system—even if it just entails carrying it with you at all times—let's hear about it in the comments.
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who dreams of the day his laptop can return to him like an AT-5000 Auto-Dialer (but with better wheels). His special feature Hack Attack appears every week on Lifehacker.