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Safeguarding Laptops and Their Contents

Most people wouldnt leave school without locking up confidential files. Yet, they fail to lock up their laptops -- leaving the data and computers themselves vulnerable to theft. Educators and students must practice laptop security to prevent devastating data breaches. Included: Tips for safeguarding computers and data.

Data breaches in schools always have been a concern, which is why drawers and cabinets with important files usually are kept locked -- and even then, chances are no one is going to walk off with a whole filing cabinet.

The proliferation of laptop computers in schools, though, has made data more mobile and manageable -- and less secure. Often administrators dont think to lock up a laptop the way they would a filing cabinet. For many students, the laptop has replaced the traditional three-ring binder in class, and yet many youngsters dont realize there is a lot more to safeguard in a laptop than their homework.

Students and adults need to be schooled in basic practices for protecting laptops and their contents, both personal and professional, according to David M. Hawks, the education business development manager for Absolute Software Inc.

Absolute has documented notebook management best practices for educators in a whitepaper titled Compliance, Protection, Recovery: A Layered Approach to Computer Security for Education, according to the company. The paper outlines the steps school districts can take to better manage their laptop populations as they expand one-to-one learning programs and come to rely more heavily on easily stolen, difficult to track mobile computers. Absolute also provides resources for recovering missing computers and/or data.

Hawks talked with Education World about ways educators and students can protect their equipment and data -- and what can be done if something goes missing.


David M. Hawks

Education World: As you have noted, laptops are almost as common in many schools today as the old loose leaf binders -- and they are in the hands of educators and students. What are some ways to safeguard laptop computers?

David M. Hawks: Common sense goes a long way in protecting laptops. Students should always carry their laptops with them, or lock them out of sight. Its important to keep laptops inconspicuous by using a nondescript case over a tell-tale laptop bag.

For school administrators, its important to make sure staff members and students are well-trained on proper care. However, its equally important for a school to have an effective information technology (IT) management system that lets them track the location of their computers even as they leave school property. The best of these also provide a theft-recovery service should a computer go missing.

EW: The loss of an actual computer and the loss of data are two different problems. How can administrators protect confidential data in their laptops?

Hawks: Laptops, and all storage devices that contain important data, should be encrypted and password protected. Administrators should require user passwords to be comprised of numbers, lower-case and upper-case letters. Its also critical that anti-virus software, firewalls, and other common software programs are routinely updated and patched on every computer to reduce security holes. Internet-based IT asset systems can take a lot of the worry out of laptop management by providing the ability to remotely delete sensitive data in case of theft or misplacement.

EW: If an administrator realizes confidential data related to students, finances, personnel, or another area is missing from a computer, what are the first steps he or she should take?


"Laptops, and all storage devices that contain important data, should be encrypted and password protected. Administrators should require user passwords to be comprised of numbers, lower-case and upper-case letters.

Hawks: School administrators should always notify students, staff members, and anyone else at risk as soon as possible so that they can take action to protect their privacy. Honesty is essential for maintaining trust. Even though school officials may be hesitant to admit that data has gone missing, they can actually build a higher level of trust by demonstrating that they are taking all the steps they can to protect that information. An effective IT management system will often provide some means of tracking missing assets or remotely deleting sensitive information before it is accessed by thieves.

EW: What are some basic rules about safeguarding computers and data all students should learn?

Hawks: Unlike teachers and parents who have had some experience managing credit cards, bank loans, and their own medical records, students typically have not been exposed to the concept of data privacy and identity theft. The most important lesson students can learn is that their computers and cellular phones are more than [electronic] devices -- they also contain information they need to protect.

Students must learn to be vigilant with computers. In general, students should learn to safeguard their notebook computer by carrying it in a non-descript backpack rather than a tell-tale laptop bag, always creating a password for logging into the computer, and ensuring that it is never left in plain sight unattended. School districts can take proactive steps to help secure notebook computers regardless of student action by implementing Internet-based IT asset management systems capable of remotely deleting student data as well as recovering lost computers and assisting in the prosecution of thieves.

EW: Can you give me some examples of data breaches that have occurred in schools and the problems they have caused?


"The most important lesson students can learn is that their computers and cellular phones are more than [electronic] devices -- they also contain information they need to protect.

Hawks: One example from a major Arizona school district is pretty typical of the challenges school districts face when expanding mobile lab programs at school.

After a weekend construction project at one of the districts schools, a teacher discovered her laptop missing when she returned to her classroom on Monday. Realizing her computer had been stolen, she reported the theft to the school district. District administrators alerted the Absolute Recovery Team. Within a few days, the computer called into Absolute Softwares Monitoring Center and reported its location. Local law enforcement used that information to secure a search warrant for the home of an alarm installation contractor who had done some work at the school. When confronted, the contractor said he had purchased the laptop from another contractor affiliated with the school for $300.

Local law enforcement agents planned to charge the alarm installation contractor with receiving stolen property and are continuing to investigate allegations of theft.

Internal thefts of this nature are remarkably common and extremely difficult to track without supporting IT asset management technology.

EW: What types of resources are available for educators looking to address this issue?

Hawks: Forums and blogs are effective ways of getting up to date on these issues. Another excellent source of information and best practices on notebook computer management is the Laptop Security Blog.

Finally, your notebook computer manufacturer is a fantastic source of information for school districts. All major manufacturers have excellent relationships with notebook security software providers and can narrow down the search for both best practices and technology that can help.

This e-interview with David Hawks is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


  • Technology Integration Center

  • Article by Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2008 Education World


    Published 03/26/2008