Loose Laptops Expose Data Even With Encryption

We all certainly use passwords for our hard drives and encryption for our sensitive files–but none of this matters anymore if someone can gain access to a computer that is still powered on.

This is a difficult issue for small businesses such as doctor offices, health clinics, accountant offices, and others working very hard to protect client information. Some information is required by law to kept private and there are horrendous penalties–business-ending penalties–for disrupting that privacy.

Now it turns out that none of our security defenses matters if our computers are left operating when we are not present. According to a new report from ars technica, a group of Princeton computer scientists has hacked through all the security measures available–including on a new Macintosh, a computer celebrated for it’s security!

The trick?

Pull the encryption information from the RAM before it has a chance to clear itself.

Fortunately, there is one simple answer to the problem outlined in the paper: make sure your computer is completely shut down before you physically leave it. This is true for desktop computers as well as laptop computers.

It seems that RAM holds onto memory for far longer than previously, up to an hour or more if handled properly. The scientists found they could extend the residual memory by cooling the RAM chips using a can of compressed air similar to those found in many photography and computer store, or even sewing stores and hobby shops.

The only sure defense is to completely shut down the computer and allow the RAM to clear. This means overnight back-ups may need to be re-timed to occur during work hours in order to avoid leaving operating computers in a small office overnight. It means shutting down your laptop any time it might not remain in your hands, putting the laptop in sleep mode or hibernation means the security is exposed once the laptop is awakened.

Granted, thieves still need access to the hardware, but this may be fairly simple if your business contains information of value to the thieves. So remember to keep physical control of your computer at all times, and ensure that the computer is shut down whenever you leave the premises.

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One response to “Loose Laptops Expose Data Even With Encryption

  1. Pingback: Loose Laptops Expose Data Even With Encryption

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