Keeping Laptops Secure on College CampusesKim Boatman
Thanks to a prank-playing roommate, Matt Stimmel absorbed a valuable -- if painful -- lesson as a college freshman.
After his roommate unwittingly installed a virus on Stimmel’s computer when he downloaded a funny desktop background as a joke, Stimmel made sure to set a stronger password to his computer. “Even though he didn’t have any malicious intent, my roommate still managed to install some nasty stuff,’’ says Stimmel, who graduated in May from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., with a degree in Computer Science and Theatre/Speech.
Like Stimmel, most students pack more than clothes, books and high expectations when they head off to college. Students these days often arrive on campus carting an array of expensive electronic equipment. But that pricey laptop and other electronics are vulnerable to theft, mischief and misuse.
Practice smart physical security
Many college students are either downright careless or too trusting when it comes to laptops and other equipment. For instance, Stimmel says it was common for students to leave their laptops in public places. “You’d think people wouldn’t do that,’’ he says, “but often college nights start off in the campus coffee shop, then you set your laptop down for five minutes thinking ‘I’ll be right back,’ then you don’t come back for four hours or more.’’
Smart physical security includes these steps:
- Register with campus security. Some colleges and universities allow students to keep registration numbers for personal property on file with campus security. Also make sure to keep a copy of serial numbers and a description of your electronics, along with purchase receipts if you still have them.
- Use a cable lock. “Remember that most thefts are done by sneak thieves, and anything that slows them down will cause them to look for easier prey,’’ advises Bill Horne, a security expert who owns Massachusetts-based William Warren Consulting, a computer network installation and consulting firm. Your laptop comes with a tether jack, so it’s a simple matter to tether the laptop to a table, or another secure object, says Horne. Remember that even if your laptop is tethered, someone can swipe a flash drive you leave installed in a USB port.
- Protect your laptop from accidents. Students haul a laptop to and from class, to the library, to the coffee shop and just about everywhere else. That’s a lot of wear and tear -- and a lot of potential accidents and hazards. Invest in a neoprene sleeve that will help protect against spills. If you student is particularly rough on equipment, a hard carrying case is a good idea.
- Resist trendy laptop bags. Expensive laptop bags make your equipment a target for thieves. Find an unassuming but well-padded bag to tote a laptop.
- Buy insurance. A rider on a home insurance policy might cover laptops and other electronics. Alternatively, you can purchase a separate policy from an insurance company such as Safeware, suggests Horne.
Practice smart computer use security
- Use strong passwords. “I am really surprised by how poor passwords are on campus,’’ says Kevin Thompson, information security manager for Minnesota State University, Mankato. He suggests choosing a long password instead. “On Windows-based systems, your password can be up to 128 letters long and include spaces. So you can set your password to ‘Physics is my favorite subject’ and have an easy to remember password that is extremely difficult to crack.’’
- Don't share passwords. Students should resist the temptation to share passwords with roomies or love interests. Sharing passwords is a relatively common practice on college campuses, but it’s problematic. “I usually deal with two or three cases per year where a student is being harassed by someone who knows their password,’’ Thompson says.
- Use security software. Make sure you install security software that offers protection against viruses and malware and keep it updated. Because college students regularly use file-sharing software, their laptops and PCs are particularly vulnerable to viruses and malicious attacks. You’ll want to run daily scans with your security software, Horne says.
- Back up your files. Some universities and colleges offer online backup services. Otherwise, keeping important files on an external hard drive or a flash drive that is stored securely offers some protection.
The nature of the college environment can leave a laptop particularly vulnerable to viruses, malware, pranks and mischief, say the experts. Take these steps to protect your information:
Behaving with a bit of caution will likely save everyone from considerable trouble in the long run, says Stimmel.
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