by Al Sacco

Lax Laptop Security at the Airport: How Not to Become a Statistic

Jul 07, 20084 mins

Notebook computer thieves have found a thriving new hunting ground: The airport.

Some 637,000 laptop computers are stolen each year from medium- and large-sized airports in the United States, and on average more than two-thirds of those machines are never returned to their rightful owners, according to research released in late June.

That breaks down to approximately 10,278 stolen or missing laptops a week from 36 of the nation’s largest airports, and about 1,997 missing notebooks per week from 70 medium-sized airports, according to the research, aptly named, “Airport Insecurity: The Case of Lost Laptops.” The research was conducted by market-research-firm the Ponemon Institute on behalf of Dell. Dell is not only one of the nation’s leading producers of notebook and desktop PCs, it also recently launched new security services to help its commercial customers recover lost or stolen laptops, as well as protect data stored on compromised machines.

Airports are among the top locations from which thieves look to steal notebook computers, along with parked cars and hotels, and it’s the hustle and bustle of airport security checkpoints that give miscreants the few seconds of confusion they need to grab a computer that has been removed from a bag for scanning and be gone, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. (Interestingly, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] could soon modify its laptop security policies to allow travelers to employ “checkpoint-friendly” cases that offer clear X-ray images of items inside without zippers, pockets or other compartments to block the view, according to

Laptop theft can be a major issue for businesses and their remote employees for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the fact that many corporate laptops contain sensitive—in some cases, irreplaceable—information. And though the majority of travelers carry very little of value within their notebooks, those who do store an average of $525,000 worth of data, according to iBahn, which sells secure broadband services to hotels and conference centers.

The five large U.S. airports with the highest levels of laptop theft, according to the research, are LAX Los Angeles International; Miami International; JFK International (NYC); Chicago O’Hare International; and Newark Liberty International. The five medium-sized U.S. airports with the most notebook theft are Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International; Austin-Bergstrom International; San Antonio International; Ft. Myers Southwest Florida International; and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International, Ponemon says.

What follows is a quick list of tips and resources to help ensure that you and your employees don’t become related statistics.

1) Lock Up That Laptop

Though most notebook-specific locks won’t likely be enough to deter serious thieves, they’re good for thwarting folks looking for a simple grab-and-go. And they’re one of your cheapest options, with some locks retailing for less then $25.

2) Use Notebook Alarms

There are various types of alarms for laptops computers, motion sensitive, cable based and more, which sound alarms to alert you of a potential theft.

3) Employ Software Recovery Tags and Services

Laptop and tracking recovery software, like Dell’s ProSupport Mobility Services, keeps tabs on your notebook wherever it may be by checking on utilities that occasionally connect to central Web servers. From there, those central servers can pin-point a laptop’s location and send the boys in blue to recover it, among other possible responses.

Recovery tags depend on the kindness of others who might find your lost laptop to return it to you, based on information you’ve provided and tagged your machine with. Most tags include some sort of identifying information, a reward for returned goods and an 800 number

to call when found. Tags typically cost between $5 and $10 each, depending on the vendor.

4) Hard-Drive Encryption Software (For PCs and Macs)

Encrypting or scrambling the data on your laptop’s hard drive so only authorized parties can translate it with the proper key is one of the best ways to protect sensitive information. Users of Microsoft’s Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate operating systems already have access to a drive-encryption via BitLocker. And Mac’s come with encryption software, as well, called FileVault.

For more specifics on the above mentioned suggestions, as well as vendors that offer each type of product and service, read “Eight Great Ways to Protect Your Laptop.”

The FTC also offers its own set of tips for “Keeping Laptops from Getting Lost or Stolen,” or for real-world lessons check out this case study with California’s CIO on “How to Lock Up Laptop Security.” And if that’s still not enough, read our “Introduction to Mobile Security.”