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There’s no doubt that laptop computers and other portable computer devices, such as cell phones, iPods, PDAs or flash drives, can make lawyers more productive while they are away from the office. Estimates are that one in three PC users currently work on laptops, with projections it will be over 50 percent in several years.

But with increased mobility comes the risk of theft or loss of your hardware and, more importantly, the loss of the data that hardware contains. It is estimated that up to 40,000 laptops are stolen each year, and with huge hard drives being the norm these days, a lot of confidential case files could be included.

Likewise, tiny flash drives, while incredibly convenient, can easily be left or fall out of your pocket or briefcase.

To combat this growing problem, there are a number of ways to protect this data, and I’m not talking simple backups here. By now, everyone knows that laptops especially need to be backed up frequently, but you also need to take steps to protect your data from falling into the wrong hands.

To mitigate these risks, hardware and software manufacturers have come up with multipronged approaches to protect data, combining both authentication and encryption methods.

Authentication begins with passwords, both on the Windows operating level, and also on the BIOS level of the computer. But passwords are far from the only security needed. Manufacturers have now gone an extra step and provided fingerprint or voiceprint authentication for their equipment as well.

Other steps in preventing laptop theft is use of permanent bar codes that can’t be removed without damaging the equipment, thus mitigating their black market resale value, and allowing the return of the item if found by an honest individual.

Specialized cables and locks are also available for laptops, although certainly not convenient if you are only in an area for a short period of time. A variety of alarms are also available for laptops, which go off when power is cut, motion is detected, or a connection is cut.

But protecting the hardware is only the first step. Data on the laptop, particularly highly sensitive data, should also be encrypted.

Encrypted files cannot be opened by others, but are seamless to the person who encrypted them in the first place. Encryption can be more secure than simply password-protecting the file, as the data is rearranged, and is worthless without the proper encryption key.

For Windows XP or Windows 2000 users, Microsoft offers the Windows Encrypting File System, or EFS. To read more about how to encrypt files using EFS, go to the article http://support.microsoft.com/kb/223316 on the Microsoft Web site.

The new Windows Vista operating system operating system provides users with BitLocker, a revised encryption process that can encrypt the entire windows volume. This program is only available in the Enterprise and Ultimate versions of Vista.

In addition, a number of third-party software products, such as PGP Desktop Professional, can also encrypt an entire computer, making it secure from intruders. Flash drives can also be encrypted to protect the data from unauthorized use if lost.

Of course, nothing is foolproof. For every password, there is a password-cracking routine. But by taking steps to protect both your hardware and data while working from the road, most security breaches can be removed.

BRIAN R. HARRIS is the director of information technology for the ALM Pennsylvania division and the former editor in chief of The Legal Intelligencer . Technology questions can be sent to Harris at [email protected].

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