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Physical Security

Leaving your computer unattended and unsecured gives potential thieves an opportunity to steal your confidential information, or to install viruses, Trojans, or other damaging software onto your computer.

In the Lab or Library

Public computer labs are a popular hangout for "shoulder surfers"--people who look over your shoulder while you type in your user name, password, or other sensitive information. It's very easy to decipher which keys you're typing for your password, no matter how fast you type. So just be on the lookout for these surfers while you log it. Also, be sure to log out when you're done.

Try not to print out confidential information in a public computer lab. However, if you must, remove it from the printer as soon as it prints. Don't wait or else someone could snag it!

In the Dorm or Office

If your dorm room or office is in an open suite, or if you use a laptop in more than one location, your computer and sensitive files could be at risk. If you use a laptop, be sure to physically secure it with a lock. To secure your files and sensitive data, use a system password.

There are two simple methods to secure your personal computer when you leave it unattended. You can either log off your computer when you leave, requiring a password to log back on, or you can utilize a password-protected screen saver. There are pros and cons to both methods. Evaluate them in the chart below and decide for yourself which option you prefer. Directions on how to set up these options are below.

Log-in password When you log off, your computer is secure from the moment you leave until the moment you return You have to remember to log off every time you leave your computer
Screen saver password Comes up automatically if you leave your computer abruptly. In the few minutes it takes for the screen saver to come up, someone could hop on your computer.


How to Set up Password Protection

For Microsoft users:

To set up a password for log-in:

  1. Click Start, then click User Accounts.
  2. If you have more than one user account, select the account you’d like to create a password for under Pick an Account to Change
  3. Then click create a password.

To set up a password-protected screen saver:

  1. Click Start, then click Control Panel.
  2. Under Control Panel, click Display.
  3. This window will have five tabs. Click Screen Saver, the third tab from the left.
  4. Choose the screen saver you’d like from the drop down menu, then click the box labeled On resume, password protect.
  5. To the left of the password protect box, you can select how long you’d like the computer to be idle before the screen saver automatically comes up.

For Mac users:

To set up a password for log-in:

  1. Mac OS X is automatically set up with a log-in name and password. Just be sure to use a strong password.

To set up a password-protected screen saver:

  1. Click the Apple Menu, then click System Preferences.
  2. Under the Personal Heading, select Security.
  3. Make sure the boxes for "Require password to wake this computer from sleep or screen saver" and "Disable automatic login" are both checked.
  4. Go back to System Preferences, and under the Personal Heading, click Desktop and Screen Saver.
  5. Here, you can choose your screen saver and opt to use "Hot Corners." This option allows you to select a particular corner of your screen that will activate your screen saver if you place the mouse in that corner

Fires, Drops, and Spills

Laptops are so common now that they are often seen simply as portable desktop computers. But laptops require some extra precautions due to their physical vulnerabilities. Following these precautions can help prevent expensive repairs.

  • Do not use a soft surface (such as a bed, pillow, carpet, or couch) as a desktop when using or charging your laptop. These surfaces do not allow the heat that laptops generate to escape, which can cause damage to your computer, or worse, start a fire.
  • Do not let your battery or charger become too hot--for example, by leaving it in your car or in the sun. Extreme temperatures can degrade your battery and reduce its ability to hold a charge.
  • Be careful not to drop your battery or charger because the sudden impact could damage them or cause them to catch fire.
  • Be cautious if you have liquids near your laptop. If they spill, they can damage your computer and its data.
  • If you bring your laptop with you, always carry it in a padded case of some sort. This will protect it in case you drop it or knock it against something.

Additional Security Tips

Don't leave confidential printouts on your desk, even if you are only away for a few moments--keep them locked in a secure place. If you no longer need these printouts, do not just simply throw them away--shred them.

"Dumpster diving" is a popular activity where hackers obtain others' confidential information from sensitive documents that were not thrown away properly. Personal home-use/small office-use shredders are inexpensive and readily available. "Cross-cut" models are preferable to "strip" models because cross-cut models shred documents into more, smaller pieces than the strip models, making it increasingly difficult for dumpster diving thieves to tape back together.

Lastly, before selling or donating old computers, make sure that sensitive data is removed. Files that are simply "dragged to the trash" can be easily recovered, so use a secure delete utility (such as those included with PGP and Norton Utilities) to wipe all hard drives in the system. It is best to set for multiple wipes, at least three passes.

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