You’re on your way home from work, your trusty laptop on the passenger seat beside you so you can pick up where you left off at home. You stop in at a coffee shop to refuel for the evening, and when you get back to the car — your laptop’s gone. Someone broke in and made off with it.
Losing a laptop is never fun. At minimum, you or your company will have to pay to replace it. But your laptop login is password protected. So at least your valuable company data is safe.
Not exactly. It doesn’t take much for a hacker to crack a password-protected laptop. He could use a USB stick to boot up a new operating system, for example, and see all the files on your hard drive. Or he could simply unscrew the hard drive and place it in a different computer.
But what if you could lock down the data itself, not just access to the data? That’s what encryption does.
And with the amount and type of information we now access with our business laptops, encryption is your company’s best bet against a costly data breach if a laptop is lost or stolen.
Why Laptop Encryption
These days, almost all of us are members of a truly mobile workforce. From office to home, from meeting to meeting, across the country and across the ocean on business trips, we rely on our laptops to stay connected to work wherever we go.
Business users have always stored plenty of data on their laptops:
- Home folders that synchronize personal files.
- Email attachments.
- Desktop folders.
But now, with cloud file sharing solutions that sync data to laptops, end users may have more sensitive information on their computers than they realize. When those laptops are lost or stolen, it can cause more problems for your company than ever before.
Think of this proliferation of business data across devices and users as “data sprawl.” IT administrators do their best to combat it by having the proper controls and access on file systems and determining what could be on end users’ laptops based on their departments. But the job isn’t getting any easier.
Encryption is one of the most effective ways to retain control of your data.
How Laptop Encryption Works
I won’t get into most of the technical details here, but in a sentence: Laptop encryption works by encoding the data on your laptop so it can only be decoded with the use of a key. If you don’t have the key (in the form of a password, usually), you can’t read the data.
Most modern operating systems include some level of encryption, and those are usually fine for home users or very small businesses (with only 2 to 5 systems). But corporate-level encryption systems are not that expensive — and they put encryption in the hands of professionals who know how to configure it correctly.
The point of this article isn’t to discuss the different encryption systems available to you, or to delve into how to implement them. However, I do recommend you think about the kind of data that is stored on your company’s laptops and what would happen if it reached the outside world.
Might it not be worth putting this layer of strong protection in place?
Not Just for Big Companies Anymore
Encryption for laptop hard drives was once the domain of large companies hyper-vigilant against data leaks. But a concern for data security can no longer be confined to the mega-corporations. The stakes are too high.
Consider the consequences if a single employee with access to human resources data had their (unencrypted) laptop stolen. How could you be sure your employees’ personal information was not at risk? We’ve already seen how easy it is to break into unencrypted hard drives.
How would you handle this situation? Take out fraud protection for the entire company? Think about your state's privacy laws and the problems this would cause for your company.
Or what if an employee left a laptop behind on the train that contained trade secrets, information about business deals, or processes your company has sunk thousands of hours and millions of dollars into developing? How would you explain to your board of directors or investors that this information might be compromised?
When you think about it this way, the cost of laptop encryption starts to seem trivial. Indeed, one study determined, when considering the cost savings from the reduced risk of data breaches, “the value of [encryption] far outweighs the costs by a factor 4 to 20.”
More Tips for Protecting Your Business Laptops
In the era of data sprawl, it’s always a good idea to keep human resources files and intellectual property data on encrypted systems only. Here are are a few more ways to keep the data on your company’s laptops from getting into the wrong hands:
- Know your data — where sensitive information lives and who has access to it.
- Review access permissions periodically.
- Develop a policy for informing IT or a company administrator if a laptop is lost or stolen.
- Be sure all company laptops require a password to login at startup and when they come out of sleep or hibernation.
- Require passwords to be changed two or three times per year. Train users to change their passwords anytime they feel they — or someone they have communicated with electronically — have been infected with a virus or otherwise compromised.
What methods do you use for protecting the data on your company’s laptops? Share your tips in the comments section below.