Laptop Security at the Coffee Shop
The coffee shop is a great place to get some work done. If you’re a freelancer, it keeps you away from the distractions at home, and if you’re an office worker, it gets you out of the beige blandness of the modern-day cube farm. Either way, you get a good mix of novelty and routine. However, it is easy to forget that the coffee shop is a public place with lax security. Unlike your home or office, anyone can walk in, no questions asked. That means that when you take your gadgets and your data down to the corner café, you have to protect yourself from people who mean you harm.
Learning the Hard Way
I learned this the hard way. Last April, I was at the café, working hard on my novel, when my laptop disappeared right before my eyes. A millisecond later, I looked up and saw a guy running away, carrying my computer by the screen. I picked up a wicker patio chair and chased him down the street, but he had a three-second head start. That was all he needed. Just like that, my laptop was gone, taken from me while I was typing away.
The crime was so sudden and so brazen that I encountered a lot of goodwill afterward: the baristas gave me a drink while I calmed down, an off-duty cop stopped to take my statement, and best of all, a friend helped me out with a new computer. Within a week or two, I was back to my old self, though a little bit older and wiser. Now when I go to the coffee shop, I take precautions. And while I’m no expert in security, I can recommend a few basic measures.
If you do nothing else, get yourself a laptop lock. I recommend the Kensington brand, which is compatible with virtually every laptop on the market. Mine cost $30, and the peace of mind alone makes it worthwhile. I know it won’t stop a thief with bolt-cutters, but it will make it a lot harder for someone to yank the computer out of my hands again. And while it sounds callous, I rest easy knowing that if a potential thief is scoping out the place, he’s going to choose an easier target. Especially since, in the three months since I got a laptop lock, I have seen exactly zero people using one down at my local Starbucks.
The replacement laptop that I got from my friend has BIOS-level security. This protects my computer at the lowest level. I type a password in as soon as I turn it on, and then it boots up the operating system. This is important, because even if you have a long and complex password on your user account (and most people don’t), it’s still possible to boot up your computer in another operating system without even touching the installed copy of Windows. It’s also possible to physically pull out the hard drive and stick it in another computer.
However, if you have firmware-level security, you can encrypt your hard drive at the lowest level. Without the proper credentials, your data is total gobbledygook. With the proper credentials however, it is completely transparent and readable to the operating system and all your applications. Login once and you won’t know the difference. Thieves will, though, and that’s all that matters.
While hardware and software can be useful in preventing theft, both are useless without the proper precautions. This is another area where I learned about things first-hand. While I wasn’t so naïve as to leave my laptop unattended while I went to the restroom, I still wasn’t cognizant of my environment. My mistake was sitting out on the patio after dark. I never meant to. In fact, I got there well before sunset, but it was a beautiful night and I was writing up a blue streak. I failed to realize that there was no obstruction between me and the parking lot.
The door to the café was right behind me, and it was the perfect setup for some crackhead to grab the tip jar with his left hand, run out the door, and grab my laptop with his right hand. I had always assumed that thieves would strike when my laptop was unattended, that they would victimize me when I was away. But I failed to realize that evil, desperate people high on God-knows-what don’t think like I do. I still don’t understand how they think, but I know to be on the lookout.
Here’s the final damage control measure that I recommend: write down your serial numbers. Take every gadget you own, find the serial number on each one, and type it into a Word file. Then email the file to yourself and/or store it in the Cloud. After all, it’ll only take a few minutes, and you’ll only have to go it once for each gadget you buy. Then, if you do get ripped off, you’ve got a halfway decent shot of getting your gear back.
Like everything else nowadays, pawn shops are computerized, and if the police can flag your item’s serial number as stolen, there’s a good chance it might just turn up. You may even have a shot and nailing the perps who ripped you off. But without a serial number, your computer, tablet or phone is as good as gone. Because let’s face it, there are too many murders and assaults and bank robberies for the police to put much detective work into your missing MacBook.
Don’t Be Victimized
I hope this article doesn’t deter you from going down to your local coffee shop. That’s certainly not my intention. Two weeks after I got robbed, I went back with the replacement laptop that my friend gave me. The same two baristas were working that night, and they were very surprised to see me. I was a little surprised to be there myself, but I knew I couldn’t give up on the place. To do so would be subjecting myself to further victimization. The thieves may have taken my computer, but I refused to let them take away my favorite place to write. I refused to be terrorized.
Even if you don’t take every precaution on this list, I hope you have at least some thought to electronic security. Few people do, so even the most basic measures will give you a leg up over everyone else in the café. Not that coffee shop security is a zero-sum game. If enough people take the proper measures, coffee shops will be less lucrative targets. Vigilance helps us all, so next time you go out for a cappuccino, keep an eye out for yourself and the people around you. It will make things a lot more pleasant for everyone – everyone but the crooks.