Lost Laptops: It’s a Scary Story

I didn’t think it could happen to me. Not me. I read too much, know too much. I’m the type of person who learns from others’ mistakes.

But it did happen to me.

I was taking the family from New York to North Carolina for a week’s vacation on the Outer Banks. The car was packed. Clothes, food, kids, toys for the kids, swimming stuff, you name it.

About an hour out of Dover, Del., my son wanted a computer game that my wife said was buried somewhere in the back of the SUV. I didn’t want to stop but, my wife reminded me, we had a long drive and the game would keep him occupied for at least an hour or so.

I pulled over, ran to the back of the truck and opened the hatch. The first thing I pulled out was my laptop bag. (Like most people these days, my vacations are working vacations.) I placed the bag gently next to the right rear tire. Then, I pulled out a couple of suitcases, a bag full of shovels and pails, a cooler and a few other items before I found the game. This took a couple of minutes. I ran to the side of the car, gave my son the game, and then ran back and quickly threw everything back in the car and got back on the road. (The game’s batteries, of course, were dead.)

Two hours later, we were cruising through Maryland when I asked my wife if she could take the wheel. The ride was smooth, we were making good time, and I thought I could get a little work done while sitting in the passenger seat.

We pulled over. I went to get my laptop. Opened the hatch. And … my heart skipped a beat. There was no laptop to be found. I knew right away what I had done. In my haste to get back on the road, I had forgotten to pick up the laptop I had set down next to the rear tire.

We turned the car around. Drove the two hours back to Delaware. Rode around for an hour or two. Neither my wife nor I was even sure where we had pulled over—we just remembered some nondescript building somewhere south of Dover. It was a futile search.

So, all the stories over the past few weeks about lost laptops at the Veterans Administration, Ahold, Fidelity, the YMCA and others bring on some pretty nasty flashbacks.

But the problem may be even worse than I first imagined. From the statistics I could find, somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million laptops are lost or stolen every year. And, it seems, only a small percentage—fewer than 5%—are returned. It’s a really big problem for some—in a 2005 poll of colleges and universities by Gartner and the Chronicle of Higher Education, 63% of the institutions surveyed reported a lost or stolen laptop/mobile device.

Baseline’s news editor, Todd Spangler, does a great job of outlining the latest tips and techniques for securing data in this issue’s Topline section (see Security: Don’t Spring a Data Leak). But from what I learned, among the key ways to prevent a data loss with a laptop are: to password-protect everything, have tight policies on what information can be stored on mobile devices, encrypt any sensitive files, and make sure data is backed up.

The time to act is now. More than half of European and North American companies are already using a mobile application, according to Forrester. And that percentage will no doubt grow.

We—and I include myself—need to do a much better job of protecting our laptops and securing the data they hold.

My laptop was password-protected. There were additional passwords needed to access our corporate network. I didn’t have any sensitive information on my machine. And everything except the last two or three files I worked on was backed up.

But we can all use a little luck, too. Two days into my vacation, I found a cybercafé and accessed my e-mail. I had a message from a guy in Delaware, Rob Moxley, who found my laptop and really went out of his way to return it.

My story had a happy ending. But when it comes to lost or stolen laptops, happy endings are rare.

John McCormick
[email protected]

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