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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Laptop safety - a guide for spies

What might the bosses at MI5 and MI6 be saying to their staff members whose laptop computers went missing? BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley tries to imagine.

Following the loss of two laptop computers, the management at, ahem, Universal Exports is issuing guidelines to all those in "the field" so as to ensure no repetition of these regrettable lapses in security

Laptop theft is a growing problem according to Michael Brown at What Laptop magazine, with street thieves beginning to specialise in lifting these highly portable bits of computer kit.

007 Sean Connery
"Sch-top right there. Put the laptop down."
"There's a real blackmarket in stolen laptops. Plenty of people are willing to buy them for a few hundred pounds, thinking they can play games on them. They usually have no idea what they're buying," says Mr Brown.

To avoid becoming another statistic in the crime figures it is important to PLAN ahead, according to the Metropolitan Police.

PLAN is the acronym for the Met's nifty personal safety checklist. Prepare, Look alert, Avoid risks and Never assume it's safe.

Police spokesman Phil Bastable says people walking the streets on their own present the most inviting target for muggers.

Walk tall

Walking with purpose is better than wandering aimlessly, looking confident preferable to appearing concerned, sticking to well lit, busy roads better than taking dark shortcuts.

All operatives are advised to watch their consumption of vodka martinis. Alcohol will impair your ability to PLAN, making the laptop thief's job all the easier.

Laptop user
"Who stole my table?"
Mr Bastable says how you carry your computer also sends a message to would-be assailants.

"Have the strap going across your chest, with the laptop in front of you, rather than having the strap over your shoulder and the computer at the side, which is a much easier target."

It doesn't pay to advertise, so the distinctive square bag your laptop came in, often with a company logo, should be ditched.

A range of other luggage can be used to camouflage your computer, although a ratty carrier bag barely able to hold a pound of spuds is not recommended.

Hard case

Executive staff might consider a bespoke suitcase with strengthened lock and hinges, the vulnerable point of any safe or strongbox.

Geoff Golden from the Corner Spy Shop in Queensway, London, says a briefcase can be made to withstand machete blows or even bombs. "However, nothing is ever 'everything-proof', though."

Mr Golden says he could arrange to place your laptop between two security guards in a bombproof car. "You've got a pretty good chance that you'd keep you hands on your computer."

007 actor Pierce Brosnan
"Take my laptop? You and whose army?"
If you want to travel light in your own car, try not to have your laptop in full view on the passenger seat, or leave the doors unlocked, even if you're inside.

Place valuables out of sight if they have to be left at all, or you may come back to you Aston Martin to find the window smashed and laptop gone.

It may be worth investigating a number of anti-theft devices available from Q.

Defcon 1 is a motion detector available from Port. Once attached to your laptop and turned on, it will emit a 110 decibel alarm if someone tries to whisk it away.

Alarm call

Roy Self from Select Systems says any of the security devices intended to foil shoplifters can be modified to safeguard laptops.

Alarms, activated if the laptop moves beyond the range of a radio transmitter kept on your person, are already on offer from US-based TrackIt Corp.

Mr Self says a combination of high-tensile steel cable and high security padlock attached through a laptop's parallel port allows you to leave your computer with confidence.

Breaking into a car
Window of opportunity: Hide your valuables
You'd best not leave it for long, he warns. A determined thief could still hacksaw through the 8mm cable in around two minutes.

Gizmos and gadgets can usually only delay the inevitable, while the police recommend giving up your valuables with out a struggle if you feel "under threat".

Lindsey Clark, news editor at Computer Weekly, says the theft of the hardware itself is often of less importance than the loss of the data held on it.

"If you can't replace the data, especially confidential company data, you may lose thousands of pounds in business. That's where the real cost is."

All manner of encryption programs are available to keep your personal flies from prying eyes, but you can take even more basic precautions.

If your machine has a password function, use it properly and don't write yourself a password reminder on a piece of paper and leave it in the bag.

The secret to minimising your chances of losing your laptop is no real secret - keep it on your lap.

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See also:

28 Mar 00 | UK
Second spy loses laptop
23 Mar 00 | UK
MI5 laptop snatched
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