Laptop Security As Part of Freshman Orientation?.

A new school year has started in the United States, and already there seems to be a deluge of laptop theft stories in the media.  A small number of them are covered in the national media, such as the laptop theft in Arizona that affected students in Iowa:  a former teaching assistant in Iowa had stored Social Security numbers on his laptop, and moved out-of-state.  Then there is the case of the professor’s office that was broken into at Carnegie Mellon University, and two of his five computers were stolen (I’d like to point out that’s a lot of computers in an office).  Students’ Social Security numbers were present in the stolen computers and, as far as I can tell, these were not encrypted. 


Then there are the locally covered stories (read: school papers) where student laptops are stolen from classrooms, dorm rooms, student centers, etc.  Normally, I tend to skip the local stories when looking for blogging material.  After all, computer theft on campuses is nothing new.  It happened when I was a student; I’m sure it will happen when my grandkids are students.  I can only assume such incidences will level off as the school year progresses, as it did during my time.  Maybe it was because people became less idealistic into the year.  Or maybe it was because people spent more time in their rooms as the year progressed (you’ve got to study at some point).


But reminiscing about my college years got me into thinking that in this day and age, students have to exercise more care with their devices for a number of reasons. 


To begin with, there is the content.  When I was in college, you couldn’t find any sensitive material on my computer.  As a business tool, the Internet at that point was still in its infancy and not very profitable unless you were issuing an IPO, and the transmission of Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and other information considered sensitive was pretty much nonexistent in a university setting.  I doubt many people stored such information in their computers, either.  Fast-forward ten years later, and the situation is reversed.  Most college students are punching those same numbers into their Web browsers, for on-line banking, course registration, and other activities.  They might have Quicken or Money for budgeting and financial purposes, meaning a lot of banking information is stored in the computer as well.


Then there is the physical aspect.  Electronic devices are much, much smaller than they were ten years ago, and hence easier to steal.  This is true for laptops as well as desktops.  In my days you couldn’t steal a computer without getting noticed.  Even if you were trying to move as fast as possible, you were a beige or grey blur at best.  Today, I could filch my co-workers’ desktops by slipping them into a backpack and stroll.  There’s no hurry unless alarms are ringing or someone has x-ray specs.


I guess the point is a lot has changed in the past ten years.  The thing is not everything has.  I’m not sure if one can claim earth-shaking changes for door locks at the dorms and student attitudes on campuses.   I remember how I would open the door for, what I assumed to be, a fellow student locked out of the building.  I also remember an incident where a laptop was stolen from a laboratory, when the most rudimentary laptops cost $4000.  Only the security chain and the lower plastic portion of the machine remained behind.  Apparently, a student had propped the lab door open.


Which brings me back to the subject of laptop thefts on campus.  While theft will always happen, it’s not business as usual because, as already pointed out, there is more riding on those thefts now.  Identity theft is now more of a concern that it ever was, if only because there seems to be more people attempting it as well as the relative ease in perpetrating such a crime.  The day daddy rescued his kid from having a bad credit history  at graduation time (in my days due to the renegade use of credit cards) can be kissed goodbye for all except the super rich: Not too many can comfortably cover a second mortgage opened under the name of a recent graduate.  Or the first mortgage, for that matter.


So, knowing that universities won’t be installing biometric identification in student rooms any time soon, and knowing that everyone runs a pretty good chance of having something stolen, how can students protect themselves from the inevitable repercussions?


The answer is easy.  Students need to keep their information in encrypted format.  In the old days, when everyone stored their information in a paper-based format, people had safes, locks, and keys.  Now that we are in the digital age, a new method of keeping personal information is required.  The safe, lock, and key of the digital millennium is encryption, a username, and password.  Anything short of this is keeping your emergency funds and important documentation in your sock drawer—maybe they’ll look in it, maybe they won’t.  Maybe the’ll find stuff, maybe they won’t.  The problem with the digital era is that the thieves have stolen your “sock drawer,” so they have all the time in the world to poke around.

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