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Keeping Company Secrets Secure

August 1, 1997
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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Protecting employees who travel or live abroad is a challenge. But it represents only half the overall security issue. Increasingly, thieves target products, prototypes or intellectual property contained in a computer or briefcase. And some will go to any length to get the blueprints or marketing plan they want.

Laptop theft is on the rise.
According to Safeware Insurance Co., a Columbus, Ohio-based firm that specializes in insurance for PCs, one of every 14 notebook computers sold in the United States was reported stolen in 1995-a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Most thieves are looking to resell the system or the internal components that can fetch thousands of dollars. But data theft also has become more prevalent. Last year, NEC's North America marketing plans disappeared from the company's headquarters when 10 notebook computers were carted off by crooks.

Richard J. Heffernan, who heads a Branford, Connecticut, executive-protection company of the same name says, "There are certain companies whose laptops have been targeted, and anyone who can steal and deliver to an unethical competitor a computer with proprietary information will receive a substantial reward."

Many foreign airports have become epicenters of crime, ranging from pickpocketing to luggage theft. And with unscrupulous competitors willing to pay huge bounties for the notebook computers of certain companies-as long as the intellectual property is intact-travelers must keep a close eye on their PCs, as well as briefcases.

One of the most common places for crooks to separate a traveler from a computer is at the X-ray machine and metal detector. When a traveler places the object on the conveyor belt for inspection, a thief grabs the computer on the other end before the individual can step through the security check. Another tactic is for an accomplice to block access to the metal detector to prevent the traveler from running after the thief. The Federal Aviation Administration recently began advising travelers to avoid placing a bag on the belt until they're next in line to pass through the metal detector.

But airport security checks aren't the only threat to notebook computers and briefcases full of valuable paperwork. Restaurants, public restrooms, gift shops, taxis, offices and other locations pose a serious threat. Occasionally, a brazen thief will even yank the PC away from the person carrying it.

Use these travel tactics.
Yet there are ways to reduce the risk. Arlington, Virginia-based Pinkerton's managing director of Risk Assessment Services, Frank Johns, stresses the importance of carrying unmarked bags or fictitious labels while traveling. It's also a good idea to always carry the PC or briefcase and never set it down in a trunk or on a cart. Heffernan recommends using data encryption so the contents of the hard drive will remain secret if the PC is stolen and even removing it from the notebook computer and carrying it in a separate bag or in a pocket. That way, if the bag is lost or stolen, the data-which can be worth hundreds of times the value of a computer-is retained.

A number of vendors also have developed security systems for those on the go. Kensington Microware of San Mateo, California, markets cables for notebook PCs. One end plugs into a socket in the side of the unit, while the other can be wrapped around something stable, such as a desk leg. Once the device is locked, it's almost impossible to remove without the combination. Another company, Qualtec of Fremont, California, also sells an array of security devices, including locks. CompuTrace , a device that's produced by a Los Angeles firm called Absolute Software, takes a different approach. Once stolen, a smart agent is activated and the computer dials a special number and notifies the company of the PCs exact location. It's all done stealthily, and the agent continues dialing until it gets through. The software can even survive a disk reformatting and can circumvent Caller ID blocking.

Workforce, August 1997, Vol. 76, No. 8, p. 35.

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