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Going mobile on a PC is risky business

By Caroline Humer
Date: February 04, 2004
Source: USA Today

NEW YORK In any local coffee house, airport lounge or hotel lobby, technophiles and technophobes alike can be found hunched over their notebook computers.
Toting around a computer filled with valuable data, however, is a growing risk: If the computer is lost or stolen, the user loses everything from a prized doctoral thesis to bank account numbers to records of passwords.

When the thrill of being unplugged outweighs the danger of losing essential data, there are a number of technologies that make it easier to back up those files, keep them hidden and even track down the missing computer itself.

It starts with that techno-mantra: back-up, back-up, back-up.

"You need to have that critical data stored somewhere else," said IDC research director Charles Kolodgy.

While everyone knows about the old stand-bys for back-ups, such as using CDRs or a Zip drive to store your information, or even e-mailing a file to yourself, new technology makes backing up even easier.

Computers are commonly equipped with a USB universal serial bus port. The hardware interface allows a quick transfer of information from the computer to an outside drive that stores data and can be quickly attached and detached without turning the computer on or off.

One potential device for computer users is a USB-compatible drive often called a pen.

These drives are based on flash memory which stores data even after its device is turned off and are about the size of a large cigarette lighter. They cost as little as about $25 for a 16-megabyte or 32-megabyte drive, which are large enough to store a library of documents or five to 10 digital music tracks.

The drives cost up to $700 for a 2-gigabyte drive, which could hold hundreds of music files.

Another possibility is a portable hard drive, such as a microdrive, made by companies like Hitachi.

The devices, which are cards about the size of a saltine cracker, can be inserted into a slot on the side of a notebook computer. The computer recognizes it as another hard drive.

For the price of $500 for a 4 gigabyte drive, and a simple click and drag, users can move over a sizable database of digital pictures, for instance.

After that, it's a question of protecting the data and rendering the computer useless in case someone walks off with it while your back is turned at Starbucks.

Kolodgy recommends using a "token," another type of device based on flash memory that functions as a key, made by companies such as Rainbow Technologies. It snaps into a USB port in the computer and acts as an authentication tool without which the user cannot access the files.

Once used primarily by businesses, these tokens are also sold to consumers. One example from Griffin Technologies called the SecuriKey sells for around $120.

IBM's computers have authentication technology embedded on a chip installed in all its computers, said Clain Anderson, director of security solutions for personal computers at IBM.

After downloading software from its Web site and activating the chip, it can be used to set up passwords for individual files as well as to encrypt selected files.

Another way to protect yourself from would-be data thieves is to use your own finger as an identifier. Targus, Toshiba and Sony sell fingerprint readers for about $150 to $200 that plug either into a PC card spot or into the USB port.

In addition to concerns about protecting data that could be sensitive for a corporation, there's an increasing emphasis on protecting personal information such as credit card numbers, bank account information and personal finances.

"We're seeing a lot of identity theft out there," said Bradley Lide, president of CyberAngel in Nashville, Tennessee.

The company has encryption software that creates a secure drive that is protected by a password and essentially hidden from the view of any hacker. "It's very covert and behind the scenes," Lide said.

If the user enters the wrong password several times and then is connected to the Internet, the company will locate the computer through its Internet protocol address, information that can help law enforcement agencies recover the computer, Lide said.

It's a little like LoJack the car security system that tracks down and recovers stolen vehicles for your computer.

Original article

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