Mon, 22 May 2000

Security options for notebook

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): Do you ever find yourself in a conference, seminar or workshop where those around you have exactly the same model of notebook as you? I did recently, and it was frightening.

At last March's ThinkPad Advisory Council meeting in Singapore, I found myself sitting among several other IT journalists from ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a dozen high-ranking executives from IBM's mobile computing division.

I was using a ThinkPad 570, which PT IBM Indonesia gave to me for that focus group meeting. It turned out that the IBMers were all using the same model.

During the morning break, one of the hotel employees who was replenishing the candies and the water on the tables accidentally moved my notebook to the left, while the person who was sitting there had already packed his notebook away. So, when the break was over and I got back to my seat, I couldn't find my notebook. You know the immediate sinking feeling, because it was a US$4,000 piece of equipment.

Since notebooks are not as rare as the brick cellular phones today and we need some way to make them easily identifiable. So, if I could make suggestions to notebook makers such as Acer, Asus, Compaq, Dell, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, IBM, NEC and Toshiba, the first thing would be: "Please add a place where I can stick my name card on the top cover." It can be an area with a clear plastic cover or anything, as long as I can see it from a distance.

Of course, we could place stickers on our notebooks the way we cover our suitcases with stickers to distinguish them from other people's, but a notebook should not look as cheap as a suitcase, should it?

Lock and chain it

Safeware, a computer insurance company based in Columbus, Ohio, claims that more than 300,000 notebooks were lost due to thefts in 1999. Doesn't this remind you of very recent high profile case of the disappearance of a notebook at the U.S. Department of State that infuriated Mrs. Madeleine Albright so much? Notebooks are expensive but thieves can easily take them away and find interested buyers. So, what can notebook computer makers do to help us?

The currently available notebook security cables from Kensington and Targus are quite effective in deterring thieves, but they have to be looped around a secure object such as the leg of the table. But, how secure is it? Some desks in hotel rooms can easily be lifted up to slide the cable free.

If you have not yet buy one of these cables, however, you should to rush out and buy one. As I wrote in one of my previous articles, buying this cable is the least that you could do to protect your notebook from theft.

The Kensington cable uses a key, and if your company wishes to equip all its notebook fleet with Kensington's cables, you can ask for a master key that can open each one of them. If one of the employees should ever lose his or her key, you can still open the lock. Targus has a keyless solution. All you have to do is use a combination of digits to open the lock. Both require that your notebook have a security lock slot.


Targus also has a $129.00 notebook bag with a built-in alarm. So, if you feel too sleepy at the airport lounge after a ten-hour flight, your notebook and other personal belongings will still be protected. Just place the bag next to you, turn the alarm on with a remote control that you can put inside your pocket, slouch down and doze off. If someone tries to take your bag away, the motion will trigger the sensor, the alarm will go off and emits a high- pitched sound that will certainly wake you up instantly.

If you already have an expensive leather bag for your notebook, Targus has a $49.00 alarm that you can lock into your notebook, much like the security cable (you can see it in the accompanying picture). The drawback of having this alarm is perhaps that you may accidentally knock it over and trigger a false alarm.

Another suggestion that we could make to the notebook makers is that they should add a rather unobtrusive alarm on their next- generation notebooks. This alarm should be activated using a special key combination, much like entering the system password. With the alarm on, you can leave it in the conference room during the coffee break, for example, and you do not have to worry.

The sound should be discreetly soft but distinguishable, so that when someone walks by with a singing notebook under his arm, everybody will know that he may not really be the legitimate owner of that expensive piece of equipment.

Intel's initiative

Fortunately, the losses caused by notebook thefts has drawn the attention of one of the industry leaders, none other than Intel. Intel has been persuading notebook makers to adopt its Protected Access Architecture, which requires the user of a mobile computer to authenticate his identity before he can start using it.

Based on this method, the authentication should be completed before the computer boots up, and the user can identify himself to the notebook through a fingerprint scanner, for example.

Similar solutions have been available from other vendors for some time. You may remember Siemens Nixdorf's SCENIC Mobile 800 Series, one of the first notebooks that requires a smartcard before it can be used. When all the new notebooks on the market can only be used by their legitimate owners, thieves will eventually lose interests in them -- except, perhaps, for their components.