Lock Up Your Laptop

Laptops are wonderful devices for those who need computing power on the move, whether that is as an international business traveller or simply to take around your home with you instead of being banished to a workroom or study whenever you need to access the internet.

But their primary advantage over their less mobile, desktop-bound brethren can also be a serious drawback.  Laptops, after all, are designed to be picked up and carried with ease, and anything so portable, desirable and valuable is bound to attract unwelcome attention from thieves of all descriptions. Whether they want it for themselves, hope to sell it for profit or seek access to the information it contains, it is very easy for someone  to thrust an unattended laptop into a bag and stroll into the night with it.

The consequences of such a theft could be anything from mildly inconvenient to catastrophic, depending on what the laptop is used for, by whom, and what information is stored on it. If it is insured, the cost of replacing the equipment may well be at least partially recovered in time; if it is not, the expense of a like-for-like replacement may be prohibitive.

Backup copies of important files and documents may cushion the blow of losing your work, photographs and other material kept on the machine, but backups, if they exist at all, are rarely absolutely up to date; there is a good chance that your most recent work, at least, will be lost forever, and it is possible that it is all gone for good.

Even if you are able to recover your documents from backups, the information on the laptop is still in the hands of someone who can only be described as a criminal. Saved passwords will give them access to all of your online accounts, while stored documents and emails may well provide enough information for them to make a good attempt at stealing your identity.

Passwords can be changed, of course, but do you really want the thief – or the person they sell your laptop to – combing through your saved correspondence, or that of your employer, or studying your photographs? Encrypted files – or entire disks – reduce the risk somewhat, but many people don’t realise that they could, and should use them. Indeed, many people struggle to protect their machines with a password, let alone use more sophisticated defences against a threat that they may never even have imagined.

Fortunately, laptop manufacturers are not blind to the possibility of theft, and the potential consequences thereof. For many years, laptops – and now, their Netbook, Ultrabook and Chromebook cousins – have been equipped, more or less as standard, with a Kensington Lock socket.

This is small, metal reinforced hole in the side or back of the laptop’s case. A lock, usually connected to a rubberized metal cable, can be inserted into the slot and secured in place. The other end of the cable is usually formed into a loop, which allows the cable to be passed around a fixed object, such as heavy furniture, and then locked into the laptop.

The type of lock varies to accommodate different needs – both combination locks and locks with conventional flat keys are in common use – as does the type and length of the cable, and a variety of dedicated anchor points and other accessories are also available. Although the system is routinely named after its designers, Kensington Computer Products Group, a number of similar systems are available from a variety of manufacturers.

This type of anti-theft system is specifically intended to discourage opportunist theft, and is unlikely to be very effective against a sustained or unusually violent attack. Laptops are, by their nature, made of lightweight materials, and, despite the metal reinforcement around the Kensington Lock slot, it is possible to wrench the lock from the socket, albeit doing substantial damage to the case in the process.

Similarly, the securing cable is vulnerable to being cut with sufficiently sturdy wire cutters, and the fixed object to which the cable is anchored could, with effort, be damaged or destroyed, enabling the thief to remove the laptop.

Kensington locks, and others of their type, are much more useful in situations where such determined attacks would be likely to attract attention before they could be completed successfully. They are often used in retail showrooms and other locations that are open to the public, and are common in student life, particularly in dorm accommodation.

However, they are not, and should not, be limited to these scenarios. Anyone who uses their laptop in a coffee shop, on a train or, indeed, in any public location, is at risk of having their laptop snatched by a passing opportunist thief.

Even at home, a locked down laptop is less vulnerable to theft than its unlocked counterpart. This is particularly true for laptops owned by the elderly or infirm, who may well rely on them for online shopping and communication with friends and family. Unfortunately, they are also traditional targets for confidence tricksters, who talk their way into their homes and then steal whatever they can find, including laptops.

Kensington locks are inexpensive, easy to use and could save you a great deal of inconvenience, at the very least. Shouldn’t you be using one to protect your laptop?