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Reflection on Losing a Laptop– Security, Syncing, and Lessons Learned

302/365 LOST: The End

302/365 LOST: The End (Photo credit: stuartpilbrow)

This week I had a taste of fear and regret when I thought I left my laptop on the bus. I spent a whole work day freaking out, trying to secure my sensitive data and recover my valuable files. I am writing a reflection on those terrible hours to share what a godsend cloud services can be when you lose your laptop, as well as to share some common good practices for securing and protecting your data.

Securing Cloud Passwords

If you’re like most people, you have several cloud accounts (Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, your bank, your cell phone provider, etc.) and you use the same weak password for all of them. You may even let your web browser save your passwords for you so you can quickly log in without typing your password each time. In case you haven’t heard, this is a bad idea for many reasons. Read up more on that here.

Lastpass enables me to have unique strong passwords on all of my different accounts, so knowing one of my passwords will not get you into any of my other accounts.

When you lose your laptop, you need a remote way to change all of your passwords quickly, and you want to make sure that none of your sensitive passwords are stored on the machine.

LastPass made this so easy for me– I was able to remotely change my master LastPass password and revoke “trusted” access from my laptop so anyone who found it would have to log in with my new password to access any sensitive data.

Lastpass also securely encrypts my passwords without storing them in the browser, so my passwords are not accessible in the memory of my web browser.

Lesson Learned:

Using a password manager helps you secure your cloud accounts from wherever you are in case you lose your main computer. In 5 minutes, I locked down all my most sensitive accounts and felt much better about the safety of that data.

Secure Syncing Cloud Storage Accounts

I use Dropbox and Google Drive to sync files from a folder on my desktop up to the cloud. I also have the Evernote syncing client installed on all my computers, and it also syncs to the cloud.
I was able to log in to my Google, Dropbox, and Evernote accounts over the web and revoke access to the file sync apps on my lost laptop. This disabled the sync, but whoever found my laptop would still have been able to access the files (which sit, unencrypted in a folder on my computer).
These services are great for making sure you always have access to files you use often, but you may want to explore more serious security options for these syncing services if you use them to sync sensitive data.

I know that it’s possible to encrypt sensitive items in Evernote, and I think I will look into whether it’s possible to encrypt files in Dropbox or Google Drive.

Lesson Learned:

You can remotely lock access to syncing on Dropbox and GDrive, but the files that you’ve sync’d to your desktop are as visible as other files on your computer– learn to encrypt data you don’t want falling into the wrong hands.

Remote Lock/ Wipe/ Locate the Laptop

Apple offers a service called “Back to my Mac” with its iCloud service that would have enabled me to remotely lock, wipe, and even locate my laptop. Regrettably I hadn’t signed up for the free service by the time my laptop went missing, so the most insecure link in my security system was the laptop itself.
Although I have a password, I have it set so that you don’t need to enter the password each time you open the lid. Anyone who found my laptop could have just opened it up and started navigating my files and folders as if they were me.

I have many friends who are fearful of entrusting their data to “the Cloud” but in this case my cloud accounts were much more secure than my desktop files. If I had a Chromebook and stored no files on my desktop at all, I could have remotely locked down my whole digital life with the change of a couple passwords. My stupid reliance on storing files locally was my biggest liability.

Lesson Learned

Explore your options for installing a remote lock, wipe, or locate feature for your devices. At very best you couid get it back, or at least secure the data on it before it falls into the wrong hands. I know iCloud is the option for Mac, and I also use Prey and Lookout for Android.

Access Important Cloud Files

I lost my laptop two days before I was scheduled to travel to Japan to deliver a presentation I’d been preparing for over a month. My blood ran cold to think that I might have lost my presentation and would have nothing to present in Japan. Thankfully, I had been saving all of my files to Google Drive so every file was stored and accessible in the cloud. For those terrible hours when I thought my laptop was really gone, I was immeasurably thankful for Google Drive and Evernote.

This isn’t the first time my GDrive has saved me from technical difficulties– often when I present in remote locations like conferences or other campuses, I never know what their equipment will be like. If you want to be extra sure your presentation will work, save a couple of extra copies in different formats on GDrive in case they don’t have PowerPoint, or your flash drive doesn’t work, or…

Just remember that cloud storage is not the same as backup. If whoever found my laptop decided to delete all the files in my dropbox, those files would also be deleted from Dropbox’s servers at the next sync. Make sure you also have a backup solution.

Lessons Learned:

Cloud storage is free, plentiful, and convenient to use on any platform. It’s an excellent place to store important files that you just might need to access unexpectedly. Saving critical files to the cloud means that you can get to them from any location, any device, and that is a godsend when you lose your main machine.

Back Up Your Entire Computer

As I said above, cloud sync services like Dropbox and GDrive are not the same as a true backup plan. I have a relatively inexpensive 2TB network-attached storage (NAS) box hooked up to our WiFi network that automatically makes a complete copy of my hard drive every night at 3am. These boxes are essentially a giant hard drive that can attach to your wifi network and can be had for under $200 (or hacked together out of old parts for free!)

Mac computers come with an app called TimeMachine that seamlessly handles the whole backup process with no intervention from me. When I thought I lost my laptop, it was a comfort to know that I didn’t lose any of my most valuable files.

I know that an optimal backup solution would also include an off-site backup (in case my home hard drive and laptop died at the same time), but what I have in place is better than nothing. However as cloud storage gets cheaper and easier to work with, you may want to explore a physical + cloud backup solution like CrashPlan for total protection.

Lesson Learned:

Invest in a backup solution that can secure all of your family’s data. Think of it as an insurance plan for your digital life.

One More Note on Losing Expensive Hardware

When I lost my beloved 15″ MacBook Pro, the cost of replacing my original system started to add up in my head. $2200 for a new laptop, and another few hundred for the apps I most depend on like Keynote, Pages, Coda, Photoshop, Mou, Alfred, Renoise, and others. Many of these apps are Mac-only, and a new Mac can’t be had for much less than the cost above.

The last few years we’ve seen an explosion of cheap, powerful mobile touchscreen devices that blur the lines between laptop and tablet. Devices running Android, Windows 8, Ubuntu, Chrome OS, and iOS are quickly reaching feature parity with my beloved Mac, and I was thinking seriously about how I would re-start my digital life if I couldn’t afford to replace my Macbook Pro.

The day is coming when I could buy a touchscreen laptop with Windows 8 for around half of the cost of my MBP and set it up to dual-boot to Ubuntu OS. This would give me access to the universe of free apps on Linux AND Windows’ ecosystems, as well as the lovely and extensible Ubuntu Unity interface.

If I’m honest, I really would miss the incomparable feel and function of the Mac-only apps I mention above, and I don’t know how I would decode all the years of iWork files I’m storing in Apple’s proprietary formats. I think we’re not too far from a future where free open source tools, cloud apps, and HTML5 dethrone Apple from its vaunted position, but I did emit a junky’s wail at the thought of never using the exquisite Keynote or buttery-smooth Mou apps ever again. All I can say is I’m glad it was sitting there at home waiting for me.

What would you do if you lost your main computer right at this moment? How would you recover?

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