Company secrets at risk when laptop PCs disappear

ITworld.com –

These days, IT managers may tend to wonder if corporate information can too easily walk off on easy-to-remove laptop computers. Recent events, notably the disappearance earlier this year of a State Department laptop with important top secrets, and the flight this weekend of a Qualcomm exec's PC, have cast light on the problem. Managers know, too, that airport laptop thefts are far from uncommon.

Experts say the problem is a big one. The Computer Security Institute, a membership organization composed of computer and network security professionals, estimates that 57 percent of firms suffered losses from laptop theft in 1999. Only virus attacks are a more prevalent security problem, according to the institute. And insurance industry estimates reveal that an estimated 319,000 laptops were stolen in the US last year.

Naturally, technologists are at work on ways to stop laptop flight. In early 2001, a wholly new class of laptop security products -- one that uses advanced sensor technology of the kind that powers auto safety air bags -- may make its first appearance.

Caveo Technology of Cambridge, Mass., is employing specialized silicon ICs developed by Analog Devices of Norwood, Mass., to forge a new kind of laptop security solution. The Caveo antitheft system is based on an on-chip micromachined tilt-motion sensor, which sets up a safe security perimeter for laptop computers. Micromachines are ultrasmall electromechanical devices that can be integrated on-chip with conventional silicon logic circuits.

Gail Greenwald, Caveo's vice president of operations, said the company's software employs unique motion-analysis algorithms to detect the level of movement a laptop may encounter. For example, if the laptop is picked up, the alarm will emit a small warning, but if it is carried off, a full alarm will sound, she said.

A pioneer in micromachine technology, Analog Devices, which is providing Caveo with the tilt-motion sensor, produced the first single-chip accelerometer for crash detection in 1991.

"The sensors are integrated on the motherboard of the PC and are transparent to the user," said Christophe Lemaire, Analog Devices' business development engineer. And, the chip is able to do more than just set off an alarm, said Lemaire.

When the PC is beyond a certain perimeter, such as an employee's cubicle, and the alarm goes off, the computer is disabled at the BIOS level, making it useless to unauthorized users. To stop the alarm, the user must enter a password, Lemaire said.

He said the sensors used in the Caveo-empowered laptops will have the same basic technology as those in automobile air bags, but they are not the same device. Caveo is using ADI's ADXL202E tilt-motion sensor.

To provide the best laptop security, a combination of devices should be used, Caveo's Greenwald said.

"All security devices have their pros and cons. Many are very effective but, to enhance security, the devices need to be more integrated," she said.

Material from wire reports were used in this article.

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