Mobile technology may limit harm of laptop data loss

New products are being introduced that protect stolen laptop data and possibly even catch thieves in the act.

How do you minimise the damage when your laptop is lost or stolen? The hardware may be covered by insurance, but no amount of insurance is going to cover you for the information that may be sitting on the machine itself.

Encrypting files or the whole drive may go some way to protecting your data from the opportunist thief, but if the information is valuable enough and the thief has enough time to work on it, then the data may still be vulnerable.

For some industries and for some types of information, nothing short of total destruction will be good enough.

One company claiming to be able to do just that is Alcatel-Lucent, which will next month launch its Nonstop Laptop Guardian (NLG) into the UK. This is a complete computer in a PCMCIA form factor (a USB dongle version will appear next year). It has its own processor, storage and battery which recharges itself when plugged into the laptop. The product runs on a hardened version of Linux and also has its own 3G antenna and GPS tracking device built-in.

Dave Fisher, business development manager at Alcatel-Lucent, explained: "If I turn off the computer and it is stolen, I can still talk to the card. I can then revoke the encryption certificates held on the card, and also kill the data. If the thief pulls out the card, there are no encryption keys to be able to decipher the data held on the disk."

The GPS tracking also allows the machine's location to be identified to within three to five metres.

NLG has already been in use in the US for 18 months and was distributed by telecommunications company Sprint Corp. Fisher said he expects a similar partnership to be signed soon with a mobile phone network operator in the UK. It would be offered, he said, as an additional service for an extra £10 to £20 per month on top of the standard 3G service.

Fisher said the product will appeal to regulated industries such as finance and healthcare, where it is essential to be able to prove that information has been locked down or destroyed. "It can provide an audit trail – for a bank, that would give them evidence to show to the FSA. It can show the laptop has been locked and that no one has accessed it, because we can pick up the access records over the 3G interface...It gets you out of trouble."

Fisher added that petrochemical companies have also shown interest, because their laptops may often contain information that would be extremely valuable to competitors.

The product will be available through Telindus Ltd., a subsidiary of Belgacom Inc. (which will rebrand it the Telindus Laptop Custodian), as well as UK-based managed security providers including Magdalen Networks of St Ives; and n3k Informatik Ltd. of Basingstoke.

The mobile phone industry long ago tackled the problem of killing lost devices, in response to a rise in people being mugged for their phones. If a phone is now reported lost or stolen, its individual serial number (known as the International Mobile Equipment Identifier) is put on a central database, and any further attempt to call from that handset will be blocked.

With more laptops getting 3G connectivity, mobile service operators are seeing an opportunity to broaden their offering to PC users. Vodafone Plc., for instance, has recently introduced a range of security services aimed at helping companies manage their mobile workforces, and these include the ability to wipe a machine clean.

Users of Mac laptops can also benefit from Undercover, a software product from Belgian developer Orbicule Inc., which does not merely protect data, but actually may assist in trapping the thief. The product uses the built-in iSight camera to take regular mugshots of the thief, and it transmits screenshots from the stolen Mac to help the owner learn more about the thief and his whereabouts.

Undercover will then simulate a hardware failure and suggest the thief take it to a repairer. As soon as the repairer starts work, the machine displays an alarm message and reports the theft.

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