Preparing for laptop loss

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Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber reports on having his laptop lost and then recovered. He then goes on to recommend a variety of precautions for future incidents:
Also - in the spirit of locking the barn door after the horse has gone but to your very great surprise been returned later through the benevolence of strangers - recommendations for minimizing the pain of stolen machines.

(1) Back Up Everything Important somewhere external. This is the one measure I did take - and the pain would have been far, far greater had I lost my work along with the machine. I use Sugarsync which keeps the work documents on my various machines in sync with each other as well as giving me an online back up - others swear by DropBox, SpiderOak and other services.

(2) Make sure that your account is password protected. I didn't do this - remarkably stupidly - but appear to have gotten away without loss of personal information. You shouldn't take this risk. I won't again.

(3) Set up a firmware password if you have a recently made Mac. Makes it much harder to wipe the OS.

(4) Consider buying anti-theftware like Undercover. Depending on your tolerance for risk, this may be too expensive for the benefits provided (me: my risk tolerance has decreased substantially since this happened to me).

(1) is of course good advice. Backups are good practice for a variety of threat models, including just plain hardware failure. I personally run backups and also keep most of my important stuff in a revision control (originally CVS but I'm moving over gradually to SVN).

Recommendation (2) is nowhere near strong enough. Passwords (barely) protect you against someone who has ephemeral physical access, but if you don't encrypt the hard drive, then a dedicated attacker can either boot up in repair mode (the BIOS password (#3) makes this more difficult) and read your data off or just pull the hard drive out. What you need here is disk encryption. Luckily, the Mac comes with FileValult: a quite serviceable (if a hair slow) disk encryption system.

Recommendation (4) makes some sense, though I doubt I would bother myself. I've never lost a laptop and when we multiply out the chance of loss times the chance of recovery and factor in the likelihood that your laptop will be covered by homeowner's insurance, I'm not sure that the $50 for Undercover is a good bet.


For anti-theftware, try the (FOSS and multiplatform) Prey Project at It can work with a hosted service (also free), but if you prefer to keep everything to yourself, just point it at your own web and mail servers and you're good to go.

From that point of view, if you have anti-theftware installed, you probably want to create a dummy account on your computer that you *can* access without a Mr. Sneaky Thief can get into non-encrypted parts of your computer for a little while and get geolocated and photographed while doing so.

I've always been a bit wary of disk-encryption. Is it really a no-brainer or are their risks involved with it, too? (instability, recovery options, cold-boot attacks)

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