Protect and Secure Data on Your Laptop





Introduction: Protect and Secure Data on Your Laptop

About: Eric J. Wilhelm is the founder of Instructables. He has a Ph.D. from MIT in Mechanical Engineering. Eric believes in making technology accessible through understanding, and strives to inspire others to lear...

Losing a laptop sucks; losing important data and passwords is far worse. Here's what I do to protect my data.

Step 1: How Important Is the Data on Your Laptop?

A few weeks ago, my car was broken into while I was eating dinner between work and home. Unfortunately, my computer was in one of the stolen bags (let me know if you see a ThinkPad with a giant squid painted on it!) and chances are it will never be recovered. The laptop was my primary computer and had everything: Years of work, pictures, half-finished musical compositions, stuff for Instructables(!), passwords, and financial data.

Fortunately, I had instituted an agressive program of backups and encrypting my passwords. I didn't lose a single document and am not particularly worried about identity theft from information on the laptop.

There are ton of different ways to do this. So, if my specific solution doesn't work for you, I hope to inspire you to figure out a solution that does.

Step 2: Don't Leave Your Laptop in Dumb Places

This is obvious and a great first defense, but it can't be your only defense. Sometimes you just don't realize how deserted and dark that parking lot is going to get until it's too late.

Step 3: Backup Your Data Regularly and Automatically

Set you backups to occur regularly and automatically. If you have to remember to start the backup, it won't be a priority and you'll go surprisingly long times between backups.

I use rsync to mirror my files to a remote server. Being able to ssh into the remote server is a good indication that you'll be able to do this. You can also use rsync to mirror files to another computer on your local network by mapping a network drive, which only requires rsync on your laptop. If this isn't going to work for you, check out the web-based services. Here is a link for setting up rsync on a windows machine and setting up ssh keys so you don't have to manually log in (this is not totally secure).

I put all of my documents into a single folder (effectively the My Documents folder) so there's just one folder to backup. Windows scheduled tasks runs the rsync commands from a batch file, mirroring this folder everyday and copying it once a week. Mirroring includes deleting files on the sever I delete on the laptop, while the once a week copy let's me get old files I might have accidentally deleted after the recycle bin has been emptied.

My folder is a couple of gigs, so the initial backup takes a while, but afterwards it's rapid because rsync only sends the changes. I prefer backing up across the net rather than locally to another machine; if the computer is net-connected while at home, work, or travelling, the backup will happen.

Step 4: Rsync Batch Files

Here is my rsync batch file that scheduled tasks runs. Remove the --delete and change the folder on the server side to make a copying rather than a deleting version. If you are syncing to a machine on your local network, map a network drive and replace the "" with a "/cygdrive/d" statement where "d" is the letter of your mapped drive.

This batch file copies its output to a log file so you can review, if needed.

Step 5: Manage Passwords

I use Password Manager XP to store senstive usernames, numbers, and passwords under one master password. The database is encrypted and auto-closes after a certain period of inactivity. It is synced along with my other files.

Althought inconvenient, I don't let my browser or other "helpful" assistants remember passwords to anything remotely sensitive like banking websites or email.

Don't save your passwords in a plain text file. If you manage other people's data, like their social security numbers, be especially considerate and use encryption.

Step 6: Things I Would Do Better

I don't backup the entire hard drive, so when I lost my computer I had to reinstall all my programs from original disks and the web. No data lost, but I did lose some time reinstalling and reconfiguring everything.

I got sloppy and had some data outside of the normally synced folder. Fortunately, I had other copies. Make sure your programs are not by default saving data in their "program files directory"; my copy of Matlab was particularly annoying about this.

My Quicken database has some bank account information and is not encrypted. It is password protected, but apparently, you can pay Intuit to remove a "lost" password. I think they should by default encrypt the entire file making "recovery" impossible. Losing your financial data is not nearly as bad as losing it to someone else.



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    27 Discussions

    The best solution would be encryption. I carry my laptop and USB around for business purpose and i always encrypt my data with Data Protecto. This software has been loyal to me as i have never faced any problem regarding security. Try Data Protecto encryption and folder lock feature.

    Have you looked into TrueCrypt? ( I love the encrypted partiton that not only holds data but application programs also.

    1 reply

    my friend coopoprates in a bank and he had all datas on craptop (which was stolen) but that guy didn't know how to crack truecrypt and he left craptop on some place and left and smbdy told bro and he took laptop... also sys logger told him ther was no copying :)))) datas saved, noone copied them, yays! :)

    I recently discovered the Boot up password and Hard Drive passwords that you can activate via your BIOS. The Boot-up password makes your computer pretty useless without it, and the HDD password makes your HDD inoperable without physically opening it and moving the platters to an identical case, right?

    the ironic thing is you need a password to access your password so what will hold that password?!?!?!?!?

    4 replies

    rofl! instead of your brain wright it on a post it, take apart your computer and put it inside the case :O or just put it somewhere where you will remember :)

    You need a password to access your password, and if you wright it on a sticky note you'll still have to store the location of the sticky note in your brain.

    Whoever stole your laptop is so lucky! They got all the ideas, plans and workings for the future of Instructables!

    But sorry about your other stuff...

    ewilhelm, some great pointers, I really like step 2 an ounce of prevention is worth more then that 6 lbs of a new laptop will cure ... Also now you can get P.G.P. 9.5.X home or enterprise with whole disk encryption and it asks for a password before starting the OS (( Yes it works on linix / dual boot / And MAC units to )) so every thing on your hard disk is encrypted, including boot sectors, system files, and swap files. (( ok the MBR is not encrypted )) Making it useless to most petty crooks looking for there next high, while yes you can eventually crack it most people don't have N.S.A. resources required.... ((( you get to pick AES 256 bit, cast5 128 bit, twofish 256 bit ))) So they either junk it or reinstall a OS and start new ... And I like it because you can encrypt DVD's CD's and flash disk with ease .. (( oh and it runs on a my cheapo dell 333MHz, which if it got stolen yes I'd be mad but I could live with out it's only like $50 to $75 to replace if I look around )) (( Or if you have Vista ultimate or enterprise and a newer laptop, did I mention a new laptop, we are talking about VISTA.. And it should also have an installed or external T.P.M. You can use it's Bitlocker disk encryption, but it's cheaper to go with P.G.P.9.5.X home, new laptops are not cheap )) and bitlocker uses 128 bit AES by default )) and yes it has been compromised, but yes you would of had to really piss some one off to goto this level .. ))

    You could have a security program that shreds everything in the hard drive when the password has been attempted a certain amount of times.

    IMPORTANT TIP:Turn off blue tooth when you turn off the laptop.It is known that a thief can use a bluetooth equipped device like a phone and can pick up the bluetooth signal as the thief walks past your car. This tells him that a laptop is inside.......

    DUDE!!! that awsome laptop you made and after all those hours of work?!?? wow sux to be u. now....what did little johnny learn todayyy? ;D my mom says that all the time (ma names not johnny i just like the name :] )

    Jeez, anyone knows you can open a combo lock easily if the last person to use it didnt turn the dial. How secure is that!


    12 years ago

    Is there a way to track a stolen laptop? I heard Dell puts some chip in laptops so they can monitor owners internet activities.

    1 reply


    This company locates a stolen laptop when it connects to the internet, and informs the local police. They guarantee that if its not recovered within 60 days they pay out.

    Can also wipe the harddirve remotely.

    As you say, it can also monitor usage.

    It is built into the BIOS of several manufacturers, and is activated when the company gets their cash.

    No, I've got nothing to do with this company (they don't work with Linux-based machines).