Laptop security: insure, recover or delete?

Filing an insurance claim when employee laptops get stolen is often just not worth the effort.

That’s what the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) discovered.

One of Ontario’s largest unions, OPSEU represents about 110,000 members working in different government sectors, including education, children’s aid, ambulance, corrections and liquor control.

OPSEU has had about a dozen incidents of theft or loss of laptops in recent years, and insurance hasn’t been very helpful in dealing with such losses, according to Peter Hammond, supervisor of information services at OPSEU.

“There is a troubling financial aspect,” Hammond says. “Our insurance company’s deductible is so high, it prohibits us from trying to recover any financial asset from the loss of a single laptop. The joke around the office is we like laptops to [go missing] in groups of four – then we do actually have a claim we can put in.”

Many of OPSEU’s 300 direct employees are roaming users equipped with laptops, charged with documenting sensitive labour disputes and contract negotiations on the go.

Hammond notes that the value of a laptop depreciates significantly over time, which makes it hard to recover its value when it’s lost or stolen. OPSEU’s situation is not unique. This is a chronic problem for most organizations, says Hammond, and while insurance may not be his area of expertise, it’s his understanding that most insurance carriers’ offerings are structured in a similar fashion.

So is this type of insurance worthwhile?

Big, dramatic laptop heists are rare – most slip away in ones or twos.

Hammond says that’s a legitimate issue, and one he communicated with his organization’s CFO.

With insurance claims proving to be quite futile, especially if a single laptop is stolen, OPSEU has opted for a different type of laptop protection service – one that does offer tangible value.

The union was one of the first organizations to sign onto Vancouver-based Absolute Software’s Web-based laptop tracking and recovery service when it was first launched in 1998.

Dubbed Computrace, Absolute’s offering is based on an electronic serial number (ESN) downloaded to the laptop that emits a homing signal every time it connects to the Internet or the organization’s network. The ESN is virtually indestructible, capable of surviving a reinstallation of the operating system, reformatting of the hard drive and even hard drive swaps in most widely-used models like IBM.

“It’s the link to the Web that exposes the laptop to Computrace. [The culprit] just plugs in, and boom, we’ve got him. It’s often a waiting game, it’s wonderful,” says Hammond.

The Computrace service also includes a remote data delete option that can be triggered at a customer’s request if a laptop is reported lost, thereby protecting the data in addition to the physical asset.

“We’re looking into acquiring this service,” says Hammond. “With the privacy act [in effect], we’re looking to implement this sooner rather than later. It’s a fail-safe feature – even if the laptop can’t be recovered, you can always delete the data. The decision to delete may even be pre-recovery, depending on the data,” he says, adding that Absolute’s recovery rate is very high.

If a laptop is reported missing, Absolute’s recovery team springs into action the next time the machine connects to the Web. The team tracks the laptop back to the ISP provider via the ESN, and works with local law enforcement to provide the information needed to serve the ISP a warrant to identify the subscriber. This in turn provides the probable cause needed to allow the police to search the subscriber’s premises for the missing laptop.

Absolute’s team is well-versed in police procedure. “Many of our team members are retired or contracted law enforcement personnel. Their job is to work with police departments wherever the PC turns up, be it Montr

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