Now Where Did I Put My Laptop...?

by Christian Stiegemeyer, Director of Risk Management
The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company

There is perhaps nothing that better represents the explosion of technology in our lives than the simple laptop computer. The power contained in today's satchel-sized dynamos was an unthinkable dream just a few years ago. Of course, anything worth having is worth stealing, and laptop computers are a growing target of theft. In 2001, almost 600,000 laptops were stolen, according to Safeware, The Insurance Agency, Inc., an increase of 26% from 2000. Unfortunately, all the sophisticated security code and password software in the world will not deter simple theft.

Lawyers who utilize laptop computers in their practice must be especially careful in protecting them because of the confidential and privileged client information they contain and the lawyer's heightened ethical and professional duty to protect such information.

The first step in protecting the information on a laptop computer is to make regular backups of appropriate client files, just as is recommended for larger, mainframe systems. In the event of the loss, theft, or malfunction of a laptop, current backups of the system's files at least enable the lawyer to continue to appropriately represent a client, notwithstanding the possible breach of the attorney-client privilege in such circumstances.

When traveling with a laptop, be aware that the computer is a likely theft target and take appropriate protective measures. In airports, hotel lobbies, on the sidewalk hailing a cab, etc., keep your hands on the carrying case. When not carrying the case, keep it in your field of vision and within arms' length. Putting the case on the ground and standing next to it breaks both of the above rules, i.e. the case is not within arms' length (you'd have to bend down to reach the case) and it is out of your field of vision. Straddling the case when it is on the ground, while an admittedly inelegant posture, does make it more difficult for a thief to snatch the case and run.

Be aware of your surroundings and don't get distracted. In airports, for example, don't put the computer into the luggage scanner until the person in line in front of you has cleared the metal detector. A fairly common scam is for two accomplices to get in the security line in front of a laptop owner. The first accomplice goes through the detector without a problem and waits for a carryon item to pass through the luggage scanner. The second accomplice waits for the victim to put the computer into the scanner then creates a distraction going through the detector to hold up the victim. While the victim is stalled behind the second accomplice, the laptop continues through the scanner and the first accomplice walks away with it.

When traveling to a client or business meeting, if appropriate consider e-mailing the files you will need to someone at your destination. If that is impractical because of confidentiality and privilege issues, forward the files to an assistant or colleague in your office along with the e-mail address of a computer at your destination. In the event the computer is lost, stolen or damaged during travel, the files can be easily forwarded without requiring anyone to get into your system at the office and the work of the scheduled meeting can still go forward.

To combat laptop theft, some software, such as Caveo Technology's Anti-Theft, detects a computer's movement. If it is outside normal parameters, a beeping alarm will activate. If the alarm is not responded to timely, the software will shut down the computer entirely, making it inaccessible until a password is entered to unlock the system. Anti-Theft will also protect against the removal of the hard drive in an attempt to read files on another system by encrypting them with keys maintained on the antitheft device's own memory, not in the computer's memory or on disk.

When it's time to upgrade systems, be careful disposing of the old computer. Don't give away, throw away or sell an old laptop without first overwriting the hard drive. Simply deleting the old files will not ensure they cannot later be recovered and opened. Two graduate students at MIT discovered credit card information, personal histories and medical information on the hard drives of computers they had purchased on e-bay and at thrift stores, according to an ABC NEWS report. The pair suggested using "shredder" software to clean the hard drives or removing and storing the hard drives. They did acknowledge however, that smashing the hard drive with a sledgehammer would also make the files inaccessible as well!