Avoid Self-Made Disasters

By Jeffrey Allen

Disaster can come in all forms. You may not be able to avoid a hurricane or tornado, but there are steps within your control that can help prevent the loss of your equipment and data.

We hear with increasing regularity about stolen laptops. Individual lawyers will likely have personal or confidential information about themselves or their clients on their laptops. With that information, a third party can access bank accounts and credit card numbers. Information such as names, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers may allow third parties to establish credit in your name.

Laptop and PDA theft thrives on the carelessness of the owner. Below are some laptop and PDA Dos and Don’ts:

DON’T leave equipment unattended or unprotected.

DON’T leave equipment in unlocked cars.

DON’T leave equipment in open offices.

DON’T leave equipment sitting out in hotel rooms.

DON’T leave equipment at the table at Starbucks while you pick up your latte.

DON’T leave equipment in a computer case unattended in a public place.

DON’T carry equipment in a case obviously designed to carry laptops.

DON’T check your laptop when you fly.

On the other hand:

DO buy and use a computer lock in your office, home, and when you travel. When you use the lock, chain the computer to something secure.

DO lock your car. If you leave a computer or PDA in the car, lock it in the trunk. Note, however, that leaving a computer in an extremely hot car can cause damage.

DO use hotel safes. If the room doesn’t have a safe or the safe is too small, lock the computer to something secure or check it at the front desk.

DO carry the computer in a bag that doesn’t look like a computer bag.

DO buy a computer envelope so that you can safely carry a laptop in a briefcase, suitcase, carry-on bag, or back pack.

Once you’ve found ways to protect your valuable hardware, the next step is to protect the stored data. Keep data off your laptop. This means you have to access it from some source other than the laptop’s hard disk. If you use an online location or your office network, you can access the data whenever and wherever you connect to the Internet. If you do use this approach do not allow your computer to save your access/password information or automatically log on to the site. Manually entering that information preserves the safety of the data.

Password-protect your equipment. Don’t choose easy passwords—your name, birth date, spouse’s name, children’s names, etc. Use passwords containing a minimum of 6 characters. Use numbers and letters. Use upper- and lowercase letters. Throw in a symbol or punctuation mark. Random selection makes passwords harder to guess, but also makes them harder to remember. Keep passwords in a safe place (encrypted in your password-protected PDA). Don’t tape them to the bottom of the computer, write them in permanent marker on the computer, or put them on a card that you leave in the computer bag.

If your computer doesn’t come with a built-in fingerprint reader, you can add it through a third-party USB device. Encrypt your data, which renders it unreadable without a key to decrypt it. Separately store encrypted files. The use of encryption software to protect your files on the laptop should, in conjunction with the other measures, give you a feeling of reasonable security respecting your data. If you want even more protection, move encrypted files off your computer onto an external storage device.

These simple yet effective methods can stop at least one type of disaster before it happens!

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. He is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. He also teaches at the Business School of the University of Phoenix. Contact him at .

Copyright 2007

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